The Action Movie Legacy of the Lincoln Assassination

By  · Published on August 1st, 2015

Paramount Pictures

The 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, while the President attended a play, is one of the most famous events in history. It’s also an incident that lends itself so well to cinematic depictions, not just because it was witnessed by so many and therefore was so well documented but because it already involves spectacle. The idea of executing someone in public has been popular throughout history, but in an auditorium, in front of an audience watching a fictional drama unfold, adds a heightened level of theatricality to the tragedy and vice versa. Then, to put that on film adds yet another layer.

True violence becomes action movie fodder on the big screen, whether it’s as big as the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the killing of one man by another, the latter making a big scene as he runs across a stage during his getaway, maybe shouting “sic semper tyrannis!” Lincoln’s assassination became a cinematic thrill as early as 1908 and famously a hundred years ago in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. And we’ve seen the event play out again and again in multiple movies about or involving the life of the 16th President, including a second depiction by Griffith in 1930’s Abraham Lincoln and most recently in the 2010 release The Conspirator.

But we’ve also seen its legacy carried out in many more movies, the latest being Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (warning: spoilers for an early sequence in this new movie follow). Any time there’s an assassination or attempt taking place in a theater, an opera house or a concert hall during a performance, the action recalls Lincoln’s demise, regardless of whether or not it’s something that the filmmaker or audience is conscious of. These scenes, especially if they involve a threat against a world leader or government official as the Mission: Impossible sequel does, are as linked to that true tragedy as any superhero or disaster movie’s urban destruction makes us now think of 9/11.

Consciously, the Vienna State Opera sequence in Rogue Nation is reminding viewers, notably critics, of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much — namely the 1956 remake, because it’s far more commonly seen, though that and the director’s 1934 original both feature an assassination plot attempted at London’s Royal Albert Hall. To my knowledge, Hitchcock never acknowledged being inspired by the Lincoln assassination; rather, the location choice has simply been attributed to the director’s penchant for landmarks and specifically to the venue’s posh contrast to other settings of the film, especially the streets of London’s East End featured in the first version (he’d also already used it once before, as the setting of a climactic boxing match in 1927’s The Ring). Hitchcock scholars have, however, noted the similarity to the real event.

Just one year after the release of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock had another climactic action set piece recalling Lincoln’s fate in his film The 39 Steps, this time located in the London Palladium and focused on an espionage scheme rather than an assassination plot, though shots still end up being fired. He then went on to feature theaters or at least stages in the action climaxes of his films Saboteur (1942), Stage Fright (1950), I Confess (1952) and Torn Curtain (1966). Hitchcock was definitely the biggest employer of the concept, but in the almost half-century since his last example, we’ve had enough of these sequences in movies for the “concert climax” to become a named trope.

As noted by the website TV Tropes, an opera house is also the setting for The Godfather Part III and Foul Play, a classical music concert figures in a presidential assassination threat in Get Smart, a movie premiere is used in Inglorious Basterds, a beauty pageant in Miss Congeniality, an ice show in Death to Smoochy and sports venues qualify The Naked Gun, The Last Boy Scout and more to be included in the bunch. Also of note is Martin Scorsese’s wine-commercial-as-short-film and Hitchcock tribute Key to Reserva.

It’s perfectly plausible that Rogue Nation writer-director Christopher McQuarrie didn’t consciously mean to pay homage to nor rip off Hitchcock with his assassination set piece. He at least admits to having realized the similarity after the fact and completely expects people to assume it to have been blatant. But the concept is overdone enough, and we could possibly even include movies with less theatrical, more formal events playing host to assassination sequences such as The Manchurian Candidate and X-Men: Days of Future Past, that McQuarrie could have just planned for yet another repeat of the familiar trope, albeit with the intention to do it better than has ever been done before.

And he’s likely succeeded in that goal. First, though, Rogue Nation gets points for not employing the opera sequence for its climax. What could have been the final action set piece of any lesser movie – or the first action set piece, as in the concert sequence opening in the James Bond installment The Living Daylights – is just one of a handful of exceptional moments throughout the Mission: Impossible installment. It stands out, however, for being a more taut sequence than the more marketable stunt spectacles involving the hero hanging onto an airplane in flight or speeding between traffic in a motorcycle chase.

There is some fighting on rafters high above a stage providing part of the thrill, but this otherwise slow and “modestly scaled” suspense sequence is mainly exciting for its geographically elaborate, almost labyrinthine, behind-the-scenes cat-and-mouse-and-other-cat game, which ends with the hero deciding to thwart the attempted assassination of Austria’s Prime Minister by shooting at the man himself, pretending to have missed. It’s enough to draw attention from the theater’s crowd to look up at the box seats and for the movie audience to see something at least subconsciously reminiscent of Lincoln’s assassination, even if sniper rifles are used instead of a pistol at point-blank range. Played out as an audience watches an opera – namely Puccini’s Turandot, which has it’s own game-centered plot – with its heightened dramatics, the sequence of course has an added level of theatricality and tension.

Why trace the roots of the sequence specifically to the Ford Theatre 150 years ago? There have been other historical assassinations in amphitheaters and ballrooms, places with their own stages, but the distinction for Lincoln is that he was in the audience, not in front of it giving a speech or on site to do so. And that tends to be the same for the assassination targets in these movie scenes. Also close to their situation, perhaps, are Gustav III of Sweden, whose murder happened decades earlier in an opera house, albeit during a ball not a performance, and Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, whose 1911 assassination indeed occurred as he attended an opera in Kiev. In the West, though, Stolypin is relatively unknown, so his legacy is hardly as influential on Hollywood as Lincoln’s.

The question could be, though, whether or not this trope and its many scenes would exist if Lincoln hadn’t been shot in a theater and all those movies depicting the real assassination hadn’t first arrived to show the dramatic, cinematic possibility of setting action sequences, most of them climactic, in this sort of multi-layered setting. Maybe, but they wouldn’t have the historical roots and contextual weight that give them more significance than merely being an oft-recycled idea for a set piece, which could still be frustrating no matter how well its executed.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.