Spirit of the People (1940) starring Raymond Massey, Gene Lockhart, Ruth Gordon, Mary Howard, Minor Watson, Alan Baxter, Howard Da Silva directed by John Cromwell Movie Review

Spirit of the People (1940)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln in Spirit of the People (1940) (aka: Abe Lincoln in Illinois)

Mr. Lincoln's Road to Washington

Anyone who has read some of my reviews on other historical movies will be aware of my admitted lack of historical knowledge and blame the British education system for making history lessons so dull as a child for my ignorance. As such it should come as no surprise when I say my knowledge on American history is even more sparse than that of my own country and whilst of course I have heard of Abe Lincoln I knew little about him other than the basics before watching "Spirit of the People" also known as "Abe Lincoln in Illinois". Now for a movie which is over 70 years old "Spirit of the People" is still a thoroughly engaging movie, a little episodic but delivering a nice insight into who Abe Lincoln was before he became President of the United States and featuring a mesmerising performance from Raymond Massey as the pre-election Lincoln. In fact whilst I don't know how authentic "Spirit of the People" is I can say I learned a lot from it, much more than any dull text book or history lesson.

"Spirit of the People" basically covers the life of Abraham Lincoln from leaving home to winning the election and leaving Springfield for Washington. Along the way we see how he became a man of the people with his do right attitude and his stance against slavery despite initially being a reluctant politician preferring a quiet life. We also see his relationships, his first love Ann Rutledge who he met in New Salem and then the driven Mary Todd who he would marry and who would constantly push him to make a stand politically.

Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd Lincoln in Spirit of the People (1940) (aka: Abe Lincoln in Illinois)

So as I already said, I don't know how true "Spirit of the People" is, how close to the facts it stays or how much poetic licence has been used but whether 100% faithful or not it is a thoroughly engaging movie. And the simple reason for this really comes down to Abraham Lincoln being such a fascinating character in the first place especially when we see that before his election win not only was he one to sit on the fence in order to please people but also reluctant to put himself in the firing line. Yet at the same time we see how amiable he was, how you could almost say he would go with the flow and if people wanted him to lead he would and that is part of the why "Spirit of the People" is so engrossing as we watch this reluctant hero come to the fore.

It is also engrossing to see his relationship with others, his friendship with Ann Rutledge and then his relationship and marriage to Mary who you could say was a very pushy woman prone to embarrassing Lincoln by her attitude towards him. It adds to the whole curiosity of this man who you wonder whether if it wasn't for others pushing him into politics would have ended up anymore than a happy go lucky business owner in the back woods somewhere.

But whilst "Spirit of the People" works because Abraham Lincoln was such a fascinating man it is also a well put together movie and considering its age the cinematography is impressive with some wonderful tracking shots standing out in a movie where unsurprisingly a lot of camera work was static. It's not just the cinematography as whilst there are a lot of good performances with Ruth Gordon doing a good job of making Mary a very driven and pushy woman it is Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln who stands out. Massey stands out because he is believable, when he is the postal officer in New Salem his laid back attitude feels so natural yet when you watch Lincoln give a speech you believe every single word is being spoken with conviction as if Massey believed he had become Lincoln.

What this all boils down to is that for someone who admits their historical ignorance "Spirit of the People" is a fascinating and engaging movie with an absolutely stunning performance from Raymond Massey at the heart of it.