Grant in Film
|The story of how Ulysses S. Grant has been depicted
in mass media is also a story about the nature and evolution of American
story-telling and popular memory since Grant's time. Print, photography,
drawing, painting, and sculpture were the eyewitness media of Grant's
day. Sound recording and motion pictures have proliferated since his
death, increasingly creating depictions from collective memory as
Grant's contemporaries passed from the scene.
One prevalent visage of Grant that took hold after his death is formidable and imposing. It includes the two most widely published images of Grant: the stylized portrait on the 50-dollar bill and the photo of the General leaning against a tree on the battlefield in 1864. These images depict a grizzled, hard-bitten human mountain, seemingly powerful enough to lend some sort of physical justification to a more abstract greatness.
|At the opposite pole, a more mercurial, but perhaps more accurate image has also survived. It is exemplified by the series of fascinating, candid shots on the pews outside Massaponax Church in June 1864. Here a slight, unassuming, and pensive Grant blends in, reads a map over General Meade's shoulder, and sits quietly in thought amid the blurred movement of horses, equipment, and men in the background. Most visual or physical depictions of Grant are somewhere between these two..|
|Many artists working after Grant's lifetime crafted
stylized images by drawing from the great number of photographs taken of
Grant as he aged. The physical, formidable visage of this pool of images
has become more popular than those of the slender, small-framed,
unassuming man who sat on the pews near Massaponax Church.
Grant was more a man of substance than of form — but of course, Hollywood and television are notorious for insight that is only skin deep. For the entertainment media, the course and rugged appearance in the most popular Grant images swelled into a caricature of coarseness in character. Missing from these images is the sensitive and reserved personality who shunned much of the behavior that defines the theatrical Grant persona. Mass media can entertain, exploit, and instruct with pervasive force. As the Grant Monument Association works toward a fair accounting of the memory and legacy of Grant, it is appropriate to describe and interpret how this great American has fared in mass media. This article, which originally appeared in Grant, the newsletter of the Grant Monument Association, takes a look at Grant in motion pictures.