The film is basically a Cliff's Notes version of Lincoln's life, starting out with his birth in 1809 and attempting to cram his whole life story into 94 minutes. Highlights include Lincoln's doomed romance with Ann Rutledge, his courtship and marriage with a rather self-involved Mary Todd, and Lincoln's determination to save the Union. There's also a bit of unpleasantness at Ford's Theatre.
Abraham Lincoln, Griffith's first talkie, got good reviews but didn't do very well at the box office, becoming yet another in Griffith's decade-long string of flops. Griffith directed only one more film before his career came to an end. It was one of Walter Huston's first starring roles; Huston would go on to a very successful career as a leading man. Huston's own rather reedy voice is a pretty good fit for Lincoln, and recalls the voice Daniel Day-Lewis adopted when he played the 16th President in Lincoln over eight decades later.
- Artistic License History: Filled to the brim, so much that this film verges on Very Loosely Based on a True Story.
- Historians still aren't sure just how serious Lincoln's thing with Ann Rutledge was, but he probably didn't collapse on her grave during a thunderstorm.
- Lincoln is portrayed as being shocked when the Republican Party nominates him in 1860. In Real Life, Lincoln wanted to be president really bad, and he had a whole team of people working to make it happen at the 1860 convention.
- The film conflates the Confederate raid on the outskirts of Washington in July of 1864 with the battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864 (the latter being the one in which Phil Sheridan rode through and rallied his panicked troops.)
- Most egregiously, the film has Lincoln deliver a speech at Ford's Theatre, namely, a mashup of the Gettysburg Address and and Second Inaugural Address.
- Given who made the movie (D. W. Griffith, who infamously directed The Birth of a Nation), it should not surprise that it sits somewhere between "Lost Cause" and "Dunning School" on the historic mythmaking-scale.
- As You Know: Lots of this. In one scene a man who meets Lincoln on the road asks Lincoln who he is, confirms for no particular reason everything Lincoln's done over the last several years, and then confiscates Lincoln's horse for debt.
- Biopic: Falls victim to the biopic problem of trying to stuff too much into a film, and coming off more like an encyclopedia article than a dramatic narrative. Blink and you'll miss the Emancipation Proclamation scene.
- Blackface: Quite obviously used with the slave who brings white Virginians the news of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.
- Bookends: The tracking shot to the log cabin that is used at the beginning of the film is shown again right at the end, before the final zoom to the Lincoln Memorial.
- Casting Gag: The colonel serving as an aide to Robert E. Lee is Henry B. Walthall, who starred in Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, where his character served as a colonel in the Confederate army.
- Defeat Means Friendship: Local tough guy and bully Jack Armstrong challenges Lincoln to a wrestling match. After Lincoln wins, they are best friends.
- Determinator: Lincoln will save the Union.
- Genius Bruiser: He's the best wrestler in Illinois and he can drink whiskey by lifting a barrel to drink from the tap.
- Happiness in Slavery: The black slaves who are dancing as their masters go off to fight for the Confederacy certainly seem to be this.
- Heroic BSoD: Lincoln shuts down for several days after Ann Rutledge dies, going catatonic, eventually running out to fall down over her grave during a thunderstorm.
- Intro DumpSome guy: Who is that?
Some other guy: That's the actor John Wilkes Booth. He can't act, but the women don't know it!
- It's All About Me: Mary Lincoln is pretty self-centered. When the news of a crushing defeat at Bull Run raises the possibility that the federal government might have to get the hell out of Washington before the Confederates show up, Mary complains that she's just unpacked.
- It Will Never Catch On: One of Lincoln's cousins sees newborn Abe and says "Shucks, he'll never amount to nothin', no how!"
- Let Me Tell You a Story: Abraham Lincoln did this a lot in Real Life. In the movie, Lincoln uses his little comic stories to ask Ann Rutledge to marry him and to suggest that Jefferson Davis be allowed to escape.
- A Minor Kidroduction: Lincoln's birth in a log cabin is shown.
- Mirroring Factions: The film starts by setting the scene at the time of Lincoln's birth. A bunch of Virginians are complaining about the Northern states and talking about how they should secede. They look at a picture of Washington on the wall and tell each other that Washington was the only man who could keep the Union together. Then the film cuts to a bunch of New Englanders doing the exact same thing, right down to the Washington comment.
- Shown Their Work: Much of the film is fictionalized, but the representation of Lincoln's signature on his baggage is spot on.
- Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: The first scene of the movie is a slave ship on the high seas in 1809. The captain and his men go over the numbers, realizing that dozens of the Africans in their hold have died, but that they still have more than enough to make a profit. Then they throw the corpse of a dead African overboard.
- Time Skip: Lots of great big jumps as the film tries to squeeze in the highlights. Well over two decades go by between Lincoln's birth and the next scene with him as a New Salem shopkeeper.