This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Did director Steven Spielberg befoul Abraham Lincoln with profanity that doesn’t fit the 16th president or his era?
Movieguide, which reviews films from a Christian perspective, says there are about 40 obscenities in the PG-13 Lincoln, including 10 uses of “goddamn.” Similarly, the Dove Foundation laments that “the language they feature in the film … does not line up with the morals and language of the time period.”
But Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the source book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, begs to differ. “I saw pretty much every draft of the script and never had a problem with the language,” she tells THR. In fact, she recalls advising screenwriter Tony Kushner to include Lincoln telling a favorite story that includes the word “shit.”
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Still, while Lincoln was known to relate off-color anecdotes, it’s unlikely he cussed as much as in Lincoln, says James McPherson, a Lincoln biographer and consultant on the film, who adds that the portrayal of profanity used around Lincoln -- such as when lobbyist W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) says “f---” when meeting him -- also is unrealistic.
“The profanity actually bothered me, especially Lincoln’s use of it,” he says. “It struck me as completely unlikely -- a modern injection into Lincoln’s rhetoric.”
McPherson says he e-mailed his objections to Kushner after reading an early draft. “But I see that that language made it in the movie anyhow.”
The profanity could put a crimp in box-office receipts, since Movieguide stopped short of recommending the film for family viewing to its 300,000 readers, and other Christian conservatives also say the salty language might discourage them taking their kids to see the movie. (But so far, Lincoln is exceeding expectations with $84.6 million at the domestic box office and counting.) Rumors that there are more than the one use of the word “f---“, uttered by Lincoln himself, even, don’t help matters. Such misinformation was spread over the Internet because some moviegoers confused the term “pettifogging” with “pretty f---ing.”
Meanwhile, the debate rages beyond Kearns Goodwin and McPherson as to the realism of Lincoln-era profanity. David Barton, who has appeared as a history expert on Fox News, CNN and other outlets, points out that soldiers during the Civil War were court-martialed for using profanity.
“The historical record is clear that Lincoln definitely did not tolerate profanity around him,” Barton says. “There are records of him confronting military generals if he heard about them cursing. Furthermore, the F-word used by Bilbo was virtually nonexistent in that day and it definitely would not have been used around Lincoln. If Lincoln had heard it, it is certain that he would instantly have delivered a severe rebuke.”
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University of Richmond president Edward Ayers agrees that Lincoln didn’t cuss much, but he doesn’t have a problem with the movie’s portrayal of others swearing in the presence of the president.
“While Lincoln liked colorful language and double-entendres, I’ve never seen anything to suggest that he would be so explicit,” Ayers says. “Did other powerful people speak this way at that time? They certainly did.”