THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY

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 shits 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!




Posted on April 15, 2011 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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8 Comments on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY"

  1. Arthur Ratnik on Fri, 15th Apr 2011 2:39 pm 

    I used to make my father take me to every Sunn Classic picture that came to town, they are the forerunners
    of all the YouTube conspiracy videos with ominous music.


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  2. Jeff O'Connell on Fri, 15th Apr 2011 6:57 pm 

    Hmmmm… It is most curious and a highly mysterious reason why this particular film review is being published online on the SAME day of the national premiere of ANOTHER film about the Lincoln Conspiracy…

    ..directed by a man who just HAPPENS to officiate a certain film festival that JUST HAPPENS to occur yearly in PARK CITY, UTAH.

    A film festival whose first name JUST HAPPENS to include the word….SUN.

    But what does one make of the missing “N?”

    Coincidence?

    OR CONSPIRACY?!?!?!

    LMAO!!! :-P

    (OK, I found this screwball cheapjack doc kinda amusing as well when I saw it on cable in the mid-80s!)

    BTW, SUNn is STILL in business (slightly reorganized, but with a conveniently conspiratorial pyramid for a log): http://www.sunnclassicpicturesinc.com/ Among their upcoming smash hit releases: “Pinocchio In The Hood,” and “Dorf: U.S.M.C.,” starring the immortal Tim Conway. Boffo B.O., I tells ya.


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  3. Jeff O'Connell on Fri, 15th Apr 2011 7:01 pm 

    Note: last paragraph written before noticing the 2004 FT “Sunn Pictures” article link. Oh well, can’t win ‘em at all. The Conspiracy never sleeps, even if Sunn apparently still is! :-)


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  4. Thomas E. Reed on Sat, 16th Apr 2011 2:13 am 

    As a TV engineer, I ran a lot of those Sunn Classic commercials. They “four-walled” the movies in Orlando, renting the theaters completely, and saturating the market with ads. Like a lot of exploitation film companies, Sunn tried to create urgency to see the film. Spots specifically mentioned “last showing this Sunday” – miss this film and you might never see it again!

    Another aspect of these films was that they were all conspicuously rated G. In a time when a film had to at least include some swear words to be interesting, the G rating was supposed to get Baptists and other conservative Christians flocking to their films – these were “good educational films,” not filthy-mouthed Hollywood obscenities produced by Jews.

    Apparently (and if you can correct me on this I would welcome it) Sunn Classic was absorbed by an outfit called Taft International Pictures. Their most infamous film was Harry’s War, in which Edward Herrmann’s aunt is harassed by the IRS until she dies – and his character goes to war against the IRS. I suspect this film is still being run at Teabagger events to prove the Evil of the Federal Government and the Trilateral Commission. The ads for Harry’s War were extremely similar to the ads for Sunn Classic films.


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  5. Steven Millan on Sat, 25th Jun 2011 2:24 pm 

    I always thought that Taft International Pictures’ most infamous film was THE BOOGENS,thir enrty into 80s horror that contained a lot of gore,cuss words,and some nudity.


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  6. Jerry Benya on Wed, 12th Oct 2011 7:35 pm 

    I remember seeing this movie as a kid. Infact, saw it a few times (since my father ran a movie theater). I have always, regardless of how rediculous the movie seems today, had many questions concerning Edwin Stanton. He butted heads with Lincoln on many occasions, including harshly the months leading to his death. His guarding the room, even from Mrs. Lincoln. Just crazy ideas, but Stanton just doesn’t sit well in any light. Plus those missing pages from Booth’s diary……


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  7. sarah on Wed, 14th Dec 2011 9:55 pm 

    is there another movie call the lincoln conspiracy that was made in 1974 or 1975


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  8. Brad Jeffers on Sat, 9th Jun 2012 5:09 am 

    I was an extra in this movie, playing a Union soldier. I still have a button I took off the uniform, as a souviner. I was paid $25 and lunch. The boots that they had me wear were brown, but painted black on the part that would show. They had both “real” rifles and rubber rifles. If you were to be seen close up you got a “real” one. If not, you got a rubber one. Art Fleming, the original host of Jeopardy, was the producer.
    I have never seen this movie. I will look for it on youtube. Prehaps I will see myself. I believe there is a good chance of this, as I was not armed with a rubber gun.


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