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Hollywood’s JOHN WILKES BOOTH

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The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 25th successful year! Steve and I collaborated in May of 2011 on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe and I’ve been writing a regular monthly movie-related column since. Since there is no on-line version of The Globe, I post all of my articles here at We Are Movie Geeks. This month’s edition of The Globe takes place in 1865, the year President Lincoln was shot .Steve and I originally decided I would write an article about Hollywood’s portrayal of Abe Lincoln.  I started to write that, but then had the idea to take a look a look at the way Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, has been portrayed on the big screen instead.

Daniel Day Lewis recently joined a list of distinguished actors including Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, Hal Holbrook, Gregory Peck, Jason Robards who have portrayed the country’s 16th president. But what about Abraham Lincoln’s assassin? John Wilkes Booth was a famed American stage actor from a prominent theater family and here’s a look at some of the actors who portrayed the actor who shot Lincoln.

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Pioneering director D.W. Griffith staged Lincoln’s assassination at the Ford Theater twice on film, the first in his groundbreaking 1915 classic BIRTH OF A NATION. Based on the Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr’s racist novel The Clansman, about the American Civil War and its aftermath, Griffith’s film is remarkable for its technical innovations and for the truly epic feel and massive battle scenes. Raul Walsh, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most creative directors (HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT), played Booth, who shoots Lincoln before bounding to the stage shouting (in intertitle) “Sic Semper Tyrannis”. It’s a small role but the film was popular and historic and the first dramatization of the assassination must have been shocking to audiences, some who were alive in 1865. In 1930, Griffith directed ABRAHAM LINCOLN, an old-fashioned schoolbook biography anchored by the strong physical presence and warm demeanor of star Walter Huston. In ABRAHAM LINCOLN Griffith recreated the meetings of conspirators to kidnap and subsequently to assassinate Lincoln at Mary Surrat’s boarding house. This is where we meet John Wilkes Booth portrayed by actor Ian Keith as a crazed madman determined to rid the country of a man he considers a tyrant. Keith had a sinister look and a side-of-the-mouth delivery to his speech that marked him as a great villain. Griffith staged the assassination at the Ford Theater less accurately than he did earlier as this time Booth doesn’t seem to break his leg after leaping to the stage from the VIP box.

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D.W. Griffith’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1930)

Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland physician sentenced to life in prison for his alleged involvement in aiding John Wilkes Booth after the assassination has been the subject of films. The first was THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND directed by John Ford in 1936. The film opens with the assassination of President Lincoln, faithfully recreated to great dramatic effect with Frank McGlynn briefly seen as the martyred leader. Dr. Samuel Mudd gives medical treatment to a wounded man who shows up at his door. Mudd has no idea that the president is dead and that he is treating his murderer, John Wilkes Booth, played by Francis McDonald. Most of the film deals with Mudd’s adventures in a barbaric prison in the Dry Tortugas Islands. THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND clearly presents Dr. Mudd as a victim, an innocent man caught up in the frenzy for justice brought on by Lincoln’s murder. Historically Mudd’s innocence is still up in the air – he had met Booth the previous fall and winter when Booth was going through southern Maryland, studying possible escape routes. The tribulations of Dr. Mudd were also the focus of the 1980 TV movie ORDEAL OF DR MUDD. Dennis Weaver played Mudd and the film details his trial before a military tribunal and claims he was convicted due to perjured testimony and fabricated evidence (in 1869 Mudd was pardoned by President Johnson). Actor Bill Gribble played the brief part of John Wilkes Booth.

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Edwin Booth is considered by historians to be one of the greatest American actors of the 19th century. Unfortunately he is most remembered today as the brother of the man who assassinated Lincoln and his career on stage was overshadowed by John Wilkes Booth’s political actions. Richard Burton starred in PRINCE OF PLAYERS, a tragic and sentimental 1955 biography of Edwin Booth whose life and career were thrown into turmoil after his younger brother’s act of violence turns the audience against the name of Booth. In the film, Edwin’s days in the spotlight dwindle shortly after his brother is caught and killed. John Derek makes a dashing John Wilkes Booth, handsome and charismatic. The assassination, chase, capture, and death of the assassin are done fairly correctly. Their father is played by Raymond Massey who played Lincoln in ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1940), a look at the president’s early years. There was actually a third Booth brother, Junius Brutus Booth Jr. who never amounted to much on the stage and isn’t mentioned in PRINCE OF PLAYERS.

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John Derek as John Wilkes Booth in PRINCE OF PLAYERS (1955)

Sunn Classic Pictures was a Utah-based film production company which specialized in creating hokey but profitable documentaries in the 1970’s that sought to reveal conspiracies relating to UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, and Biblical mysteries. Their 1977 production THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY was a stiff docudrama that put forth the theory that Edward Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, was behind the Lincoln assassination plot. His motive was his opposition to Lincoln’s refusal to allow the North to punish the South for its actions. Stanton’s assassination goes awry when another would-be assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, learns of the plot and decides to beat the government to the punch for reasons of his own. In the movie, it is Stanton’s assassin who is captured and killed rather than Booth, who escapes to England. Bradford Dillman overacts, hamming his way through the film in the role of Booth, portrayed as a spirited fanatic willing to go to any lengths to save the war for the south. He’s equal part revolutionary, fall guy, and stooge. The publishing division of Sunn Classics released a THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY tie-in book that sold well but was met with derision by historians.

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THE DAY LINCOLN WAS SHOT was a 1998 TV examining the 24 hours surrounding the death of President Lincoln. It gave an account of Lincoln’s and Booth’s final days and managed to humanize the assassin. Rob Morrow of “Northern Exposure” fame portrayed John Wilkes Booth, The film begins with Booth galloping through the woods, trying to escape, then being caught in a burning barn. From then on the film is shown in flashback, showing a romantic and loving side of both Lincoln (played with startling resemblance by Lance Henriksen) and Booth, from Lincoln’s relationship with Mary Todd, to Booth’s courtship of the young and fair Lucy Hale, daughter of an American ambassador. The film shows Booth practicing his murder in front of a mirror, trying to get the Latin for “Death to tyrants” just right. THE DAY LINCOLN WAS SHOT shows how Booth wrongly expected his scheme to throw the Union into chaos and embolden the Southerners to continue fighting, regardless of the fact that they had already surrendered. Of all the films about the Lincoln assassination, THE DAY LINCOLN WAS SHOT provides the most depth to Booth personal life and motives.

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Director Robert Redford’s THE CONSPIRATOR was a 2010 film that dramatized the military trial of Mary Suratt, the boarding house owner accused of harboring conspirators and being involved in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. It was a compelling drama that depicted the mood of hysteria that followed the assassination, and suggested relevance to current-day politics. THE CONSPIRATOR opens with a brief introduction showing the agony of combat troops in the Civil War, then focuses on the assassination of the President by Booth as played by Toby Kebbell. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) vows revenge against the conspirators and after a two week search, Booth is found hiding in a nearby barn and shot to death. Seven suspected co-conspirators are arrested including Mary Suratt (Robin Wright). She is tried by a military tribunal whose rules state only a majority vote is required for a guilty verdict and a defendant is prohibited from testifying in their own defense. THE CONSPIRATOR was a handsome movie with a great cast and reminded viewers that John Wilkes Booth didn’t act alone.

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Toby Kebbell as John Wilkes Booth in THE CONSPIRATOR

There have been many other portrayals of John Wilkes Booth in the movies and on television as well. Booth’s fame is lodged permanently in the American history and there will no doubt be many future films about the man who took the life of one of our country’s most beloved leaders. With one bullet, Booth left his mark in history, and in Hollywood.

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