As Lincoln begins its foreign release this week, the movie that international audiences sit down to will be a bit different from the American version.
In an article for The Hollywood Reporter, Alex Ben Block describes some of the specific adjustments that will be made to the foreign release of Lincoln: “Instead of opening with a Civil War battle scene, onscreen messages first will contextualize the story against actual black-and-white images designed to provide insight into what was going on in America in 1865 … And when the film opens in April in Japan, there will be yet another element: Spielberg will appear on camera to provide a preamble to the picture.”
While these adjustments won't actually change all that much about the movie, by first introducing the historical context of the American Civil War to foreign audiences, Lincoln has the potential to be understood as a more historical, rather than personal, cinematic account.
Civil wars are arguably the most difficult events in history to understand outside the context of the country they occurred in. The politics that drive a country to civil war are inherently domestic divisions, which can sometimes be difficult to translate into foreign frameworks. Although the American Civil War was also an event of international significance in the 19th century, some of the finer details that contributed to the division between the North and South are challenging to understand without a broader understanding of American history.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to pin down exactly why Japanese audiences will find Spielberg appearing on screen, while the rest of the world (except the U.S.) will only see explanatory text and images. The revised introduction to Lincoln will probably prove helpful for some foreign audiences who aren't as familiar with the era of Lincoln's presidency, but it also frames the film in a decidedly different light.
“It’s not a biopic about Abraham Lincoln, it’s a moment in time that changed history,” said Paul Hanneman, co-president of 20th Century Fox International, which is handling the overseas release of the movie. “From a publicity perspective, we’re not trying to make this a movie about politics.”
Some past attempts to market films about American history in foreign markets have proved difficult, so it's understandable that Lincoln's international distributors have been wary about the release. Interestingly, Django Unchained has also just hit theaters abroad, and without any publicized adjustments to its content. Although it is set in the same era as Lincoln, it’s certainly a very different type of film. The ability to market it as a Tarantino action flick translates well into foreign markets, relying more on star power and the story than historical context to attract viewers.
Still, no one can say that a Spielberg movie is exactly a hard sell, and its plethora of Oscar nominations are also likely to help Lincoln find success overseas. And ironically enough, the much lauded portrayer of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis, is British, yet has captured the spirit of the president (and many other figures from U.S. history over the course of his career) perhaps more completely than any of his American counterparts to date. Day-Lewis's accomplishment speaks volumes to the ability of anyone, regardless of nationality, to fully understand domestic histories (with enough effort and maybe a bit of method acting). Though the overall message of the film may be interpreted somewhat differently based on the film's marketing and introductions abroad, Lincoln paints a vivid picture of American politics and personalities that, regardless of the first few minutes, should prove equally intriguing to both domestic and foreign audiences.