In his 1943 keynote address to the Writer’s Congress, 2oth Century-Fox movie mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck called upon Hollywood’s wordsmiths “to lead the way. If you have something worthwhile to say, then dress it in the glittering robes of entertainment. Without them, no propaganda film is worth a dime! Is it possible to make pictures which have purpose and significance, and yet, show a proper return at the box office? I believe – it is. I believe the answer is entertainment!”
Zanuck, a writer a heart and always ten steps ahead in what he fervently believed was Hollywood’s role in the reeducation of America’s public agenda, would provide proof of the efficiency in this model with Henry King’s Wilson (1944); a superior semi-biographical account of the presidency of Woodrow Wilson that, sadly, failed to catch the zeitgeist and inspiration of the American people. The most expensive picture to be made in Hollywood since Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (and for some time thereafter), and – at 153 minutes, one of the longest – Wilson would be a testament to the glories and goodness of a great nation-building humanitarian; re-imagining the president’s salient character against his own formidable brand of internationalism, and, with an uncommon dignity and remarkable percipience into the times in which he lived and governed.
Although the enterprise was essentially ‘sound’ (at least, on paper) – Zanuck spent profligately to ensure every inch of his personally supervised production looked the part (his White House recreations are among the finest ever brought to the screen). Yet, the ambition behind Wilson seemed grotesquely flawed to nearly everyone except Zanuck, who compounded his commitments on the picture by issuing the following statement to the press. “I am gambling $3 million in an effort to prove that audiences are ready to accept something more than straightforward entertainment. I am making one mighty bid to try and open the floodgates of production toward the making of entertaining films that are enlightening as well.”
Screenwriter, Lamarr Trotti assumed an intimidating responsibility in reconstituting the facts of Woodrow Wilson’s life and times. His finished script is, quite frankly, a miracle of narrative concision. Not only do we get a semi-accurate account of Wilson’s eight years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but a preamble from his days as President of Princeton University. In keeping with Zanuck’s edicts to remain focused on the deification of the man, Wilson – the movie – omits the president’s counter-intuitive track record for military interventions in Latin America, Panama and Haiti. Zanuck’s Wilson is a dyed in the wool isolationist, reticent to plunge his country into any war. We also lose Wilson’s racist viewpoint as a Southerner and committed segregationist.
Before embarking further in this review, I suppose it would be prudent to share my own thoughts on the Hollywood biopic. I have a certain affinity for fictionalized movie biographies – done right, of course. For if one can set aside contemporary prejudices requiring absolute adherence to the historical record, then there is a far richer verisimilitude to be mined from the experience and infinitely more rewarding ‘as entertainment’. One cannot expect biopics to evolve and/or critique the historical record as – say – a documentary on the same subject might (and, in fact, should). After all, historians continue to debate moral/political ambiguities long after any era has passed; often with their own biases and prejudgments inflicted on the historical record. Wilson is therefore not a soul-searching exercise; not a movie about the facts of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency or even the man himself; but rather a grand and glowing snapshot of the essence of both and the impact each had on America’s socio-political fabric; something of a gushing epitaph to one man, made by another who clearly holds his subject in incredibly high esteem. On that score, Zanuck’s Wilson is a masterpiece, supremely satisfying in ways history can only guess at, much less capture without the embellishments of a skilled Hollywood wordsmith in the driver’s seat.
Research on the film was prodigious. Zanuck had personally supervised and/or produced a good many movies at Fox, giving more than his seal of approval and his name above their title, but never with as much daily interventions on the set as on Wilson; instructing art directors, James Basevi and Wiard Ihnen to spend whatever was necessary to resurrect this period of brash American optimism preceding the First World War. To helm such a gargantuan production, Zanuck turned to Alexander Knox; a little-known Scottish actor who, despite obvious physical discrepancies with his alter ego, nevertheless managed to convey the essential qualities and overall tenor of the 28th president with pronounced spirit and sincerity. The movie’s strength is derived from Knox’s central performance, imbued with an inner forcefulness, intelligence and morality, graded with translucent reserve. When Knox is given one of the president’s speeches to grapple with, his delivery is marked by a distinct cadence of authenticity; this figurehead of American might and determination, humanized through Knox’s impressive ability to ring truer a singular note of benevolence as the patriarch of a great nation. When Lamar Trotti’s prose takes over, Knox becomes the embodiment of the affable family man; unerringly devoted to his two wives and three daughters.
Wilson is an impressive production to say the least, Zanuck’s verve to revive this bygone era reflected in his superb casting of the picture with iconic actors in support. The rest of the cast are all quite good; particularly Ruth Nelson, (as the first Mrs. Wilson, a very tender and devoted wife and mother), Geraldine Fitzgerald (the ever-devoted second Mrs. Wilson - nee Edith Bolling Galt, a socialite with a heart); Thomas Mitchell (the president’s fiery private secretary, Joseph Tumulty) and Marcel Dalio (as France’s wily diplomatist, Premier, Georges Clemenceau). But the film is also somewhat uneconomical wasting of such fine actors as Thurston Hall (as Senator Edward H. 'Big Ed' Jones), Vincent Price (William Gibbs McAdoo), and Charles Colburn (Professor Henry Holmes); all appearing in much too disposable cameos. Clearly, Zanuck was taking no chances on Wilson. Even the cameos are padded with exemplary talents who could do so much more with far less.
Our story begins in 1909, Woodrow, his first wife, Ellen and their three daughters, Eleanor (Mary Anderson), Margaret (Ruth Ford) and Jessie (Madeleine Forbes) attending the homecoming football game at Princeton University. George Felton (William Eythe) is the star athlete for the home team. However, his disappointing performance on the field is met with a gentle hand and words of humility and encouragement by Woodrow after the game. That evening, as the family gathers around the fire, they are visited by Democratic bosses, Edward Sullivan (J.M. Kerrigan) and Senator Edward. H. Jones. The pair placates Wilson with high praise for his stance against special privileges. Moreover, they want him to run for governor of New Jersey. Wilson is reticent to accept, deferring to Ellen and his daughters who are overwhelmingly in support of the plan.
However, at the New Jersey Democratic Convention, Wilson’s integrity is challenged by Joseph Tumulty, a stanch critic of the state’s corrupt political machinery. Exercising his own moral convictions, Wilson coerces Jones, who is also in attendance, into a promise not to run again. He also hires Tumulty as his private secretary. It is the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Winning the election by a landslide, Wilson is soon outraged to learn Jones has already begun his re-election bid. In response, Wilson stages a successful campaign to quash Jones’ chances. These early scenes are integral in establishing Wilson’s own political/moral integrity; also, in affording Alexander Knox the opportunity to excel at creating the Hollywood-ized public persona of Wilson – the man, yet unfettered by all the speech-making prowess to follow once Lamar Trotti’s screenplay inevitably segues into its second and third acts, book-ended by the presidency and a more stringent adherence to the historical record.
As the 1912 presidential election approaches, Wilson’s candidacy is popularized across the country and his name selected along with two others for the nomination. After the convention deadlocks, Wilson is rewarded with the nomination, campaigning for equal opportunity against the privileges of big business. He easily defeats Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft and the independent, Teddy Roosevelt. Now, the movie segues into Zanuck’s meticulously researched recreations of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and Wilson’s arrival in Washington. Although much of Wilson was photographed by Leon Shamroy, Ernest Palmer is responsible for this sequence; using low angles to show off the finely detailed cornices and coves and matte paintings subbing in for actual ceilings; each room softly lit with handsomely diffused sunlight filtering past the window sills; the camera taking its time to meander with the Wilson clan through the upstairs family quarters, with particular attention paid to the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
It’s a beautifully orchestrated sequence, followed by a montage to expedite the sweeping legislation Wilson is able to pass within his first ninety days; the Anti-Trust and Federal Reserve Bank acts; also, the Federal Trade Commission. Buoyed by his mandate, and unwilling to bend against the principles on which he was elected, Wilson’s resolve is pressed into service by rancorous Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Cedric Hardwicke). Affairs of state are interrupted when Ellen Wilson suddenly falls ill, afflicted with Bright’s disease. During these trying times Wilson is inconsolable. Ellen’s death on Aug. 6, 1914 comes as Germany is beefing up its military might, launching a series of submarine attacks, culminating with the sinking of the Lusitania.
Congress clamors for war. Sensing the American people are not yet ready for the conflict, Wilson delays; his opponents seizing on his decision to suggest it as a form of inherent weakness and promoting the rumor Wilson is ineffectual and misguided as a leader. Nevertheless, Wilson’s quest for peace on peaceful terms of negotiation is persuasive enough to get Germany to temporarily cease its submarine warfare. Henry Cabot Lodge and his cronies are incensed by the press’ renewed adoration for the president; also more than a little chagrined their propaganda has backfired. More than ever the public rally to Wilson’s side, hopeful to keep the nation from getting involved in the European conflict.
A year passes uneventfully. Wilson becomes reacquainted with Edith Bolling Galt, a distant cousin and newly widowed. The family is astonished when a polite joke told by Edith stirs the more recently grim Wilson to good humor; something he has not been able to experience since Ellen’s untimely passing. Not long afterward, Wilson and Edith take a stroll along the White House balcony in the moonlight. He makes an impromptu proposal of marriage, citing her charm and grace as reasons which have resurrected his hopes for the future. She agrees there is more than a benign friendship between them, but declines to marry him at once. Alas, Henry Cabot Lodge and his cronies take umbrage to Edith’s presence in the White House, insinuating an illicit affair to help sway popular opinion.
Wilson is incensed by these rumors, as is Edith, who realizes the only way she can quash them now is to accept the president’s proposal of marriage. It is all kept top secret, even to the White House Press Corps until after the quiet ceremony has already occurred. In the meantime, Wilson prepares for a gala at the White House, the momentum of his new marriage interrupted by his second election in 1916, narrowly beating out Charles Evans Hughes, despite the fact the New York Times have prematurely declared Hughes the winner. The Californian electoral votes push Wilson over the top, much to Cabot Lodge’s chagrin and renewed frustrations. Wilson, however, has bigger fish to fry.
When the German Ambassador, Count Von Bernstorff (Tonio Selwart) informs Wilson Germany has every intension of reinstating its submarine warfare, the president breaks into a tirade. Whether real or wholly imaged by Trotti’s gifts as a screenwriter, this diatribe, immaculately infused with ample portions of flag-waving patriotism by Alexander Knox is both relevant to Wilson’s own time and the then present circumstances of the Second World War, with only the slightest alteration made – from Kaiser to Hitler. It is also, arguably, the first moment where we see Wilson’s relatively mild-mannered intellectualism give way to genuine passion and fury.
“For more than two years this government has exercised every restraint to remain neutral…but you and your military masters are determined to deny us that right. Everywhere we turn, we run into a blank wall of German cruelty and stupidity. Every time we think we’ve escaped, you blindly and deliberately block us with some new outrage. Won’t you Germans ever be civilized? Won’t you ever learn to keep your word? Or to regard other peoples as men, women and children…and not as inferiors to be treated as you see fit; all in the name of your discredited German culture of race superiority…Is your Kaiser so contemptuous of American military prowess? Does he think we are so weak and disunited just because we prefer peace to war that we will not fight in any circumstances? Or is he so drunk with power that he cannot understand such action will unite this nation as never before in its history…and that he has made it clear that this is, at last, a fight for truth and decency against the most evil and autocratic power this world has ever seen?”
Forced into an impossible scenario, Wilson’s subsequent declaration of war is greeted with an outpouring of support in Congress. At a railway station, Wilson and Edith attend a gathering of soldiers waiting to be shipped out – who are frankly baffled and amused to have met their President and First Lady in the flesh, serving them with ‘victory’ coffee and donuts. It’s a moment wholly contrived by Zanuck and Trotti in their brilliant attempt to personalize the plight and commitment of the every man, dedicating himself to the war effort, their sacrifices on Wilson’s behalf paralleling the strength of conviction of then current U.S. president, Franklin Roosevelt and his now legendary fireside chats. There is little to deny that in Zanuck’s zealousness to resurrect the stature of Woodrow Wilson he has created a decidedly and occasionally fanciful disconnect between the reality of the man and his own investment in the film as pure art. And yet, Zanuck has been clever and careful enough not to overly sentimentalize either. And Alexander Knox is very much less of a mime and more of the man himself, doling out sage advice and benevolence, miraculously honing his particular brand of diplomacy into the fine art of political negotiation.
If Wilson does have a flaw, it is the rather heavy-handed way its’ thus far carefully constructed narrative seems to momentarily derail into a series of testimonials and speeches; some more potently handled than others. A montage of actual B&W clips excised from Fox news reels of this period is interpolated with various Technicolor snippets expressly orchestrated for the movie: a rather beefy songstress warbling popular wartime hymns, ballads and rebel-rousing songs, employed as a connecting device. Perhaps increasingly conscious of the epic length of his storytelling, Zanuck truncates Wilson’s last act – severely - the movie expediting the complications of war in favor of some fairly lengthy addresses, beginning with Wilson’s declaration of war to Congress The speech itself is inspirational, but it brings Trotti’s subtly nuanced and seamless construction to an abrupt – if patriotic – halt: Wilson, on the podium declaring:
“With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragic character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, I advise that the congress declare the recent course of the imperial German government to be, in fact, nothing less that war against the people and government of the United States and that it formally accept the state of belligerency which has just been thrust upon it. In so doing, let us make clear to all the world what our motive and objects are. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest. No dominion. No material compensations for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights are made secure. It is a fearful thing to lead this peaceful people into war.
We shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts: for democracy: for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government: for the rights and liberties of small nations: for a universal dominion of right. By such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes. Everything we are and everything that we have. With the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.”
In the midst of turmoil, Wilson outlines his ‘fourteen point’ proposal for world peace; its’ centerpiece, the League of Nations. As U.S. casualties mount, Tumulty delivers news by telegram that Germany has accepted Wilson’s terms, formally surrendering on November 11, 1918. Against the advice of his cabinet, Wilson attends the conference in Paris; negotiating with France’s Premier Georges Clemenceau, King George of England and Italy’s Prime Minister, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (Antonio Filauri). Alas, Wilson’s great success at diplomacy abroad does not extend to his own backyard; Cabot Lodge, along with thirty-seven senators, opposing the League and its ratification as part of the Versailles Peace Treaty. Forced to defend his plan at home, Wilson launches into an aggressive cross-country goodwill tour. Despite his ailing health, he makes almost forty stops and seventy appeals for the preservation of the League’s ideals; the toll eventually resulting in a complete collapse from exhaustion in Pueblo, Colorado and shortly thereafter, a debilitating stroke paralyzing his left side.
Edith is called upon to act as the president’s buffer. Her efforts are briefly skipped over; perhaps Trotti and Zanuck already painfully aware their opus magnum has outlasted the audience’s patience. Wilson’s last act is a rush job at best. The Democrats nominate Governor James M. Cox to run against Warren Harding; an outspoken opponent of the League of Nations. Harding’s overwhelming landslide victory signals a change in the times: also the end of Wilson’s dream for securing world peace. Hardly embittered, though enfeebled, Wilson bids a tender farewell to his cabinet. “I am not one of those who have even the slightest anxiety about the eventual triumph of the things I’ve stood for. The fight’s just begun. You and I may not live to see it but that doesn’t matter. The ideals of the League are not dead just because a few obstructive men, now in the saddle, say they are. The dream of a world united against the awful wastes of war is too deeply imbedded in the hearts of men everywhere. And I’ll even make this concession to providence. It may come about in a better way than we proposed.”
Wilson remains an engrossing, rich and fairly rigorous account of the high points of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency; the consolidation of nearly eight years of diplomacy and heartache into a little over three hours, impressively mounted to say the least. If the film lacks humor and understanding, neither Alexander Knox’s performance, nor Zanuck’s ambition to rearrange history can rightfully be blamed. While critical reception to Wilson was praise-worthy for the most part, the public failed to find reasons to attend. Lamar Trotti’s broad canvas paints a glowing portrait of Wilson – the man – to be sure, with occasional vignettes as a husband and father sandwiched between more lavishly appointed scenes dedicated to the progression of world events and Wilson’s own political ambitions. It is a tasteful representation, if, at times, veering wildly from the truth.Either from necessity for narrative concision or perhaps, Zanuck’s verve to deify this man he so obviously feels a kinship toward, and for better or worse, Wilson makes several glaring omissions to the historical record. Otherwise, the picture’s general construction is undeniably proficient in every way. Cribbing heavily from the music of this period, time-honored hymns extolling the virtues of American patriotism, Alfred Newman’s superb underscore elevates Trotti’s prose to another level of melodrama entirely, as does Leon Shamroy and Ernest Palmer’s superior use of Technicolor, adding mood, flavor and that zest for visual opulence for which, undoubtedly, Zanuck has partly angled his dreams of success for the picture.
Better still, is Alexander Knox heartfelt and sincere performance as the man of the hour; effortlessly graduating from pragmatic college president to intellectually stimulated politico and, finally, visionary idealist; the architect of a tenuous détente for the nations of the world. Thriving in the cutthroat political arena, even rising above the fray to look after the interests of the average American, gave the real Woodrow Wilson rare insight into the machinery of government. Zanuck’s Wilson merely vacillates in the machinations of an obstinate fanatic. Yet, at the height of another world war, Zanuck’s Wilson harks back to the stymied political ambition of this elder statesman – qualified, ethical and nobler than most in his unaffected pursuit of humanity’s self-preservation. Alas, then as now, audiences prefer men of action to those of conscience. Wilson’s spectacular implosion at the box office is rumored to have caused Zanuck to decree no one at the studio ever speak of it again. And yet, for the rest of his life, Zanuck regarded Wilson with a personal affection as the one film nearest his own heart.
Perplexedly, Wilson is a movie impossible to digest at intervals. Leaving the theater for a bathroom break, pausing the video at home, or, observing it incrementally with commercial interruptions via standard television broadcasts all but destroys both its continuity and its striking emotional impact. Yet, taken in one fell swoop inside a darkened room, one is apt to be overwhelmed by the magnitude, scope and content in this production. Wilson is a great film, superbly cobbled together from the historical record and Zanuck’s impassioned covet to make a supremely fine testament about his hero. Radiating ample portions of wisdom and ethics, Wilson does not so much invent its moments of scrupulousness as it finds the estimable and splendid qualities in its subject, ably bringing these characteristics to light. The balancing act is, in no small part, an authentication of Zanuck, Trotti, editor, Barbara McLean and director, Henry King’s efforts; each contributing to the story’s incalculable entertainment value. Considering the ambition and enormity of its exposition, Wilson rarely devolves into a weighty invective. Pictorially, it is practically peerless; James Basevi and Wiard Ihnen set design, seamlessly married to evocative matte paintings and endless gatherings of real live people for the staggeringly impressive ‘crowd scenes’. In the final analysis, Wilson is a tragically underrated masterpiece. Its’ failure at the box office deeply wounded Zanuck. But the film is purely his vision and unequivocally one of his enduring works of genius.
Alas, I cannot say the same of Fox’s Cinema Archive incarnation. If there was any artistic justice in the world today, then Wilson would already have made the necessary leap to hi-def Blu-ray. In my review of another MOD-DVD Fox masterpiece, Forever Amber I complained about the studio’s short shrift of its classic catalog. But in viewing Wilson even Forever Amber’s thoroughly lackluster transfer seems more like an ephemeral miracle of loveliness. What on earth?!? Wilson’s DVD transfer is so hopeless marred by atrociously substandard elements the movie is virtually un-watchable for most of its run time. Where to begin? First, overall color fidelity. This transfer has none. From shot to shot the Technicolor veers wildly from marginally accurate and/or acceptable to woefully under-exposed and severely faded. Next, to contrast levels: these are anemic in the extreme and at best. Third: a barrage of age-related artifacts chronically plagues every inch of this presentation. At times, they grossly distract. Last, but certainly not least; I will expose this transfer for what it is: a careworn NTSC scan, derived from a very old VHS master with excessive amounts of video-based noise wreaking havoc on virtually any and all fine details inherent in the visuals. Wilson on Fox’s MOD DVD looks about as far removed from its original theatrical release as it can. The audio is mono and passable without ever distinguishing itself as anything but present and accounted for.
I would not have expected such an abomination from a fly-by-night bootleg operation, much less one of the cornerstone studios of old-time and present-day Hollywood. What could the powers that be, be thinking in giving us this disc – a Frisbee by any measure of quality and one for which I am quite certain NO standards of quality were ever applied! As a biopic, I would sincerely recommend Wilson as one of the all-time greats. It deserves a Blu-ray release via Criterion or Twilight Time. But as a DVD I can only say ‘don’t waste your money or your time on this one!’ Wilson on MOD-DVD is undeserving of both! Very sincere regrets!!!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)