You’d think being president of the United States would be a dramatic enough occupation, but no. Being leader of the free world is isn’t exactly a low-stakes assignment, but in the dream-life of our movies, we also need our presidents to be two-fisted action heroes.
Exhibit A: This weekend’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which imagines the Railsplitter splitting open the heads of undead bloodsuckers with an ax. Its star, Benjamin Walker, has already made a career out of playing bare-knuckled presidents, starting with his lead role in the Broadway rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” In his comedy act, he’s joked that he’s been offered such projects as an erotic thriller inspired by the adulterous Warren G. Harding and “James Buchanan: Mars Patrol.”
If that’s not enough, coming up this September is “FDR: American Badass!” The low-budget, tongue-in-cheek feature stars Barry Bostwick as the wartime leader, who, despite his polio, manages to slay werewolves while seated in a wheelchair pimped out with wheel-mounted machine guns.
And it’s not just movies and plays. There’s also artist Jason Heuser’s set of prints and parody film posters depicting several presidents as muscular fantasy heroes. There’s a Walker-esque Lincoln wielding a machine gun and riding a grizzly bear, another Lincoln as a Keanu Reeves-like “Matrix” hero, a zombie-hunting George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt fighting Bigfoot, John F. Kennedy hunting aliens while astride a mechanical unicorn galloping on the moon, Thomas Jefferson fighting gorillas in the jungle, and Franklin D. Roosevelt turning his wheelchair into a Transformer-like armored robot, in an imaginary movie called “FDR: Battle for America” (tagline: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Offering You a New Deal You Can’t Refuse”).
Of course, the trend isn’t entirely new. We’ve long made our presidents into action movie heroes — think of Charlton Heston as the young Jackson in 1958’s “The Buccaneer” or Cliff Robertson recreating JFK’s World War II exploits in “PT-109” (1963). We’ve even invented fictional presidents who are macho warriors, like Harrison Ford’s terrorist-punching prez in “Air Force One” (1997), or Bill Pullman’s alien-hunting fighter-pilot in “Independence Day” (1996). Sometimes, art even spills back into real-life, as with former National Guard pilot George W. Bush donning a flight suit and striking a Pullman-esque pose for his “Mission Accomplished” photo op in 2003. Even presidents themselves, then, are susceptible to our need to make the office-holders seem larger than life.
Where does that need come from? In part, it’s that we’re a young, manufactured country with no organic mythology, so we have to invent one. As the makers of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” have noted in interviews, Lincoln’s actual biography (rising from nowhere to save the Union) reads like a superhero origin story. Other presidents, from George Washington to George H.W. Bush, really were war heroes whose actual combat valor was part of their personal mythology.
Still, we’ve seen the trend accelerate in the last few years. Most likely, that’s because, over the past two decades, we’ve had presidents who were perceived as young and vigorous, with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama representing a new generation of leaders born after World War II. So it’s no wonder that their presidencies would inspire macho fantasies. (All three recent presidents are younger than Harrison Ford was in 1997.)
More cynically, political gridlock makes us yearn for a hero who can break through the stalemate and get things done. We all sometimes think of the president, whoever is in office, as an ineffectual figurehead who’s not doing enough to advance our own personal policy platforms, so we fantasize about someone who’s more hands-on and take-charge.
If that’s so, then presidents should beware. The public that lionizes you one day and can turn on you the next. It’s the flip side of the same coin that presidents who are regarded as larger-than-life heroes can also become larger-than-life monsters. Just check out the Heroes in Action line of presidential monster action figures. Abraham Lincoln becomes Lincolnstein, Ronald Reagan is a mummy, JFK is Phantom of the White House, Richard Nixon is the Monster from the Watergate Lagoon, Bill Clinton is a werewolf, George W. Bush is a zombie, and Obama is the vampire Baracula.
We haven’t seen any films about presidents as horror movie monsters yet. But give it time.