Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Steps taken to avoid hagiography

"Hagiography" is a word that has not been in my vocabulary for all that long, maybe only the past couple years.

If it's not in your vocabulary, it refers to a biographical treatment of a person (or I suppose in some circumstances an entity, like a charitable organization or sports team) that tends to lionize that person as a saint, ignoring noteworthy faults that shouldn't be ignored if the intention is a complete and honest portrait. A hagiography is almost always bad, as it is thought of as manipulative ("whitewashing" is the decidedly more negative term you will often also hear used). But I suppose in certain contexts (like political propaganda) it might be praised if it is done shrewdly enough.

Of course, in any serious film about a historical figure, you'd want to shoot squarely for biography, and would roll up your sleeves and fight someone if they called your movie a hagiography.

The biography/hagiography divide struck me last night as I was watching John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln for the first time. Upon reaching the end, I specifically had the thought that it was more a biography than a hagiography, because I thought Henry Fonda really captured the ways Abraham Lincoln was human (in addition to getting down his look and posture to an alarmingly precise degree).

Of course, when I read an old colleague's review of Young Mr. Lincoln on my former site AllMovie.com, the first line was "More hagiography than biography, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) took such outrageous liberties with historical fact that its value as a portrait of the nation's sixteent president remains questionable."

Oh well. Back to the drawing board, Vance.

Of course, my colleague then goes on to characterize this as nonetheless one of the greatest works in the careers of either Ford or Fonda, its failure to follow historical fact and its (apparently minimal) whitewashing of Lincoln being secondary to its other successful elements. He's most interested in the fact that the court case that makes up the spine of the plot, as this movie focuses on the early legal career of the man on the $5 bill, was based on an actual trial covered by the screenwriter when he was a reporter, not something that occurred in the 1830s.

However, we rightly tend to measure movies by the overall thrust of their truth, rather than the accuracy of the details. And my colleague and I both agree that the overall thrust of this one is splendid.

Still, I was now possessed of a desire to examine why I had said this movie, which is obviously very generous toward Lincoln, falls short of hagiography. So if you don't want to know anything about Young Mr. Lincoln, a 76-year-old movie, you'd be advised to stop reading at this point.

I suppose it's the little places where it zigs when it could have zagged in portraying the man. Here are a couple of them.

1) When quelling the fire of an angry mob looking to lynch a couple brothers accused of murder, Lincoln shouts down the ringleaders as they are trying to break into a home with a large pole. He then tells any of them to fight him individually, "because I could lick anyone here." Whether true or not -- and I think true, since Lincoln was known for his wrestling skills -- the subject of a hagiography would not typically boast about his fighting prowess. That said, he's "boasting" merely in the context of a larger rhetorical argument in which he is trying to save two men who haven't had a fair trial from vigilante justice.

2) Several times throughout the movie, Lincoln is seen draping himself over various furniture with his legs kicked up in the air, either lost in thought or being deliberately provocative as part of a strategy for questioning a witness. The subject of a hagiography would not have such little respect for the laws of proper body decorum, would he?

3) Lincoln delivers several well-timed barbs designed to humiliate an opponent, particularly his opposing counsel. The whole room collapses in hysterics. The subject of a hagiography would never stoop to such levels of common insult, would he?

3) But here was the moment that got me really thinking about the hagiography/biography divide. As the family is pulling out of town on their coach at the end, their sons having been exonerated of the crime in question, the matriarch offers Lincoln a pittance for his legal services. "We ain't got much, but here's a little something for your troubles," she says, or something to that effect. Knowing how they are just scraping by and that the future won't be easy for them, a hagiographical Lincoln should have politely declined the offering, as it means much more to them than it does to him. But this Lincoln politely accepted it. Of course, dig a little deeper into this moment and you realize couple things: 1) He did work their case and he did exonerate the sons, so he is of course entitled to demand a fee, and 2) He probably considered it a point of pride for this woman to be able to pay for his services rendered, and to be viewed as a charity case would deflate that pride indeed.

Okay, so maybe Young Mr. Lincoln is a bit of a hagiography after all. But when you're talking about one of the greatest human beings America has ever produced, you might have a hard time deliver anything but.

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