Directed by Henry King
Written by Lamar Trotti
Starring: Alexander Knox, Charles Coburn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Vincent Price, Thomas Mitchell
Trivia: President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill screened the film in 1944. FDR enjoyed it (he worked for the Wilson administration), but Churchill fell asleep.
Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States (1913-1921), got the full Hollywood treatment in the 1944 20th Century-Fox film Wilson. To date, it’s the only major movie made about one of the pivotal figures of the 20th Century. Wilson’s rise from college president to twice elected President remains one of the most remarkable political rises in American history. Wilson’s Progressive domestic legislation created the Federal Reserve, the income tax, and anti-trust legislation. Most notably he brought America into the First World War to “keep the world safe for democracy.”
Veteran character actor Alexander Knox played Wilson in a steady performance in one of his only starring roles. The film begins in 1909 when Wilson was President of Princeton University where he gained a reputation as an educational reformer. Wilson had written several books of history and political theory, to this day the only elected President with a PhD. Wilson will always be of interest to academics since he actually got to put theory into practice.
Wilson would go on to win the Presidency in 1912, defeating the sitting President William Howard Taft and the former President Theodore Roosevelt. His ambitious domestic programs would get overshadowed by the outbreak of The Great War and his efforts to keep America neutral. The film also covers the death of Wilson’s wife Ellen and his subsequent remarriage to Edith Galt, allowing the film to detour into melodrama.
Wilson won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “he kept us out of the war.” But a few months into his new term he asked Congress to declare war on Germany. In a dramatic speech before Congress Wilson framed the war as one to save democracy, an idea the film plays to the hilt. The second half portrays Wilson as a saintly martyr for the cause of world peace and democracy. In 1919 Wilson championed the League of Nations, but failed to secure America’s membership. During a nation wide speaking tour to promote the League of Nations he suffered a massive stroke, incapacitating him for the rest of his term. Interestingly the film strongly suggests Edith Wilson was the de facto president during his convalescence.
Wilson speaks more to the world of 1944 than today. With the Second World War still raging, Wilson’s idea of United Nations aligned with FDR’s post-war vision. Despite being a blatant hagiography, Wilson portrays a tumultuous time in American history rarely seen in movies. The production value and performances are worth watching, despite the occasional slow pacing.
Today President Wilson is also remembered for his racism. A Southerner by birth, Wilson restored segregation to Government offices and infamously dismissed an African-American delegation from the Oval Office for challenging his civil rights policies. In 2015 students at Princeton called for the removal of his name from all buildings on the campus he once brought to prominence (the board of trustees refused). There is a cringe worthy scene of Wilson interacting with his African-American butler in a patronizing way. And all the American soldiers in the film are white, despite the huge contribution of black soldiers to the war effort. We definitely need an updated film on Wilson’s legacy.
Wilson redefined America’s role in the world as a country committed to championing democratic values and self-determination. He stood as a marked contrast to Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin who wanted to create global chaos through class warfare.
Needless to say the current occupant of the White House could not be further from a Wilsonian. While Wilson’s racism should never be overlooked, his vision for America as a beacon of democracy can be a guiding light through these volatile times. The keyword in current discussions of Wilson is complicated, discussions of his legacy will not end anytime soon. Wilson speaks to 2017 in a dissonant way, an excellent way to begin a discussion.