The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977)
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In fact the assassination itself gets very little screen time, just a minute or two really, as the film breathlessly writes an alternate version of the history leading up to & immediately after the event. Along the way we meet Booth's motley crew of would-be Presidential kidnappers turned would-be assassins (only Booth succeeded in what is depicted as a hair brained scheme for glory with the war soundly over) who seem to spend a lot of time decorating the interiors of pubs and taverns as they drink themselves into revolutionary frenzy. Not a scene goes by without Booth or one of his cronies quaffing a brandy or two, probably likely for the time but so pervasive as to suggest that Booth likely had a good buzz going when he finally decided the time was nigh.
The film is stolen however by character actor John Dehner's hypnotic performance as Colonel Lafayette Baker, an actual character from history & bizarre footnote of real life intrigue who is depicted here as the film's Fletcher Prouty (a fun name to Google if you're ever bored). Baker was an opportunist who found himself with a Union Army commission after fast-talking a general with yet another hair brained scheme to infiltrate Confederate lines as a spy. His plan worked with enough success to bring him to the attention of Lincoln and his cabinet who were looking for someone delighted with violating what we now regard as the civil & Constitutional rights of citizens to further the war effort. Even with such a fascinating genuine tale the film re-writes Baker with an almost supernatural aura to him as he manipulates, intimidates, violates and generally abuses everyone he comes in contact with to further the plot to remove Lincoln from office cooked up by his boss, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, depicted here as a James Bond villain.
In spite of the clunky and uninspired manner in which the story is told it is compulsively watchable, especially as one starts to appreciate the twisted glee in Colonel Baker's character as he unassumingly arranges for his President to be deposed, then reacts with a raised eyebrow & shrug upon learning of his murder. Just one of those things, really, with my favorite moment in the film a question to a character about why he is limping. Baker doesn't care beyond his need for an efficient footman, and the ultimate triple cross which condemns the poor hobbling creep is a brilliant maneuver in roundabout screenplay logic. The film couldn't end any other way than it does with John Wilkes Booth escaping to England where he becomes a cheese farmer.
Not really, but then again the film has a surreal quality to it that belies its ordinariness, highlighted by a droning, sonorous faux-documentary narration provided by Sunn Classic's resident voice of authority, Brad Crandall. Crandall is the bespeckled heavy-set host of their megahits BEYOND AND BACK, THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, and my favorite, IN SEARCH OF NOAH'S ARK which I had the good fortune to see as a nine year old on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The film stuck with me for thirty five years and so did this, specifically a scene where John Anderson's foghorn voiced Lincoln hands out slices of apple on screen to a startled Union solder aide, a little aside that also stuck with me for 30 years after seeing it on television.
Is it good history? No, Booth's guilt is pretty solidly established without a conspiracy amongst members of Congress concerned about a Democrat supermajority upon reuniting north & south. Is it a good film? I doubt it, I've only seen the thing on TV and doubt that a widescreen format would improve much upon the movie's flat-footed cinematography. Episodes of "Barney Miller" were filmed with more panache, though I give it high marks for being so downright odd, like every other Sunn Classics film I've seen now as an adult. And it is a very entertaining little bit of alternate history what if? which must have been screened by Oliver Stone and his associates when preparing JFK. It's just as ridiculous in its overkill but comes off as easier to stomach, less frantic and more content with letting the story tell itself. It's also addictive, I must have watched it about a dozen times. Colonel Baker is a fix!
This film gained a bit of currency when it came out at the time that Frank Church's Committee in the Senate was investigating our CIA and its involvement in foreign assassination plots over the years. In that sense The Lincoln Conspiracy found an audience which gave it more than a skeptical view.
Four reliable character actors and no box office names carried this picture. Robert Middleton as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Bradford Dillman as John Wilkes Booth and John Anderson as Abraham Lincoln filled these roles out admirably and fitted my conception of these characters.
John Dehner who was always one of the most reliable character actors around plays the elusive and mysterious Union spymaster Lafayette C. Baker. He's the prime mover of the events and alternate history you see portrayed here. Dehner is properly sinister and mysterious as he directs events from behind the scenes. Our best historians of the Civil War era have never really assigned a proper place for Baker, but John Dehner got a career role from him.
If this film ever sees the light of day again, by all means check it out.
The hoods you see in one of the opening scenes were not made of fabric, however, but leather. The prisoners, of course had no A/C, and their faces swelled up with the contained sweat, so it was not just the shock of newly admitted light that caused pain to their rapidly contracting pupils that we see in this film. Their faces looked like prunes. The hoods restricted their breathing! This was only one of the forms of torture their captors used against them.
Mary Surratt, as a woman in those times, was spared this extreme form of punishment. She still swung in the end.
If anyone knows where to watch "The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd," I'd sure appreciate it. It, too, is supposed to be a fairly authentic account of what happened.
Film suggests that Booth was used in a bigger conspiracy than history has recorded, and certainly I don't remember this from my history books! Nonetheless, I found this film interesting to a point, and again it has nostalgic value to it, so earnestly is it told, that I couldn't bring myself to have disdain for it, like some reviewers have.
Not in the same league as "JFK"(1991) of course, but I wonder if a young Oliver Stone was inspired by it! Not on DVD yet, but can be currently seen on YouTube.
Watching it, it's an odd film. As a historical drama, it's not much up to much. For much of its ninety minutes of running time, The Lincoln Conspiracy moves from one scene with strained dialogue and exposition to another. Never once does any of the film's dialogue feel organic, like a conversation that might occur in reality (even by the standards of the time at which the film's events take place). The acting from the film's cast doesn't help either, even with John Anderson once more playing the role of Lincoln. Also, while a dramatic work, the filmmakers felt a need to employ a narrator quite frequently, breaking one of the cardinal rules of storytelling that it's important to show, not tell. Indeed, that could sum up the film as a whole.
As a production, the film's not much better. In its favor is that it benefits from using surviving Civil War-era locations (including some in Savannah, Georgia judging by the credits) to portray various locations in and around Washington. Beyond the cosmetic, however, it's little more than a competent piece of work. There's an almost 1970s TV movie-of-the-week feel to it from the acting to the direction and cinematography. How much of that is down to a low budget (and the film looks like it had one), it's hard to say. On the other hand, it's clear that the filmmakers didn't have what they needed to bring their theory about Lincoln's death to the screen.
As for the theory it espouses, it's a convoluted one. It involves the historical accepted figures plus not one but THREE separate plots to kidnap Lincoln, with actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth managing to straddle most of them. Indeed, it seems that Booth manages to latch onto one particular plan to carry out the President's murder, leading to a cover-up by others involved in the plot. Things get even murkier when James Williams Boyd, a spy with a striking resemblance to the actor, gets involved. Many of the names involved are familiar ones to those aware of the assassination from Booth and Boyd to Secretary of War Stanton and Lincoln himself. Told well, it could have been intriguing if implausible.
Instead, it's something else entirely. The ultimate problem of the film is that unlike say Oliver Stone's JFK and despite copious amounts of expository dialogue coupled with narration, the film never clearly gets its points across. It's a muddled mixture of revisionist history, conspiracy theories, and clunky dialogue brought to life with cheap production values. And yet, The Lincoln Conspiracy is ground zero for modern conspiracist thinking on America's first Presidential assassination with its theories showcased on Unsolved Mysteries and Brad Meltzer's Decoded among other places.
In the end, the film is a curiosity. Just not a very good one.