When the aliens came in Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day," they cruised by the Lincoln Memorial as part of their opening gambit. Seventeen years later, Emmerich is back in Washington D.C. for "White House Down," the finale of which features Lincoln in a key non-Memorial capacity that shouldn't be spoiled. Lack of Memorial action duly noted, the movie's a good excuse to review six films that give prominent time to one of D.C.'s biggest tourist attractions.
"Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939)
Constructed from 1914 to 1922 on reclaimed swampland, by the 1930s the Lincoln Memorial had (per writer Kirk Savage) "acquired the status of a 'shrine,' the spiritual counterpart to the Washington Monument's amusement d." In 1937, there were 1.2 million visits to the Lincoln Memorial, a new peak. Visitor numbers dipped slightly over the next few years, then reached a new high of 1.5 million in 1940. At the time "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" was shot, the Memorial was "the single most visited monument in the capital," notes Savage, since it could serve a number of functions: "a viewing platform, a backdrop for snapshot photography [...] a place to experience the emotional gamut of America."
Mr. Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) visits the Memorial twice. The first visit (embedded below) is the climax to his first-time tourist dash through D.C.'s major tourist sites: the White House and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier are preludes for the real event. Smith climbs into the monumental shaded interior, with seemingly divine light highlighting a pertinent bit from the Gettysburg Address; around him, a white man helps his grandson read out key words while a black man stands with his hat reverentially bared. This is Lincoln as racial unifier, a universally-agreed-upon figure of America at its best. Later in the movie, emotionally battered and near defeat, Smith pays a nighttime visit, drawing strength before his famous filibuster. The pilgrimmage echoed Capra's own: the director later said he visited the Memorial when he had doubts about making the film but left reassured "it was never untimely to yank the rope of freedom's bell."
"My Son John" (1952)
The extremely talented Leo McCarey ("Love Affair," "Duck Soup") was fiercely anti-Communist. Until it turns into overt propaganda at the end, "My Son John" is a fascinating film, one which returning son/recruited Communist John (Robert Walker) appears far more reasonable and sympathetic than his patriotic-song-howling, Bible-bullying crop-haired fascist of a father (Dean Jagger). But moral ambiguity must be erased at the end, as John is finally moved by the FBI's closing in on his activities and the pleas of his mother (Helen Hayes). Resolving to inform on his fellow travelers, he gets into a taxi. Invisible Commies give chase; the driver tries to elude them with a sharp, unexpected turn (with the Washington Monument in the background), but the red menace catches up and machine-gun tire hits both parties. The cab swerves and overturns on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as if honest Abe himself were the moral rock this menace can't overcome. The relevant bit starts at 8:40 in the video below:
"Logan's Run" (1976)
The unintentional visual kitsch of "Logan's Run" haven't aged well, and — though a hit at the time — it's been mostly consigned to the rarely-exhumed pop cultural archives since. The premise of William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's original book was that individuals in the 22nd century only live to 21, after which they're voluntarily gassed for the greater good of avoiding population. In the movie, it's the 23rd century and citizens now get to live to the relatively ripe age of 30. Logan (Michael York) is one of those assigned to chase down and terminate those running from extermination, and — as the title implies — he chooses to try to outrun his own fate with love interest Jessica (Jenny Agutter).
Once outside the domed city, they roam the ruins of Washington D.C., coming upon the vine-overrun Lincoln Memorial. "I've never seen a face like that before," Logan flatly intones. "That must be the look of...of being old." As James Chapman and Nicholas J. Cull observe, the moment is "a pale imitation of the iconic ending of 'Planet of the Apes,'" in which Charlton Heston encounters the Statue of Liberty and realizes he's been on earth all along. (Keep that in mind: it'll be important later.)
"Forrest Gump" (1994)
We don't see Lincoln's statue in this one, just the columns of the memorial. As usual, Gump's (Tom Hanks) in the middle of history without trying to be, standing by at an anti-war rally in front of the memorial while a Jerry Rubin type fulminates against American involvement in Vietnam. Prodded to the stage, his "only thing I have to say about Vietnam" remains unheard (both by the crowd and viewers) when microphone wires are pulled out by an overzealous military higher-up. (Hanks claims Gump said "they go home to their mommas without any legs. Sometimes they don't go home at all. That's a bad thing," which sounds holy-innocent enough to be true.)
In any case, both The Man and the shouty hippies come off equally obnoxious (because isn't life really about the little things dealt out from our metaphorical chocolate boxes rather than unfortunate national events that can still make people angry?), and attention is soon drawn into the Reflecting Pool, where Forrest reunites with that ungrateful slattern Jenny.
Recall that Forrest Gump had several encounters with Richard M. Nixon and helped bring about the revelations of Watergate (unintentionally, of course). Now recall this: a little after four a.m. on May 9, 1970, a very tired Richard M. Nixon woke his chauffeur up and moseyed over to the Lincoln Memorial to rap with the anti-war protesters assembled there. He talked about Syracuse University's football program ("I hope it was because he was tired but most of what he was saying was absurd," a Syracuse U. student said later. "Here we had come from a university that's completely uptight, on strike, and when we told him where we were from, he talked about the football team"). This strange incident, restaged in Oliver Stone's film, is pretty true to the historical record until it goes nuts.
"I hope you realize that we're willing to die for what we believe in," a young man yells and that did happen. But then Nixon turns around to the Lincoln statue, which has been hovering as ominously behind him as the specter of JFK does throughout. "My family went Republican because Lincoln freed the slaves," he says, sounding very much like e.g. Rand Paul at Howard University (and the party of late in general). When he bloviates about trying to stop the war, one young woman snaps, and that's when this turns into the usual conspiratorial Stone material: "You can't stop it, can you?" she realizes. "What's the point of being president?" another person asks. Nixon speaks of "taming" the political process, and there's footage of a horse running too fast and wild to handle — overheated, but the point's made: Nixon's no successor of Lincoln, molding a republic to save it, but a paranoiac caught in the wheels of a system far exceeding the powers of the presidency, no matter how drastically expanded.
"Planet Of The Apes" (2001)
The Tim Burton "Planet of the Apes" remake was a bad experience for everyone involved (asked whether he'd be up for making a sequel, Burton replied "I'd rather jump out the window. I swear to god"). One of the obvious problems was what to do with the ending: repeating the Statue of Liberty reveal would've been too obvious. Solution: as in "Logan's Run," bring in the Lincoln Memorial, but with a twist. Mark Wahlberg escapes from his ape overlords and jumps back in time, seemingly having saved the planet from simian control. His vessel skips through the Reflecting Pool, landing on the steps of the Memorial. Wahlberg gets out, walks up the steps and it looks like all's well. From behind the statue, the hair and jacket look right, but when we see the front it's a monkey, not a man. The inscription's been changed: "In this temple as in the hearts of the apes for whom he saved the planet the memory of General Thade is enshrined forever." Once the Lincoln Memorial's gone, so's the planet.
"A Night At The Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" (2009)
Everything majestic must inevitably end as travesty, so let's end with the second "Night At The Museum," in which honest Abe's statue comes back to life. "All right then, time to see the state of this great union," he says, but Ben Stiller and plucky Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) have to ask him to sit down and shut up for a second so as not to draw the attention of back-to-life soldiers run amuck. That's when Lincoln (voice of Hank Azaria) begins serving the usual function of embarrassing Stiller and making him stutter. "You two make a lovely couple," he says. Stiller temporizes, and Lincoln snaps: "I never lie!" First he passed the 14th Amendment, then he sorted Ben Stiller out: truly our greatest president.