The new Lincoln Assassination movie "The Conspirator"
... beware. The movie is fanciful and notably at fault. It is misleading and grossly distortedFrom: "Anthony Pitch"
Review of "The Conspirator"
By Anthony S. Pitch, author of “They Have Killed Papa Dead!” – The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance.
[He has been featured on C-Span, The History Channel, Book TV, National Geographic, PBS and NPR. He will be speaking about the Lincoln assassination inside Ford’s Theatre Wednesday May 11. Tickets are free and available in advance at the theater.]
Nobody likes to slam a nice guy like Robert Redford who has done so much for the betterment of our planet and the less fortunate. That does not absolve him of deserved scorn for directing fraudulent history in the new movie, The Conspirator.
Near the end of the film, when all but a handful of die-hards stay to read the final lines of seemingly inexhaustible credits, a disclaimer appears to state that it is based on actual events. That’s license enough to drift off into a world of make-believe.
Clearly, Hollywood has once again re-written the historical record to meet the demands of the box office. The errors are legion. Fiction is plentiful. It is almost as if creative imagination has been overtaken by hallucination in a script so wide of the mark.
Mary Surratt is notoriously embedded in the narrative of our nation’s history as the first woman hanged by order of the Federal government, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and her conviction for conspiring with others to murder the president. Then and now, many believe she was the innocent victim of a kangaroo court, lacking legality even in the eyes of Edward Bates, Lincoln’s first attorney general, who was out of office at the time of the controversial military trial. One eyewitness at the simultaneous hangings of Surratt and three male co-conspirators on the grounds of what is now Fort McNair in southwest Washington, D.C., cried out in disbelief just before the traps were sprung on the gallows: “This is murder! Can you stand and see it done!”
However, Redford and his creative team have shredded, ignored or perhaps been negligently unaware of the existence of reports of contemporaneous eyewitnesses and court stenographers who were actually inside the courtroom every day of the seven-week-long trial.
Not a single surviving written report, diary entry, letter, official government document, or memoir, mentions an outburst during the trial, either by Mary Surratt or from any of her seven co-accused males.
Undeterred, Redford induces visceral sympathy for Mary Surratt , who rises indignantly to protest incriminatory testimony against her. The cameras also focus on her co-conspirators who thump and bellow in their own show of righteous anger. These are the most risible digressions from reality, with Redford apparently unable to provoke an outpouring of empathy had he shown them for what they were – a cowed, frightened, intimidated and crushed cabal, with the exception of the smiling nonchalance of Lewis Payne and the intermittent lecherous gaze of David Herold when transfixed by an attractive female in the courtroom.
There were ample opportunities, without veering off into fiction, for Redford and his crew to cinematographically expose the brutalities and torture inflicted on the conspirators during their long solitary confinement. Each of the accused was sealed in a cell only three and a half feet wide by seven feet long. In deference to her gender, Mary Surratt did not have the canvas hood, with a single slit to eat and breathe, tied tightly with cords around the necks of six of the seven males, pressing the padded cotton painfully hard against their eye sockets and ears immediately they returned to their cells from the courtroom. Weeks of deprivation and solitude within the squashed area of numbered cells had taken a toll on their moods. Idle monotony had begun to affect their sanity. The medical officer doing his daily rounds recoiled at the sight of a suffocating hood, which he condemned as a ”sweating bath to the head.” They were removed only after he warned that the secretary of war would soon have “a lot of lunatics on his hands.”
Shying away from recorded fact, Redford offers a drab scene of the victimized Mary Surratt languishing in her lofty cell with a metal ball and chain gripped to her leg. Nothing of the kind happened. In fact, she was pandered to only because of her gender, being given a less restricted diet than the men and even being allowed to have a rocking chair brought into her cramped cell from her boarding house on H Street NW. But such preferential treatment would have undercut Redford’s portrayal of a woman shown no mercy.
The moviemaker would have us believe that her son, John Surratt, also suffered under harsh conditions during confinement after being captured and repatriated from Rome, where he had fled after the assassination.
Adherance to the actual outcome would not have accorded with Redford’s agenda because John Surratt was almost pampered by contemporary conditions. His relatives and friends brought him delicacies to eat while locked in the city jail. He was allowed to smoke his pipe, read anything he selected, and licensed to roam the main corridor. After ambling from the jail to the courtroom he cheerfully told his lawyers that he wished it could be a regular stroll, a comment that contrasted so vividly with the plight of his mother and co-accused. On the opening day of their trial they were paraded into court with their anonymity secured by identical black linen hoods pulled down over each of their heads. Only their mouths and noses could be glimpsed through the punctured cloth. All were shackled, except Mary Surratt. One of the military judges, inured to carnage on the bloodiest of the Civil War battlefields, shuddered at the spectacle, writing that it was “so much of what my imagination pictured the Inquisition to have been, that I was quite impressed with it’s impropriety in this age.”
The procession of the quartet to the scaffold is one of the most egregious departures from reality. Redford has Mary Surratt walking upright and defiant, as if propelled by unflinching belief in her innocence. Eyewitnesses recorded a markedly different scene with a frail, broken woman barely able to advance as she shuffled at the pace of a funeral cortege. She faltered at the base of the steps up to the platform, lowered her head and looked down. She had to be assisted up and appeared to collapse into the chair next to the noose.
Lewis Payne, who attempted to slash to death the secretary of state at the same moment Lincoln was shot, is miscast as a man of average height, with a blank personality, unshaven face, and surly countenance, almost traumatized by the imminent hangings. In truth, court spectators were riveted by this enigmatic, tall, clean-shaven, handsome and muscular brute, transparently unmoved by his inevitable execution. Clover Hooper, who would later become the wife of historian Henry Adams, attended the trial only to look at the accused and concluded, “Payne is handsome but utterly brutal, and sits there a head higher than all the others …. It is a sad, impressive sight.” All who attended court were fascinated by his puzzling aloofness and indifference to the outcome. “Payne is amusing himself by returning stare for stare of all given him so abundantly by the lady visitors,” wrote one observant reporter. Manacled at his wrists and ankles when led to the gallows, Payne remained straight and upright,cheerfully dismissive of the macabre finale. To one observer he looked “much like a clean-faced, well developed Jack-tar,” sporting a straw hat with ribbon on his head and a matching sailor-blue color for his shirt and long-legged pants.
Moviegoers may well delight in the period dresses and uniforms, glimpses of nineteenth century social etiquette, and the street scenes on location in the ageless beauty of Savannah, Georgia. But beware. The movie is fanciful and notably at fault. It is misleading and grossly distorted.
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