Grant in Film

U.S. Grant has been depicted in the movies with a consistently inaccurate image. He's a short, rough, course man, usually scowling. The gruff demeanor is emphasized by a large cigar and by the implication that he's never too far from the bottle.

When he appears in a scene, he is rarely the main focus of the story being told. Rather, he seems thrust into the screenplay to serve as a supporting player, enhancing the seemingly more interesting lives of such real figures as Abraham Lincoln and General William T. Sherman, or such fictitious characters as the Lone Ranger or James West.

Throughout his life, the historical Grant was a man whose values and character avoided the pitfalls that often face those who are given military and political blood, and was painfully alive to every form of human suffering." Other than perhaps a handful of early films that depicted the General, none of the over 75 large- and small-screen depictions of Grant displayed these traits.

The first movie that featured Ulysses S. Grant as a character is believed to be The Days Of '61, a 15-minute melodrama produced by Thomas Edison in 1908, less than a quarter century after Grant's death. In this film, the General has a brief scene in which he refuses to hear the pleas of the sister of a condemned Confederate soldier.

A year later, the 12-minute The Old Soldier's Story featured a Confederate veteran recalling how he tricked General Grant into carrying a secret message to a Confederate general in Fredericksburg.

Grant is shown sparing the life of a Confederate spy in Lt. Grey (1911) and in a similar vein commutes the death sentence of a Southern soldier in The Littlest Rebel (1914). In A Question Of Courage (1914), Grant again magnanimously issues a pardon, this time to a civilian mistakenly imprisoned for cowardice.

The first serious portrayal of Grant in a movie came in D. W. Griffiths' landmark but controversial epic, The Birth Of A Nation (1915). Grant was portrayed by Hollywood fixture and later Oscar winner Donald Crisp. In a brief scene depicting the surrender at Appomattox, an excessively casual Grant is seen arrogantly walking around the room, puffing a cigar as a grim but dignified Robert E. Lee mournfully signs the terms of surrender. The historical Grant treated Appomattox with the utmost dignity and sensitivity toward his defeated foe. None of that was evident in Griffiths' film, which was most notorious for its overt racism.

Grant as depicted in D.W. Griffiths' Abraham Lincoln (1930), with cigar and bottle in the foreground

In Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffiths' first sound film (a project he later described as “a nightmare of the mind and nerves"), the general was portrayed by E. Alyn Warren, who also essayed Grant a year later in a Richard Dix vehicle called Secret Service. In Griffith's 1930 film, the initial meeting between Lincoln and Grant is played out in a White House drawing room in which the General emits billows of cigar smoke that upset Mrs. Lincoln. The president appoints Grant supreme commander and asks him to visit him often so he can drive the first lady away with his cigars.

In a later scene set just before the end of the war, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman are casually sitting around a table enjoying whisky and cigars. Here Lincoln emerges as an almost angelic figure imparting divine wisdom and magnanimous gestures toward his former enemies. Grant and Sherman become Griffiths' allegorical warmongers who demand severe punishment for Lee and Jefferson Davis. When Lincoln rebukes these suggestions, he illustrates his clemency points by telling a joke that begins, “There once was a drunk…" As Lincoln utters the word “drunk," the camera cuts to a close-up of a nervous-looking Grant. Neither the subtle inference nor the substance of the conversation among the characters bear resemblance to historical fact.

What about the appearances of Robin Williams and Fred Thompson as U.S. Grant? Stay tuned for the next article in this series: Grant in Television.

Grant's Tomb has had a number of movie cameos over the years, but it has never been the star. If you watch carefully, however, you will find the monument in the following films - typically for a few seconds in montages, or serving as an anonymous backdrop for scenes that assume (or hope) the viewer will not be able to identify the location.

The Perils Of Pauline (1914): In a chapter of this famous serial, shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Pauline (Pearl White) is trapped in a runaway hot air balloon as it hovers precariously over the Tomb.

Grant's Tomb provided some good-natured comedy and a dash of inspiration to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney's characters in Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940).
Click here to see a clip from this MGM vehicle for the two youthful stars.

A scene from On The Town (1949)

On The Town (1949): As part of a montage of Manhattan sites, sailors Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munchin are seen crossing Riverside Drive with the tomb dramatically in the background (if only for 3 seconds).

A Thousand Clowns (1966): Another Manhattan montage sees Jason Robards and Barbara Harris riding a tandem bike past the side of the Tomb.

New Jack City (1991): A violent and very bloody shootout takes place on the plaza in front of the memorial.

Howard Stern's Private Parts (1997): Stern and two bikini-clad women cavort on the steps of the monument in front of a huge crown of fans in a scene set in 1982 Washington, DC. The Tomb also could be seen in a earlier scene shot across tje street and set in 1979 Detroit.

Fall (1997): Eric Schaffer and Amanda De Cadenet take a romantic stroll in fron of the Tomb in this pretentious film about a romance between a Manhattan cab driver and a supermodel.

Only one film stopped to reflect on the meaning of Grant's Tomb. In Frank Capra's classic, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1939), patriotic bumpkin Gary Cooper with cynical reporter Jean Arthur. They arrive at dusk, providing the viewer with a beautiful image of the Tomb at twilight as dozens of people are making their way inside. They stop for a second to soak it all in:

JEAN ARTHUR: Well, there you are. Grant's Tomb. I hope you aren't disappointed.

GARY COOPER: It's wonderful.

JEAN ARTHUR: To most people it's an awful letdown.


JEAN ARTHUR: I said to most people it's a washout.

GARY COOPER: That depends on what you see.

JEAN ARTHUR: Now what do you see?

GARY COOPER: Me? Oh, I see a small Ohio farm boy becoming a great soldier. I see thousands of marching men. I see General Lee with a broken heart surrendering. And I see the beginning of a new nation like Abraham Lincoln said. And I see that Ohio boy becoming president. Things like that can only happen in America.

Cecil B. Demille's Union Pacific (1939), a sprawling epic of the building of the first transcontinental railroad, depicted Grant helping robber-barons with crooked land deals in return for their influence in securing him the 1868 presidential election. This fictitious scene reflects no understanding of Grant's widely recognized integrity. Incidentally, Grant was played for the first time here by Joseph Crehan, who went on to play the General six more times in films, the last time in 1953.
John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) manages to depict Grant with the complete package of conventional stereotypes – coarse, gruff, unkempt, equipped with whiskey and cigars – even though he appears in only the first scene.

Ford took another try at depicting Grant in a short scene from the massive epic How The West Was Won (1963), and the result was a refreshing change from past treatment. Portraying Grant was Harry Morgan, whom audiences would remember from his roles on the television classics, Dragnet and M*A*S*H. John Wayne plays Sherman. Both beautifully underplay their roles in a post-battle scene in which Grant considers resigning over false press reports about his drinking. The scene is subtle and moving, but most remarkable in its rough resemblance to a conversation that actually occurred in history. Unfortunately, the scene is ruined when a rogue Confederate soldier attempts to shoot Grant.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) would finally give Grant a larger (if not
leading) role in an epic, but the movie turned out to be a cinematic bomb. President Grant appears nearly an hour into the movie on a train accompanied by famous legends of the Old West. His private car is hijacked by a gang of rebels led by Christopher Lloyd, who will only release Grant when his demand that part of Texas be allowed to become an independent nation is met. Grant is played by Jason Robards with gusto, but also the usual inaccuracies. Gruff and ornery, this Grant regularly uses phrases like “You're one diseased son of a bitch!" and “By the time the people in Washington get off their asses, I'll be dead!" When the Lone Ranger and Tonto (naturally) come to the rescue, the president effortlessly fires away at the bad guys with a pistol and sets off explosives. Putting aside the obviously fictitious back story, this is all a far cry from the historical Grant, who never used profanity and had an aversion to firearms despite the role that gave him his fame.

Grant was portrayed in motion pictures most recently by Kevin Kline in 1999's Wild Wild West, which also starred Will Smith, Kenneth Branagh and Salma Hayek. The big budget fantasy-action-western curiosity was an update of the 1960s television series. Kline played President Grant as half of a dual role – he also appeared as U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon, a character who masquerades as the President for part of the film, necessitating double exposures in some scenes.

While preparing for his role, Kline reportedly contacted Grant scholar John Y. Simon for counsel. Kline's Grant is a likeable figure – a serious and formidable authority figure with courage and a hard-bitten sense of humor. The performance provides what little there is of interest in the film. Kline/President Grant's lines include this classic: “Mr. West, not every situation requires your patented approach of shoot first, shoot later, shoot some more and then when everybody's dead try to ask a question or two."

The next likely portrayal of Grant may come in 2009, when director Stephen Spielberg reportedly plans Lincoln, a biopic of the 16th president slated to star Liam Neeson.

But to take another bit of Grant dialogue, in the 1981 Lone Ranger film, Grant was given the honor of delivering the movie's last line, “Who was that masked man?" The same may be asked of this recurring minor character in films that purported to be the nation's 18th president, but who usually bore little resemblance to him other than the beard and cigar.

What about the appearances of Robin Williams and Fred Thompson as U.S. Grant? Stay tuned for the next article in this series: Grant in Television.

See this informative Internet Movie Database list of Grant motion picture and television appearances:


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