Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things. It could be a favorite character or casting choice, a favorite song or score, a favorite scene, line of dialogue, shot or simply a moment. Anything is possible (costumes, sets, etc) and I’d love to hear your suggestions. Note: Just because something appears here does not make it my absolute #1 favorite thing in that category, but it is simply “one of my favorites”.
There are few things I love more than a good movie speech. My first memory of intentionally memorizing dialogue from a movie came when Independence Day was released on VHS and I watched Bill Pullman’s speech before the final battle over and over, writing it down and reading along, trying to get both the words and delivery as exact as I could. A great movie speech can be anywhere from a couple sentences to pages of dialogue, and can be delivered to huge crowds or as a monologue in solitude. Speeches have been the basis of entire movies (The King’s Speech being the most obvious example).
Lincoln is full of speeches, as you would imagine a movie about politicians to be. Lincoln himself loves to give a soliloquy, frequently telling long moral stories much to the frustration of his friends. The movie even opens with soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address. My favorite is not delivered by the president but instead by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the “Radical Republican” Congressman from Pennsylvania. Stevens was a strong abolitionist, who believed not only that slavery should be abolished, but that men of all races were created equal and should be treated as such, an extreme view in a country still struggling with slavery itself.
In the film, which focuses on the passing of the 13th Amendment which banned slavery, opponents to the 13th Amendment gather reporters in the hall and attempt to goad Stevens into admitting that the amendment is just the first step in his broader effort to promote full racial equality. They are counting on the fact that his famous temper will lead to a public outburst, exposing him as an “extremist” and killing the amendment in the court of public opinion. Stevens and the other “Radical Republicans” know of the plan, and face an internal struggle over whether or not to hide their true feelings in order to do some good. (It, in many ways, mirrors the current struggle of liberal Congress People in conservative states who must temper the public statements of their beliefs in order to be re elected to continue to be in a position to help make progress.)
As his opponents, particularly George Pendleton, fail to get the outburst they were hoping for, they start harassing him further, hoping to anger him into expressing his beliefs in full racial equality, leading to this short speech that is today’s favorite:
George Pendleton: You have long insisted, have you not that the dusk-colored race is no different from the white one?
Thaddeus Stevens: I don’t hold with equality before in all things, only with equality before the law and nothing more.
George Pendleton: Your frantic attempt to delude us now is unworthy of a representative. It is, in fact, unworthy of a white man!
Thaddeus Stevens: How can I hold that all men are created equal, when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their Maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood! You are more reptile than man, George! So low and flat, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you!
George Pendleton: How dare you!
Thaddeus Stevens: Yet even you, Pendleton, who should have been gibbeted for treason long before today, even worthless unworthy you ought to be treated equally before the law! And so again, sir, and again and again and again I say: I do not hold with equality in all things. Only with equality before the law.
In addition to the perfect delivery by Jones, this speech is a brilliant encapsulation of everything Lincoln is about. Stevens later says of the amendment: “The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Lincoln is a film about compromise and politics, and how sometimes the best and most important things may require us to get dirty in order to accomplish them. For me, this little speech is the highlight of the film, and one of my favorite film speeches in recent memory.
(There isn’t a full version of the speech available online, so here’s part of it.)