Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln provides an excellent though dramatised snapshot of one of the most seminal moments in US and world history, when slavery was formally abolished with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution as the Civil War neared its conclusion.

It is hard to grasp, when viewing these events 150 years later, the monumental part that Abraham Lincoln played in ending slavery in the midst of a political environment which ensured that its abolition was far from certain right up until the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment was taken.

As the movie highlights, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a temporary war measure drawn up by Lincoln under his constitutional authority as commander in chief of US armed forces. It was not a law passed by the Congress. The danger that Lincoln faced was that without an amendment to the Constitution formally abolishing slavery the power to do so would revert to individual states once the war was over, making it certain that it would remain legally sanctioned in the former slave states. The amendment passed easily in the Senate, where the Republicans held an overall majority, but in the House they did not and winning the vote by the two-thirds majority required was far from a foregone conclusion.

IMG-20130127-00185Lincoln was faced with centrifugal political forces both to the right and left of him as he sought the votes he  needed to pass the amendment. On his left the radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens, would brook nothing less than immediate steps to recognise the full and complete racial equality of the slaves, up to and including their enfranchisement. This Lincoln knew was impossible. The best that could be won, based on the forces arrayed against him to his right in the shape of a small group of conservative Republicans and War Democrats, was equality under the law. Ever a pragmatist, Lincoln understood the necessity in politics of tailoring aims at any given time to prevailing conditions. In the movie this is depicted in an exchange between Lincoln and Stevens, during which their respective differences on the speed at which full equality can take place are discussed.

In response to the Senator’s accusation that Lincoln is a compromiser and weak, Lincoln tells him

“A compass will point you true north. But it won’t show you the swamps between you and there. If you don’t avoid the swamps, what’s the use of knowing true north?”

I’m not sure if this exchange was apocryphal or not, but it offers an object lesson in politics as the art of the possible, an art in which Abraham Lincoln was a true genius.

To his right, Lincoln was faced with those previously mentioned War Democrats and conservative Republicans who were up in arms over the possibility that the amendment would result in racial equality and the enfranchisement of 4 million former slaves being called for by Stevens and the abolitionists. For them the priority throughout the Civil War had always been the maintenance of the Union and to halt the expansion of slavery rather than see its complete abolition. It was the same position taken by Lincoln himself in the initial stages of the Civil War, reflected in the contents of a letter he wrote in response to an editorial by Horace Greeley which appeared the New York Tribune in 1862, calling for abolition. Lincoln wrote

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

However, further on in the same letter, he writes

“I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.

Here we see irrefutable evidence of the distinction that Lincoln drew between what he viewed as his official duty as president of the United States to preserve the Union at all costs in 1862, including slavery if need be, and his personal wish to see it ended. It is a vital distinction, as it serves to refute the notion that Lincoln was not anti-slavery as a matter of principle but instead adopted an anti-slavery position as a tactic to help win the war. The difference between 1862, when he articulated the sentiments expressed in his letter to Greeley, and 1864-65 when he was pushing for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, was two years of Civil War making the conditions required to push for abolition more favourable and his re-election with a mandate to do so.

Frederick Douglass, the great black champion of the abolitionist cause, once said of Lincoln, “In his company, I was never reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color”


Lincoln was able to win the necessary Democrat votes required to give him his two thirds majority by offering patronage in the form of federal jobs and positions of influence. The passing of the amendment is a very powerful moment in the movie, illustrative of its impact after 400 years of African slavery. The fact that Lincoln shared a country with millions of barbarians who believed that slavery was ordained by nature and the bible, his achievement in winning the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was a phenomenal one. But by no means did the struggle end there. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which taken together with the Thirteenth are known as the Reconstruction Amendments, followed after Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, when he was assassinated.

The movie includes Oscar winning performances by Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Sally Field (Mary Lincoln), and David Strathairn (William H Seward). Typically of a Speilberg movie it is beautifully shot and the attention to historical detail when it comes to sets, costume, and atmosphere is first rate. There are a couple of melodramatic moments in the film that it could have done without- none more so than the unlikely scene of two black Union soldiers repeat the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln while the president is on a visit to their camp. It is also unconscionable that Frederick Douglass is missing from the movie, given the historical role that he played in the campaign to end slavery and his relationship with Lincoln.

Finally, a word on the pictures that accompany the article. They are of the only monuments to the US Civil War that exists outside the US. The monument is located in the Old Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh city centre. It was erected in 1893 in honour of Scottish soldiers who volunteered and fought on the Union side.

This report from BBC News provides more detail and history of the monument.




Enlightened by Fire – 2005

Iluminados Por el Fuego (Enlightened by Fire) held its UK premiere in Manchester in 2006, attended by Director, Tristán Bauer, who himself is a veteran of the Malvinas War (sometimes known as the 1982 Falklands Conflict).

This first fictional film about the war from Argentina was showered with awards in the Spanish speaking world, and hit Argentina like a meteor, with over 400000 seeing it in cinemas, as well as being the most popular rental DVD by a country mile, and was shown in schools, and even by the military.

The core of the film is a truly remarkable depiction of the war itself. Poorly trained and brutalised young conscripts, abused, freezing and malnourished, defending a wind blasted, rain lashed wilderness. Just enough time is allotted to the tedious waiting, discomfort, gross military bullying and developing friendships between the young soldiers, before Hell bursts upon them on Mount Tumbledown.

I have heard from British veterans their utter chilled shock when they were told they were going to take the hill in the dark with a surprise bayonet charge.

The carnage and terror is portrayed brilliantly as the Argentinean soldiers are overwhelmed, and despite individual bravery and solidarity from the boy conscripts their line breaks and their army becomes a fleeing rabble. We are shown brutal atrocities, and glimpses of broken corpses suddenly snatched from the darkness by the flash bursts of fire and explosion, while cacophony and broken continuity prevents us making any narrative sense of the events. This is all the more surreal on a cold pointless rock grazed by sheep, with the haunting calls of seagulls heard among the rumbling artillery.

The later regroupment and retreat to Port Stanley (Puerta Argentina) where the army ultimately surrenders further shows the chasm between the self-deluded, puffed up officers and the shockingly young and ill prepared conscripts. The point is brilliantly made that the war was inevitably lost by the incompetence and moral corruption of the officers who at that time had ruled Argentina for 6 years of bloody, inhuman terror. Despite the heroism and technical brilliance of the Argentinean Air Force, the army had no self belief, and no cause worth fighting for. In a back yard of a Port Stanley house a small group of defeated soldiers rebuild some shared humanity with a game of football.

Fictional portrayals of the chaos and trauma of defeat are surprisingly rare. Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Atonement” is an only partially successful recent example, but Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant dark comedy of the British defeat in Crete in the “Sword of Honour” trilogy, has closer echoes with this film. Though Waugh, in a typically English way, prefers to play it for humour.

In Iluminados Por el Fuego, the narrative of the war is framed as flashback from the central character, Estaban, who has been called to the bedside of a former comrade who has attempted suicide. This allows the film to have a much stronger contemporary resonance as suicides by the ignored veterans of the war have now overtaken the numbers killed in the three month long conflict. At the end of the film Estaban returns to the Islands: an autobiographical episode from the life of the Director Tristán Bauer, in an attempt to bury his own ghosts. How bizarre it seems to encounter the anachronistic normality of Port Stanley and its surrounding hills, for all the world like a small village in Cumbria, as the canvas that his nightmares were painted on.

Although this was a stylistically conventional ending, further emphasised by an unnecessarily sentimental song, the contextualising of the war from the viewpoint of the veterans now in their forties increases the emotional power. Not because of the suicides, or the more dramatically failed lives, but because Estaban himself is shown as having held himself together, and become a successful TV journalist with a stable family, but the demons are just quiet in him, not still or gone. It reminded me very strongly of the subtle, hard to describe, but oh so obvious, damage of my father and so many of his generation who left the bodies of their young friends behind them at El Alamein, and Monte Casino, or in the jungles of Burma, the deserts of Iraq or the forests of the Ardennes, but have carried with them the memories of those dead boys ever since.

The film is a moving testament, not just for the dead, but for Estaban who survived, and those like my father who survived other wars.

Sister Suffragette

Having rewatched Mary Poppins scores of times, as it is a favourite of my children, I think that despite its fame, it is a rather under-appreciated work of genius.

I am just old enough to remember the sniffy disdain that the film was regarded with in Britain, huffing and puffing over Dick Van Dyke’s accent, and ridiculously suggesting that Tommy Steele would have been better casting.

But once you have forgiven the murdering of the Cockney argot, Van Dyke is actually pitch perfect as the wistful romantic foil to Mary Poppins; and Julie Andrews is simply astounding, both camping up the pantomime, but with also just enough sadness as her magical powers and class position prevent her acheiving emotional satisfaction.

A brilliant satire of British attitudes.

Great Movie Moments

With the Oscars upon us yet again, here is a random selection of great movie moments.





Unions in the Movies: Ken Loach’s Big Flame

There are not many TV dramas that inspire the name of a group of revolutionary socialists, but the 1969 BBC Wednesday Play does have that distinction.

In these days of YouTube, DVDs and Catch Up TV, it is hard to recall how different the social context of broadcasting was back in 1969. There were just three channels, and because there was no possibility of recording, then everyone watched the same programmes at the same time. So the political impact of Big Flame was much greater than a similar broadcast would create today

The BBC twice postponed broadcast, anticipating the furore that would follow what could fairly be described as a Marxist film which promoted the use of strike action for political ends. Big Flame was the collaboration of Ken Loach, Jim Allen and Tony Garnett, all of them committed socialists.

The full 80 minute film is above; and it is an artistically impressive piece of work. Loach is and was a master of the drama-documentary style, and in this film he creates the authentic atmosphere of working class trade union militants debating the strategy of an industrial dispute; which sparkles because playwrite, Jim Allen, is completely comfortable with the language and mannerisms, and the political content of active trade unionism.

Peter Kerrigan gives an extraordinary and convincing performance as a shop steward; and Godfrey Quigley, playing the character of an experienced Trotskyist militant, (called Jack Regan) is charismatic, and injects into a long running trade dispute the idea of making it political by occupying the docks with a work in.

Two and a half years later, the workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders did exactly that; and won a stunning victory to save their jobs.

The politics of Big Flame are of its era, predicated upon the existance of a self-confident shop-stewards movement, and widespread culture of class consciousness. Perhaps surprisingly, given the Communist and Trotskyist backgrounds of those making the film it is effectively an endorsement of revolutionary syndicalism.

In particular, a criticism could be made that while the film celebrates the idea that workers can run their own industry without supervisors and managers; it implies that an extended national strike committee and workers’ self management would remove the need for government. However, this argument authentically reflects a non-trivial strand in the labour movement at that time.

Perhaps the most significant thing to note is that the BBC commissioned and broadcast this programme because trade unions were too important to ignore in 1969. Let us be inspired by the film today to ensure that organised labour rebuilds its strength in society to be as important again.

Unions in the Movies: Matewan

A clip from John Sayles’s magisterial film about the miners’ strike in West Virginia in 1920 that led to the Matewan massacre; and the subsequent battle of Blair Mountain.

The Matewan battle was a key event in American labour history, as the mayor of the town, Sid Hatfield deputised a number of striking miners, and they had an armed confrontation and shoot out with company gun-thugs working for the Stone Mountain Coal Company.

The subsequent murder of Sid Hatfield on courtroom steps led to an armed uprising by West Virginia miners, including a march on the state capital, and a pitched battle at Blair Mountain on August 29th 1921, when up to 13000 miners battled 2000 mercenaries employed by the coal companies, who even dropped bombs from private aeroplanes.

John Sayles was once asked why he didn’t take his story on to these bigger events, and he answered that the consequent scaling up of the events would have required a bigger budget, which would have meant lost editorial control. Sayles stature as a successful independent film maker meant that the production values of Matewan do give it the look and feel of a mainstream, if slightly left-field movie. (He had already had a commercial hit with the very funny spoof horror, Piranha in 1978, and the anti-racist Sci-fi movie, Brother from Another Planet, is brilliant)

Dramatically, Matewan stands as a  self contained story without the broader historical context, and is particularly successful in refusing to glamourise the miners, despite standing firmly on their side.