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1944 marked the twentieth year of Woodrow Wilson's passing and in the middle of World War II, a war that engulfed the world and seemed so inextricably linked to World War I, it seemed fitting, even patriotic, to produce a film about the 28th president of the United States to boost morale and even give some needed background into the causes of the war. Wilson does fine boosting morale but doesn't bother with a lot of background. The film was a passion project for Darryl F. Zanuck, back from serving in the Army Signal Corp and eager to make a statement. His passion for the subject shines through.
Back in Hollywood's heyday, biographies of historical figures tended towards hagiography over "warts and all" expos and Wilson is no exception. Nowhere in the movie will the viewer find references to Wilson's implementation of segregation in the federal government where none existed or Wilson's attempt to get a provision for censoring the press included in the Espionage Act of 1917. After it was eliminated from the Act, Wilson complained, "Authority to exercise censorship over the press ... is absolutely necessary to the public safety." This is left out as is practically anything else that may paint Wilson in a lesser light. What's left in is a strong performance by Alexander Knox as the president and a sense of what America was fighting for in World War II. Viewed within that context, the film makes a lot more sense.
The movie isn't about Wilson so much as America, what it stands for and what it was fighting against. There isn't a better scene in the movie to illustrate this than one, late in the game, when Wilson is speaking with the German ambassador about U-boat warfare. The United States has a deal with Germany that U-boats will not indiscriminately torpedo American vessels and the ambassador is here to tell him that the deal no longer stands. Wilson goes into a tirade, displaying a passion the likes of which hasn't been seen from him throughout the movie. He yells at the ambassador about Germany, what they seem to stand for and what America will do in response. The problem is, none of what he says really applies to 1917 Germany. His references to the "greatest evil" ever perpetrated upon mankind, the necessity of the civilized world to extinguish such evil now and forever, is clearly aimed at Nazi Germany, not Kaiser Wilhelm's German-Prussian Empire. It's a fair bet that few people watching the film in 1944 were thinking very sympathetically towards Germany and didn't bother over such distinctions so why should the filmmakers?
As for the story of Wilson's life, it's told starting at Princeton, where Wilson was President just before politics pulled him out of academia and put him into the swamp. Wilson is visited by a group of New Jersey politicians eager to use Wilson's upstanding reputation and intellectual rigor to move the Democratic Party ahead. Charles Coburn as an early supporter is superb in his role. Wilson accepts and is elected governor in 1910 followed quickly by nomination with the Democratic Party for President of the United States.
The film quickly gets to Wilson's presidency not simply because there is so much to cover but because, in the end, it's the presidency that holds all the interest. And there truly is much to cover, both in politics and his personal life. Wilson's first wife, Ellen, died in the White House after a long illness, his daughter was married there and, finally, after meeting Edith Galt in 1914, he married her while in his first term. But while this is of great interest it is the war that consumes all.
For Wilson's first term, keeping America out of the war was the priority and the film makes it clear that it was this very thing that got Wilson re-elected. In a clever montage for the campaign of 1916, the director Henry King shows the other side complaining about the economy, then cuts to Wilson's campaign man before a crowd saying, "He kept us out of the war!" Back to the other side complaining about another problem and back to Wilson's side saying, "He kept us out of the war!" Two or three more times and the point is taken: The other side can complain all it wants about as many different things as it wants and all Wilson's side has to do is remind everyone that he kept them out of the war.
Until, of course, it makes sense to enter the war. Once the Germans double cross the President on their deal concerning U-boat warfare, the President realizes war is the only answer. It's a clever pivot the movie makes. It has the luxury of historical evidence to take the side of so many isolationists before World War II, show their side as a morally valid one and then, when the tables are turned, show the side of those who believed intervention was not only necessary but imperative and show their argument has the same moral strength. It's a convenience of history that allows Wilson to win over both sides of the argument and thus come off as patriotic and morale-boosting without seeming forced.
Henry King directs Wilson with a reverence for his subject matter and an eye towards the present day. The film is filled with great actors in small roles, from Charles Coburn and Thomas Mitchell to Cedric Hardwicke and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Even the great Vincent Price has a role in Wilson although one wishes he were used to greater effect. As for the lead, it was one of the only times in Alexander Knox's career that he got to play the lead and that he did so in a sprawling historical drama without losing the interest of the viewer is a testament to his skills as an actor and the film's general appeal, especially for the 1944 viewer, seeking inspiration and strength in the midst of one of the most dire periods in world history.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editor: Barbara McLean
Art Direction: James Basevi, Wiard Ihnen
Cast: Alexander Knox (Woodrow Wilson), Charles Coburn (Professor Henry Holmes), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Edith Bolling Galt), Thomas Mitchell (Joseph Tumulty), Ruth Nelson (Ellen Wilson), Cedric Hardwicke (Senator Henry Cabot Lodge), Vincent Price (William Gibbs McAdoo).
by Greg Ferrara