BOOTLEG FILES 371: “The Lincoln Conspiracy” (1977 Sunn Classic Pictures production that seriously rewrites Civil War history).
LAST SEEN: The entire film can be seen on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: As a VHS title on the VidAmerica label.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Out of circulation for many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, that would be sublime!
One of the great pleasures in being a kid during the 1970s was experiencing the theatrical release of the wacky movies from Sunn Classic Pictures. This little Utah-based company, which sometimes went by the name Schick Sunn Classics, specialized in creating noisy and bizarre documentaries that sought to uncover conspiracies relating to UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, cryptozoology and Biblical mysteries. Admittedly, the Sunn Classic Pictures releases were lacking in basic coherence, and the films never quite succeeded in overturning long-standing considerations regarding alien visits or elusive Sasquatch populations. Nonetheless, they were a lot of fun to experience on the big screen.
Actually, the real fun relating to the company’s films took place off screen: each production would be heavily promoted with breathless TV advertising that afforded the release an exaggerated sense of importance. Paperback books were simultaneously distributed, thus offering a literary reminder of the wild theories that were presented in cinemas. And when it appeared that theaters were not interested in showing movies about the Bermuda Triangle or the search for Noah’s Ark, Sunn Classic Pictures four-walled venues in key markets. This enabled the company to reach the allegedly intellectual urban moviegoers as well as the less demanding hicks in the sticks.
Perhaps the most ambitious Sunn Classic Pictures release was a 1977 offering called “The Lincoln Conspiracy.” The film was highly unusual in its attempt to rewrite the basic facts of Civil War-era history, particularly in regard to the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Why did a company that was obsessed with UFOs decided to reconfigure the most famous murder of the 19th century?
In a May 1977 interview with the Associated Press, David Balsiger, the company’s director of creative development, revealed that Sunn Classic Pictures conducted market research in four major cities, with the hope of finding what subject matter would excite moviegoers. One of the subjects up for consideration was the notion of a conspiracy surrounding Lincoln’s death.
“To our surprise,” Balsiger recalled, “there was a large amount of interest in the subject.” In retrospect, it should not have been a surprise – lingering doubts over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and outrage over the Watergate scandal had soured many Americans on the notion that the federal government was an honest entity. “The Lincoln Conspiracy,” despite its roots in 1865, was the right project to appeal to a paranoid and skeptical American public in the mid-1970s.
Balsiger and a staff of eight researchers pored over numerous historic documents to find any discrepancies in the oft-told tale of Lincoln’s death. The theories of two long-forgotten conspiracy historians – Finis L. Bates (who insisted that John Wilkes Booth escaped capture) and Otto Eisenschiml (who blamed Lincoln’s death on a cabal of corrupt Republican politicians and New York financiers) – were dusted off. Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier Jr. created a book called “The Lincoln Conspiracy” that mixed the hoary old conspiracies with well-documented aspects of Lincoln’s death (especially the egregious circumstances surrounding the trial of eight accused co-conspirators). The resulting text was a bewildering but entertaining journey into alternative history.
The film version of “The Lincoln Conspiracy,” however, was somewhat less successful in getting its point across. Part of the problem was the distraction of the film’s painfully obvious low budget: the costumes and set design had a ratty sense of cheapness, and the make-up (particularly the walrus-style mustache favored by Bradford Dillman’s John Wilkes Booth and the bushy beard of Robert Middleton’s Edwin M. Stanton) was often amateurish.
It also did not help that the film had an overbearing narration that harshly explained every thought, action and deed being presented on screen. Rather than trust the material to unfold naturally, director James L. Conway had the narrator spell out everything on the screen – as if the audience was too dumb to figure out what was taking place.
Also missing from the film was the emotional core that drove the alleged conspiracy. The film gave a shallow overview of Lincoln’s proposed post-Civil War policies to the former Confederate States and the outrage expressed by his fellow Republicans and the business community. It was no secret that Lincoln favored a lenient reconciliation with the former rebel states, while most Republicans and corporate leaders wanted to politically and financially punish the South for its actions. The film, however, states that Stanton and his allies plotted to kidnap Lincoln in order to dissuade him from his plans, but Booth (who initially had the same idea) took it upon himself to kill the president while the federal hierarchy allowed him to flee.
Alas, “The Lincoln Conspiracy” reduces the complexities of this theory to the simplicity of a sawdust melodrama, complete with sneering villains who do everything except twirl their mustaches while hatching wild plots. It is a Cliff Notes version of history that offers actions without motives, coupled with heavy doses of Wikipedia-style inaccuracies.
And yet, “The Lincoln Conspiracy” is a weirdly fun diversion. It offers a deranged game of “what if” that dares to consider an intriguing spin on well-known stories. The film’s version of the fate of John Wilkes Booth is especially fascinating – in this version, a former Confederate officer named James William Boyd was accidentally shot and killed by Union troops seeking Booth, and the premature announcement of Booth’s death prevents an embarrassed federal hierarchy from acknowledging the truth. Although the Balsiger-Sellier book went into greater depth on Booth’s alleged escape, the film version is genuinely creepy in the scenes when it becomes obvious that Boyd is being placed in Booth’s coffin while the real killer vanishes into oblivion.
(In reality, the mystery of Boyd is disturbing: after winning his release as a prisoner of war in April 1865, he contacted his son in Tennessee to announce that he was leaving the U.S. to start a new life in Mexico. Boyd asked his son to meet him in Brownsville, Texas, so they could make the journey together. The younger Boyd came to Texas, but his father never showed up and was never heard from again.)
“The Lincoln Conspiracy” was a commercially successful Sunn Classic Pictures release, even though no Lincoln historian would take it seriously. It is still viewed with scorn – Edward Steers, author of “The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia,” casually dismisses the film as “historical fiction” while Mark S. Reinhart, author of “Abraham Lincoln On Screen,” slams it as “dreadful, historically misleading” and presenting “the worst historical abuses ever perpetrated in a Lincoln-related motion picture.”
“The Lincoln Conspiracy” turned up on VHS video from the VidAmerica label, but it was never released on DVD. Bootlegs taken from the pan-and-scan VidAmerica release have proliferated for some time, and the full film (albeit in a somewhat faded print) can be seen on YouTube.
Will “The Lincoln Conspiracy” sell you on the odd theories that it presents? Probably not. But as a jolly spin into bizarre conspiracies, it is a great old-fashioned guilty pleasure. But don’t be surprised if you hear a strange whirring noise while watching a bootleg copy of the film – it is simply Abe Lincoln spinning in his tomb.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!