Well, I’ve just seen the new Robert Redford film, The Conspirator, and I’d like to offer some comments based on my knowledge of the historical events that the film depicts. I should begin by noting that in 2008, like a number of other historians of the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath, I was asked by the American Film Company to read and critique the script. As it turns out, I had a number of strong criticisms, some of which had to do with specific details.
For example, in the script, prosecutor Joseph Holt was identified as the “chief adjutant general” of the U. S. army rather than, properly, as the army’s judge advocate general, head of the War Department’s Bureau of Military Justice, and the preeminent arbiter of military law during the war (and after, until his retirement in 1875). Others of my criticisms of the script were more significant, having to do with the tone of the script and its apparent message. In my opinion, the original script rather bluntly—one might even say recklessly—attempted to portray Mary Surratt as the innocent, motherly representative of the poor, vanquished Confederacy, and the federal government—particularly through the characters of Edwin Stanton and Joseph Holt—as the purely vengeful, bullying victor, determined, for whatever reason, to continue punishing its now helpless and compliant former enemy. I expressed these criticisms as diplomatically as possible to the film company. They thanked me, and that was the end of my contact with them.
Having now seen the film twice (once on DVD, during which I stopped it every few minutes to take notes, and once straight through with an audience in a local theater), I can happily report that some of the details that were simply wrong in the script have been righted: Holt, for example, now appears as the judge advocate general; numerous other similar errors of detail are also no longer in evidence. Moreover, certain silly and even offensive portions of the original script have been removed entirely, such as a scene in which Mary Surratt seemed, bizarrely, to be trying to seduce Frederick Aiken in her cell!
But the film still has problems, some of which, it seems to me, remain in the realm of not terribly significant historical detail, even if I personally found them annoying. For example, Mary Todd Lincoln has to shoulder the blame for dragging President Lincoln to the theater that night, though it is safe to assume that he made the decision himself (did you catch that?).
Some problems are embarrassingly anachronistic. On this score, the most notable example has to do with Holt’s explanation to Stanton regarding the decision of five of the military commissioners to recommend that Mary Surratt’s death sentence be converted to life in prison. In the film, instead of saying that the commissioners based their decision on “her age and sex,” which is how the actual commissioners put it, Danny Huston’s Holt says they were persuaded by her “age and gender.” Once used only in relation to grammar, the term “gender” was recast by feminist scholars in the late twentieth century to distinguish between biological sex and the social construction of male/female identity. It just makes no sense whatsoever for Holt, in 1865, to have used this term as a substitute for “sex,” and I frankly can’t see why he was made to do so.
There are more troubling aspects of the film to think about, too, however: more troubling because they seem designed intentionally to convey a distorted message about this crucial event in American history. I’ll mention two of them here (though my own list is considerably longer). First, there is the whole issue of the film’s emphasis on Mary Surratt’s separateness from the rest of the prisoners at the bar. Indeed, the film makes it appear as if, although the other alleged conspirators were also present in the courtroom, Mary Surratt was on trial by herself, when in fact all eight were tried together. And in the actual trial she certainly was not seated separately at a table with her own private lawyer (incidentally, she also did not lift her veil, speak, or have a series of emotional outbursts such as we see in the film). Rather, she sat with the group and was treated, for the most part, as one of them. That the film pictures the trial differently is, I think, extremely important: I would argue that it becomes that much harder for audiences to understand the weight of evidence that fell on all of the eight collectively.
Moreover, the film suggests that Mary Surratt was set apart not just physically from the seven unequivocally despicable male defendants, but also morally. In contrast with them (and with the government’s prosecutors), she appears as a noble woman driven only by her maternal instincts to try and save her son. I don’t buy it. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to determine how much Mary Surratt knew about either the kidnap plot or the assassination plot. But I think the film has done audiences a disservice by casting her in this light.
The other point I’ll mention here has to do (not surprisingly, I’m sure) with the film’s depiction of Joseph Holt. Along with Kevin Kline’s Edwin Stanton, Danny Huston’s Holt ends up playing a villain perhaps even more unsavory than John Wilkes Booth, who at least gets credit for having a moral compass, even if one disagrees with his devotion to the Confederacy. The fictionalized Holt, however, is caricatured as a grinning but cynical, malevolent scoundrel. He not only has the commissioners (and all of the key) witnesses in his pocket, but he also shapes the trial as he sees fit—justice be damned—for no other reason than to inflict even more punishment on this broken-hearted representative of the already subjugated South which, one is encouraged to assume, was eager for peace and reconciliation with the North.
Now I would be the first to admit that Holt was a highly skilled and determined prosecutor, and he certainly believed that all eight of the defendants were guilty and hoped they would be convicted. I would even admit that during the real trial of the assassins Holt willingly (and foolishly) made use of some corrupt witnesses, particularly in his efforts to tie the assassination plot to Jefferson Davis. But to say these things is quite different from saying that Holt fiendishly and singlehandedly (or even with Stanton’s help) manipulated the trial and its outcome to suit his own vengeful ends.
I suppose that if the purpose of The Conspirator is to encourage sympathy for the defeated Confederacy in the face of the postwar North’s unbounded rage, well, it makes sense to portray Holt in this way. And if this is the case, then I think it’s no coincidence that Danny Huston’s Holt sounds like he was born and raised in the North, whereas the historical Holt was actually a native of the slaveholding South. There is no doubt in my mind that the historical Holt’s patterns of speech and his accent would have reflected the fact that he lived the first fifty years of his life in Kentucky and Mississippi.
But I can only presume that the filmmakers thought it would be simply too confusing for their oversimplified story line to portray Holt as he really was—a Southerner and former slaveholder who, at great personal cost, abandoned the South and slavery in order to defend the nation, its president, and Lincoln’s wartime policies (including emancipation) against all of the enemies who were arrayed against them.
Elizabeth D. Leonard is the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History at Colby College. She is the author of several books, including Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War (W. W. Norton). UNC Press will publish Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky in October 2011.