The Lincoln Conspiracy is from Sunn Classic Pictures, the studio that held something of a monopoly on a certain type of movie when I was growing up. For three weeks before these movies opened, non-stop television commercials would ballyhoo the films, including a breathless voice-over announcer trumpeting all of the small towns the films would be playing. Permanently recorded in my twelve-year-old memory bank is some anonymous man shouting, “Saturday and Sunday only in Ottawa, Streator, and Peru!”
Some Sunn Classic masterpieces include The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams; The Outer Space Connection; In Search of Ancient Astronauts* (made to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Erich von Däniken’s best-selling “book” Chariots of the Gods?); In Search of Historic Jesus; In Search of Noah’s Ark; and In Search of Higher Profits. Okay, I made the last one up, but it’s hardly a joke. Most of these films cost less than four million dollars, including audience research and advertising, and the majority of them grossed 25 to 30 million dollars each. It was a winning business model. The company was started as a subsidiary of the Schick Razor Company (I can envision a new single-weekend, four-walled masterpiece being released: In Search of the Perfect Shave.) Sunn Classic was later sold to Taft Enterprises for millions. The final Sunn Classic Picture (though it was distributed by Warner Brothers): Cujo.
This is both sensationalistic nonsense and utter bullshit. In real life, ten witnesses—including his mother, brother, sister, physican, friends, and work associates—identified the body as Booth, a fact the film fudges by never mentioning it and making up something else. Apparently, Booth sported an unusual scar on his neck and a tattoo of the initials “JWB”—which he had given to himself when he was a child—so identifying his corpse shouldn’t have been too complicated.
Psycho! Anderson’s portrayal of Lincoln is workmanlike and seldom rises above the high standard established by the Animatronic Lincoln in the Disneyland Hall of Presidents.
Bradford Dillman shamelessly overacts as Booth; I would say he only lacks a moustache to twirl, but he has a moustache. John Dehner and Middleton are stuck reading lines from an out-of-print history textbook from another dimension. Fred Grandy—yes, Gopher from Love Boat!—briefly appears as co-conspirator David Herold and is quickly hanged.
The Lincoln Conspiracy stands as the ultimate Sunn Classic Picture. It is terrible. It is boring and slow, but it is rated G! The director seemed to have but one aim in mind: to stretch this thin material out to 89 minutes so that it might qualify (in length only, mind you) as a feature film. The film was based on a controversial bestselling book conveniently released by the publishing division of… wait for it… Sunn Classic Pictures. According to Wikipedia and historian Edward Steers, “The Lincoln Conspiracy was greeted with hostility and derision from real historians. Many objections were raised against the book’s sensational theories and the authors’ use (and misuse) of source materials.”
So Sunn Classic Pictures releases a book, of which they have already made a film, waits for the expected reaction because the book is Grade A bullshit, then swoops in and releases the film to exploit the publicity and controversy. The cynicism on display is monumental…
I am neither a historian nor a screenwriter, but a cursory glance at the actual facts surrounding Lincoln’s assassination reveal so much rich irony and drama that it begs the question, “What if the Sunn Classic filmmakers had just turned to real history, not bullshit history, upon which to base their film?” Here are a few tidbits I discovered while researching this column:
• Part of John Wilkes Booth’s hatred for Lincoln and love of the South may have been due to sibling rivalry. His older brother Edwin, a more talented actor by all accounts, was a tireless abolitionist.
• Booth was an astonishingly popular actor in his time and was often called “the handsomest man in America.” He may have been the first actor in American history to have his clothes torn off by his adoring public upon leaving the stage. He had played Ford’s Theater before his date with destiny, in the play The Marble Heart, and Lincoln had been in the audience. Lincoln invited Booth to his box at intermission, but a haughty Booth ignored the invitation.
• One of Booth’s most popular roles was a famous historical assassin—Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
• Most people believe that Booth broke his leg leaping to the stage of Ford’s Theater from Lincoln’s private box after shooting. This is not true. During his escape, Booth’s horse reared up, threw him, then fell on him. The horse apparently supported the North.
• Though he was engaged to Lucy Lambert Hale, when he was killed authorities found photos of no fewer than five girlfriends in Booth’s pockets.
• The assassination of Lincoln shattered Edwin Booth’s acting dynasty. Imagine having to go out onstage night after night and face the anger and sadness of an entire nation in mourning over the actions of your brother.
* In Search of Ancient Astronauts is one of the only films I have ever walked out of. I was twelve years old but possessed a highly advanced bullshit detector.