Monday, October 22, 2012


We watched a DVD of The Conspirator last night.  It wasn't a movie I'd heard anything about, although it had a fairly distinguished cast: James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, and a bunch of other reasonably well-known faces hidden under various 19th century beards and moustaches.   Robert Redford directed.

It concerns the trial of Mary Surratt, a woman who had the misfortune to be the mother of a young man aligned with John Wilkes Booth and the other men involved with the assassination of Lincoln (and the attempted assassinations of the Vice-President and the Secretary of State).  How much of what we saw was factual, I don't know, but it made a satisfactory drama.  (The story is told in great detail on Wikipedia.)

Booth and his crew used Surratt's boarding house as a meeting-place because of John Surratt's involvement with them.  This fact was used against Mary Surratt to charge her with conspiracy, although it seems likely she wasn't in fact involved in any way more than being a relative and a sympathiser of the lost Southern cause.   McAvoy played her initially unsympathetic lawyer thrown into the deep end with no witnesses on hand, and fighting against a military tribunal; the case was illegally heard by the military rather than a civil court.

The film connects the case in many ways to the state of affairs in American life that surfaced after 9/11, when normality was often overturned, and the military viewpoint allowed to hold sway.  While there is no specific reference to later events, it's evident that the scriptwriters had this in mind.

It's inferred in the movie that the conspirators originally only planned to kidnap Lincoln.  This isn't clarified to any extent, and the film opens with a long sequence in which Lincoln is shot and the Secretary of State violently attacked in his bed (the Vice President was supposed to be assassinated too, but the assassin lost his courage).   Redford produces an excellent movie that holds your attention throughout, even though it seems unlikely that Surratt is going to be let off.  The odds are stacked too highly against her.

Looking back you wonder why these men plotted as they did, when the Civil War was to all intents and purposes well and truly over (official peace is announced in the movie some time after Lincoln's death), but such situations have been a common after-event of wars for millennia.  I was reading again this morning in the book of Jeremiah (in the Old Testament) how, after the Babylonians had finally destroyed Jerusalem (it took many years of various states of siege) and had taken off its puppet king to Babylon, they gave over the governorship of the land into the hands of a Jew named Gedaliah.  Gedaliah seems to have been a man of integrity, trustworthy, capable of keeping the land in a reasonable state on behalf of its captors.   Jeremiah was one of the many poorer people who were left behind in his care.  Everything seemed to have come about as Jeremiah had prophesied, and a certain state of peace reigned.

Except that there was a bloke named Ishmael (he may have been a member of the royal line, as Gedaliah may also have been) who, not content with the state of affairs, plotted to kill Gedaliah.  The latter was warned of this, but chose to ignore the danger - probably as Lincoln himself chose, or had to choose, to ignore the possibility that there would be factions still unhappy with the state of affairs. and that his life might be in danger.

Ishmael assassinated Gedaliah, and many of his followers, and proceeded to slaughter a number of pilgrims who were on their way to what was left of the Holy City.  When violence is started, it spreads to innocent people who happen to get in the way - as we see in the movie where Government aides and others are injured.  Ishmael and his crew were eventually routed by people faithful to Gedaliah, but by that time it was too late for the unfortunate Governor.
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