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The rail splitter and his axe

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"


Two of the most frequently filmed characters in the history of cinema, Abraham Lincoln and Count Dracula, probably deserve some common treatment, which might explain both the original novel and the blockbuster adaptation of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." The Rail Splitter, after all, knew something about wooden stakes, those sovereign remedies for vampirism, and his adversary in this instance, if not up to the level of the great Transylvanian, qualifies as an evil, sneering aristocrat. Besides, if zombies can inhabit the placid rural landscape of Jane Austen's novels, surely a horde of vampires can ravage 19th-century America and mount a threat to the Union.

Despite those admittedly tenuous justifications, the concept of Honest Abe roaming around decapitating vampires — his frequent practice throughout the movie — seems so absolutely silly that it should make the immortal count revolve dizzily in his coffin (only in daylight, of course). As the expensive set pieces, the spectacular special effects, and the innumerable stunts demonstrate, however, the filmmakers proceed entirely seriously through the viscous nonsense of their version of history. Perhaps they don't realize the complete idiocy of their project.

The film posits that the young Abraham vowed to avenge the death of his mother at the hands (or rather, teeth) of a vampire, a quest that drives him throughout his life. The grown Abe (Benjamin Walker) meets Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), an experienced vampire hunter who understands the young man's obsession and tutors him in the history and practices of the breed and the art of hunting and killing them. Given a choice of weapons, Abe naturally decides on an axe, which Sturges coats with silver, the only metal that in this movie, at least, proves fatal to the undead.

Once he masters his lessons, the young man sets out for Springfield, Illinois, to encounter his destiny. There, as every schoolchild knows, he meets and marries Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and debates Stephen Douglas. Before launching his political career, however, Lincoln stalks the monsters who pose as respectable citizens, slaughtering half a dozen with that lethal axe and burying their headless bodies in the surrounding prairie. The movie shows that Honest Abe was actually a serial killer: who knew?

Pursuing its bizarre version of history, the picture skips rapidly through Lincoln's ascent up the ladder of American politics all the way to the White House, where with the help of Sturges and childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), he continues his campaign against the hated monsters. The movie shows that the most important event of Lincoln's presidency, the Civil War, actually coincided with his lifelong pursuit of the undead. The vampires, led by their chief, Adam (Rufus Sewell), control the South, enslaving black people for nutritional purposes, as a supply of fresh blood; Adam even cuts a deal with Jefferson Davis to fight for the Confederacy against the Union, a perfect emblem of the conflict.

At Gettysburg, the climactic battle of the Civil War, where the Confederate troops and the vampires prevail at first, the cause seems lost until Lincoln's ingenuity and the efforts of his brave staff carry the day; even Mary Todd Lincoln, bless her heart, shows up at the battle, instructing the Union troops in the tried and true method of dispatching the hated creatures. Since a vampire killed her beloved son William, she bears a special sorrow and a resolve that matches her husband's, and like him, she exacts her own revenge.

Although it seems passing strange that a picture about the most revered president of the United States should rise to such flights of fancy and fraudulence, the notion that vampires took a hand in the bloodiest conflict in American history suggests at least a touch of ingenuity and perhaps even an explanation for slavery itself. It seems even stranger that, thanks to the magic of the cinema, Abraham Lincoln should fight with the graceful, acrobatic agility of a gymnast and twirl a large axe like a drum majorette at halftime. In our childhood we all learned that our 16th president was a good man, a brilliant thinker, a great president, but I'm sure no one suspected the true nature of his passions or his possession of such remarkable abilities. Again, who knew?