My suspicion that Steven Spielberg can’t really do historical films isn’t anything new, although the fact that he keeps trying shows at least how ambitious he can be. Conversely, the fact that he keeps failing, at least in my opinion, may point to a wider incapacity on the part of his audience, meaning you and me — a failure to grasp and sustain Abraham Lincoln as a myth the way that John Ford and his audience could when Ford made “Young Mr. Lincoln” with Henry Fonda in 1939.
Some of this, of course, can be accounted for by the radical changes in mainstream film-going over 73 years: an audience that has been subdivided by targeting strategies and ancillary markets, reduced mainly to kids, artificially inflated by advertising budgets and split among homes, computers and theaters on screens of different sizes, shapes and textures. But it’s also a sign that in “Lincoln,” we’re much further away from our historical roots than American moviegoers were in 1939, even when a master storyteller and myth-spinner is in charge.
Leaving aside “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse” (neither of which I’ve seen), the diverse cavorting of Indiana Jones and the cartoon extravagance of “1941,” I think my troubles with Spielberg as a historian started with his ignorance about Jim Crow prohibitions in the Deep South involving the front seat of a car in “The Color Purple” (1985). And they weren’t exactly mitigated by “Empire of the Sun” (1987), which includes the boy hero’s glimpse of an A-bomb blast in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp without bothering to clarify whether this comes from Hiroshima or Nagasaki. (In J.G. Ballard’s novel, it’s clearly the latter.) Maybe this is because narrative clarity and fluidity always count for more with Spielberg than historical precision — which is also perhaps why the character of Emilie Schindler, who played a major role in saving Jewish lives, gets skimped in Spielberg’s version of “Schindler’s List,” a film that focuses almost entirely on her husband, Oskar. More generally, it might help explain why (and how) Spielberg correctly calculated that the easiest way to get a young audience interested in the Holocaust was to get the people to identify first with a glamorous and handsome Nazi war profiteer.