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Woodrow Wilson was not considered a very successful President before he
was "rehabilitated" by FDR during World War II as part of a campaign to
show the mistakes the US had made a generation before. This film's
glorification of Wilson was clearly part of that war propaganda effort.
Alexander Knox is perfectly cast in this effort, he physically looks just right, and has all the mannerisms. Of course the character is shifted from the reality (a stunningly racist, intellectually isolated scholar) to a "pre-FDR" who talks of "all races working together" and whose every motive is pure and well thought out. The Wilson of this film is pure hero, and always right, if shown as a touch stubborn.
But I was engaged despite it all. And the 1912 Convention scenes early in the film are brilliantly done. Check out Vincent Price as a campaign lieutenant. And Cedric Hardwicke is great as the villainous Republican Henry Cabot Lodge.
Let us be certain of one thing: Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924),
Academician, Historian, Orator, President of Princeton University,
of New Jersey, and 28th President of the United States is a very important
political figure in American History. He is usually credited to be one of
the top ten great Presidents of our history, but these lists of historians
are prone to change when new research shows previous ideas were wrong or
hagiographic towards the former President. In Wilson's case historians of
his period are confronted with the problem that he had a great
rival, the 26th President Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. Both men at their
best were terrific figures, who accomplished a great deal of positive
legislation (they and Robert LaFollette dominate this period: the
Progressive Era), and both (with Roosevelt's predecessor William McKinley)
made America a great power. But T.R. and W.W. were both great egotists,
had defects in personality and views that make their achievements
questionable. T.R. loved the strenuous life, but he also loved war too
- to the point that his youngest son got sacrificed in France in the First
World War. Wilson helped get the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and the Federal
Reserve set up, but he was a
Southerner who backed Jim Crow Laws. He did try to keep America out
World War I (as a boy he lived in Virginia and South Carolina during the
Civil War, and saw Columbia, South Carolina destroyed - probably by
Sherman's men). But he was willing to use our troops to "straighten out"
Latin American countries: Mexico (twice), Haiti, the Dominican Republic.
His creation of the first international peace organization, the League of
Nations, was great, but flawed due to the U.S. not becoming a member - a
flaw that Wilson's egotistic fight with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge over
accepting the Treaty of Versailles guaranteed.
This film was made in 1944 by Zanuck, a Democrat. It emphasized Wilson as the far-sighted peace seeker, the forerunner of FDR (who was planning the United Nations). FDR actually was in Wilson's administration (he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, like his cousin TR had been in 1897 under McKinley). The audience of the time would have been aware of this. As most of the audience would be white, Protestant, and of anglo-saxon background, it would be assumed that the film would be well received. Actually it wasn't. In the midwest, with the heavy connections to Germany or Middle-Europe, and in Irish-American centers (Wilson was cool towards Irish nationalism)the audiences recalled the unpleasant intransigence and pig-headedness of the President. Zanuck had the film opened in his home town in Nebraska, only to find that few were interested in the premier of the film - they told him they had not liked Wilson while he was in office.
As it is the film is excellent in terms of production and cast, starting with Alexander Knox as the President. His is a great performance, which merited his Oscar nomination. But the film is only positive about Wilson (and correspondingly unfair to Lodge, who may have had doubts about the Treaty of Versailles, but was not conspiring to destroy Wilson - he only had to let Wilson do himself in!). As for the racist side of Wilson, to get a glimpse of it see THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, where the Wilson administration is determined to drive the black heavyweight champion (based on Jack Johnson, and played by James Earl Jones) out of the title he deserves to keep.
This is really a great movie. I've been trying to track it down for
years and just found it on the Fox Movie Channel last night. The script
is well written and for a Hollywood bio-pic it is pretty historically
accurate. I thought Knox was excellent as Wilson and wished he had done
more high profile movies. And I was also very impressed by the high
Don't know how much Zanuck spent on it but it was all up there on the screen. The Technicolor of those times is always lovely to look at too. Of course it came out in the middle of World War II, so a slight excess of flag-waving is to be expected. And any cast of supporting actors that runs the gamut from Thomas Mitchell to Vincent Price can't be all bad either. An altogether entertaining top quality movie.
If you want to dramatize Wilson's life, you can either approach it as either
a tragedy or a hagiography, and Fox chose the hagiographic route.
Considering the era and that the only biography at the time was the
uncritical one by Ray Standard Baker, this is hardly surprising. Thank God,
however, they cast the unknown Alexander Knox rather than an established
star such as Gary Cooper for the title character; when you see the film you
can't imagine anyone else playing the part.
This movie proves that the Hollywood era could do films with some integrity beyond the standard fare from MGM or Warners. Twentieth-Century Fox's Zanuck was the only mogul who had the guts to make a motion picture as expensive as this, with an unknown in the lead, and on a President who, unlike say Teddy Roosevelt, strikes many people as a cold fish. I love this film, despite its simplifying of history and its wartime propaganda because it's very special in many ways. There are plenty of movies like JEFFERSON IN PARIS or YOUNG MR. LINCOLN or ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS or THE PRESIDENT'S LADY etc., but aside from NIXON, Zanuck and King's WILSON seems the only theatrical film that dramatizes a President's life while he served in office. For those of you who find it undramatic, think again: it's a film to cherish
"Wilson" is in the grand tradition of biopics of great men in which the
subject has no significant faults and only a few foibles, and those serve
mainly to humanize him. This is an extremely well-made movie on just
every level. It largely gets the history right, except where things have
be fudged to maintain the great man's image. One fact that's never
mentioned, for example, is Wilson's reimposition of Jim Crow laws in the
District of Columbia.
Perhaps most interesting is how the film handles Wilson's remarriage. His first wife died in 1914, and Wilson remarried in less than two years. His new wife was younger and more glamorous than the first Mrs. Wilson. The filmmakers include a scene in which the dying Mrs. Wilson tells her daughters that their father is a strong and good man, but that he needs the love of a woman. She thus exculpates Wilson from the unseemliness attendant with remarrying so quickly (though this haste was the subject of considerable gossip at the time).
"Wilson" is a well-made, entertaining and interesting period piece that provides some accurate history. Compare its treatment of President Wilson with the way in which presidents are depicted in film today -- Oliver Stone's "Nixon," for example. And can you imagine a widower president carrying on a romance in the White House in today's intolerant political and moral climate?
I don't know how many modern-day film viewers would sit through this
long a biography (154 minutes) of a fairly boring man but it moves
pretty well and is generally entertaining account of our 28th U.S.
President, Woodrow Wilson.
When I watched this, I was unfamiliar with the lead actor, Alexander Knox, and I still am! However, he did a fine job as Wilson. The supporting cast did have some "names," such as Charles Coburn, Thomas Mitchell, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Ruth Nelson and much more.
When they made Technicolor films of the 1940s, which wasn't often, they were very pretty and this one is, too. They also did a nice job re-creating the early 20th century.
It's a nice film but nothing memorable, to be honest, and certainly biased in favor of Wilson....but still worth seeing. With it's length, one viewing would be enough.
When watching this film one first has to take into account the fact that
was made in 1944, the heyday of patriotic Hollywood propaganda. Hollywood
had joined the war just like the rest of America, and its job was to keep
moral, foster hope for a better future, and keep people doing their jobs
the war machine with enthusiasm.
If you can take all that with a grain of salt, then you will probably like Wilson, because the goofy and embarrassingly obvious moments of propaganda (and Wilson idolatry) are the movie's only major flaw.
What this movie has going for it is Henry King's direction, many very impressive big crowd scenes and great sets (where you can actually see the ceilings), Woodrow Wilsons somewhat tragic life story, and Alexander Knox who plays Wilson. Knox gives very endearing, powerful, and emotionally resonant performance. He makes Wilson a real character that comes through even the thick layers of propaganda. The rest of the cast is good as well (especially the women in his life), but it is Knox and King that carry the movie.
See it for Wilson's excruciatingly intense final political speech. It's forceful.
7 out of 10 (for great spectacle and emotional effectiveness).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Wilson was always known as a propaganda piece, not regarding World War
II, but about an otherwise excellent filmmaker's personal political
agenda. Only the second Democrat since the Civil War to be elected
president, Woodrew Wilson was a mess; definitely not deserving of a
respected place in history.
With the recent death of Senator Byrd (D) of West Virginia, it became kind of cute to wink at politicians who were in the Ku Klux Klan. Why? Because it's downright inconvenient to liberals to focus on their KKK members. Wilson's encouragement of the KKK was fully credible in light of his dark past, all but eradicated in most history books.
Wilson re-segregated the Navy, and quickly disposed of most Black employees of the government. Those who remained were sectioned off into separate buildings; if not separate office space. "Colored" rest rooms and drinking fountains were introduced in the federal workplace. If you doubt this, just Google something like "Woodrow Wilson Black Government Employees." I dare Liberals to check this, but bet 10 to 1 they won't.
Wilson was also a false image of a peacemaker. He used our armed forces liberally to fight our Latin American neighbors. And just who, by the way, would follow this man into the League of Nations -- considering his racial ideas were an open book in his lifetime, not the dark secret they've become via dishonest historical spin.
Before I really get into the meat of this film, specifically why I
wasn't impressed by it, I want to first mention what I liked about it.
It was a gorgeous movie to view. The film wasn't afraid to use lush
colors, especially in scenes in the White House's Blue Room. I also
liked the use of period newsreels juxtaposed with (then) current, black
and white footage of the actors. This movie was pleasing to the eye.
Unfortunately, it was not so pleasing to the ear and mind.
There's really not much to Wilson from an intellectual point of view. It gives a very school book depiction of the man as the Ivy League President turned United States President. You can tell they tried to humanize him by putting a great deal of emphasis on his relationship with his family (especially in the first half), but in general the 28th President came off as dull and overly pious. I applaud Alexander Knox's effort, but it came up short for the most part. In general, the depiction of the characters came off as two-dimensional, cliché and generally hokey.
When you factor that along with the overly sappy score consisting of "heavenly" choirs and slow, orchestral strains of patriotic tunes and terrible pacing (the movie was a little over two and a half hours, but it felt much longer), it's no wonder why it bombed at the box office. In an era when audiences had a much higher tolerance for over sentimentality, this one pushed it too far.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's interesting to read the reviews here of this film. For the most
part, either quite positive or quite negative. And I have to come down
on the negative side.
First, the film is so historically inaccurate. What else could it be when you include anything positive about the subject, but exclude anything negative about the subject. And with Wilson -- despite the fact that I'm a middle-of-the-road Democrat, there's a whole lot of rather unsavory racial issues and a sense that a president should be autocratic and above it all, that is left out of this film. There is no mention of his racial beliefs. There is no mention that he felt that his decisions were made through him by God. This is the sort of Wilson biography you might expect to read in an elementary school history book back in the 1950s...that all Presidents were good or even great.
And then there's the fact that the film is just playing boring...or should I say tedious? Perhaps the only parts that I truly enjoyed were the scenes at the convention. Not sure how accurate that was, but it was interesting to see how conventions might have been a hundred years ago. And what about his health? Throughout the film there is no mention of health issues, and then suddenly he's not supposed to go on his speaking tour because of his ill health. No groundwork had been laid for that.
Alexander Knox was a fine actor, but it seemed as if Hollywood never quite knew what to do with him. He does well here as Wilson. The film has a pretty good cast, but beyond Knox, on one has a particularly strong part. If I had been Thomas Mitchell or Charles Coburn, I would have been particularly disappointed in their weak parts here. Perhaps Geraldine Fitzgerald as the second Mrs. Wilson did deserve a mention.
Production standards were high, and it shows. Rather lavish. The award winning photography was hard to see in the version being shown on TCM...it really needs restoring of the clarity and crispness.
I'm glad I saw it, but I'll never watch it again.
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