Wilson is a lavish 1944 Epic Movie directed by Henry King, about the political career of Woodrow Wilson, from his run for Governor of New Jersey through to the end of his Presidency. Wilson is played by Alexander Knox.
Released at the height of World War II, the movie is essentially propaganda for the war effort. We're clearly meant to see parallels between World War I and the then-current conflict, and between Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt (both being progressive Democrats, after all). At the end, Wilson's failed vision of a League of Nations including the U.S. is treated with a note of hope that it may be realized someday.
The movie was critically acclaimed, winning five Oscars, but was a Box Office Bomb. This really sucked because Wilson was the most expensive movie ever made at the time, beating the record set by Gone with the Wind. It also was very upsetting to producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who was a big fan of Woodrow Wilson and regarded the film as a pet project.
The supporting cast includes Charles Coburn as Wilson's friend and confidant Professor Henry Holmes, Vincent Price as his Treasury Secretary (and eventual son-in-law) William Gibbs McAdoo, Thomas Mitchell as his loyal aide Joseph Tumulty, Ruth Nelson as his first wife Ellen, Geraldine Fitzgerald as his second wife Edith, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Alfred Newman composed the score.
Not to be confused with the 2017 dramedy film Wilson adapted from the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes.
This film provides examples of:
- All Germans Are Nazis: The movie conflates Imperial Germany of the 1910s with Nazi Germany of the contemporary 1940s, which obviously serves the movie's purporse as World War II propaganda.
- America Saves the Day: Wilson's vision for the U.S. role in the war.
- And Starring: And Alexander Knox as Woodrow Wilson.
- And That's Terrible: "Does that mean you're going to overlook the most dastardly crime of which any civilized nation has ever been guilty?!" Ah, that wartime propaganda hyperbole. This is referring to the sinking of the Lusitania, in case you were wondering.
- Artistic License – History:
- In real life, Ellen Wilson died shortly after the start of World War I. In the film, her death comes shortly before the war instead.
- The movie focuses on Wilson's personal life, elections, and World War I to the exclusion of basically everything else that happened during his administration. There's not even a mention of The Mexican Revolution, which dominated Wilson's foreign policy prior to U.S. involvement in the European war.
- The movie has Wilson finding out about 1) the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and 2) the infamous Zimmerman Telegram at the exact same time.
- Wilson's speech asking Congress to declare war is heavily abridged. It's understandable considering the full speech would take about twenty minutes to read. Being under four minutes, the film's version is just a series of punchy excerpts strung together. Oddly, the signature "safe for democracy" line is not included.
- Assumed Win: The New York Times mistakenly calls the 1916 election for Hughes, but late returns from California turn the tide for Wilson.
- As You Know: Tons of this for exposition, like the scene at a 1917 inaugural party where Wilson is informed that he "barely squeaked by in the Electoral College".
- Biopic: Greatest Triumph and then Downfall.
- Blackface: In an in-universe Vaudeville show, a performer in blackface impersonates Theodore Roosevelt
- Composite Character: Senator "Big Ed" Jones is fictional, but is presumably an amalgam of several corrupt party bosses from the time.
- Covers Always Lie: The poster on the right side of this page shows the sinking of the Lusitania. In the actual film, the sinking is mentioned in dialogue, but never actually shown.
- Eagleland: Very, very much the first flavor. What else would you expect from a film made during World War II?
- Extra! Extra! Read All About It!:
- "Extra, extra! Lusitania torpedoed off coast of Ireland!"
- "Extra, extra, read all about it! Germany agrees to quit submarine warfare!"
- Graceful Loser: After Wilson is elected, Taft and Roosevelt send letters of congratulations. When it looks like Hughes has won the 1916 election, Wilson is all set to be this trope. Wilson also acts this trope when his plan for U.S. membership in the League of Nations is thwarted.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Woodrow Wilson still has his admirers and there is much he did that is arguably to be admired, but he had some very significant flaws which the movie glosses over:
- The movie completely whitewashes Wilson's racism and bigotry toward ethnic Americans and immigrants, which is quite striking when you consider that 1944 wasn't exactly the height of racial tolerance. The real Wilson was racist even by the standards of his time, believing blacks to be inherently inferior and expanding on segregationist policies. The movie's Wilson treats blacks as equals, talks lovingly about the American melting pot, and lectures the German ambassador on how Nazi-like racial views are wrong.
- The thing libertarians and conspiracy theorists hate him for (creating the Federal Reserve) is shown briefly and later mentioned in passing. Obviously, the filmmakers didn't think it was a big deal.
- Also unmentioned is Wilson's support for the eugenics movement, his frequent military interventions in Latin Americanote , and his crack down on civil liberties while the U.S. was in World War I. Nor is any mention made of the women's suffrage movement, which Wilson had a rather complicated relationship with.
- There is no mention of The Spanish Flu, which is fitting, since it means the movie paid about as much attention to the pandemic as the actual Wilson administration.
- Historical Villain Upgrade:
- As mentioned above, the movie essentially treats Imperial Germany as a stand-in for Nazi Germany.
- Fairly or unfairly, the movie places the blame for World War II on Henry Cabot Lodge, Warren G. Harding, and other isolationist politicians who prevented U.S. entry into the League of Nations. This ignores the fact that their resistance to the League was not merely about hardcore isolationism, but Woodrow Wilson's refusal to compromise on the issue of America's role in international affairs.
- Insistent Terminology: Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's principal aide from his days as Governor of New Jersey, continues to call him "Governor" throughout his presidency.
- Ivy League for Everyone: "Teddy Roosevelt's a Harvard man, Bill Taft's from Yale, and I'd give five dollars of my money any day to let a Princeton boy have a crack at both of them in the same game." Obviously justified since those men really did attend those universities.
- Mononymous Biopic Title: Obviously
- Politicians Kiss Babies: Mentioned when Wilson jokingly tells his daughters that they'll have to kiss the babies for him
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After having spent two years trying to keep out of the war, Wilson finally snaps and delivers one of these to the German ambassador.
- Refusal of the Call: Played straight when Wilson initially refuses to run for Governor of New Jersey
- Sleazy Politician: Senator "Big Ed" Jones is the old-fashioned "party boss" kind.
- Smart People Play Chess: The boys in the White House Press Room play chess and smoke pipes to boot.
- Standard Snippet: The movie seems determinded to cram in every traditional American song at least once. Oddly, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is not included.
- Stock Footage: After the U.S. enters the war, we're shown a newsreel of actual World War I-era footage. Later, there's a similar newsreel of Wilson and his wife arriving in Paris, which has the actors inserted into one brief scene where the "Big Four" are shown in close-up.
- The White House: Obviously, but notable because the set builders did quite a good job at recreating the interior of the White House as it was in the 1910s.