Abraham Lincoln is not an American, decides Spielberg

Patriots 'will be unhappy' that their most admired president will be portrayed in movie by a Briton

Steven Spielberg is expected to cause controversy in the US with his choice, announced this weekend, of Daniel Day-Lewis to play Abraham Lincoln in a biopic of one of America's best-loved leaders.

In taking the role of the 16th President of the United States, Day-Lewis becomes the latest in a string of Britons who have elbowed past their American counterparts to take plum presidential roles. Anthony Hopkins has played two White House incumbents: John Quincy Adams in Amistad in 1997 and Richard Nixon in the 1995 biopic Nixon. Michael Gambon has also had a go as leader of the free world, playing Lyndon B Johnson in 2002 in Path to War; and Kenneth Branagh was Franklin D Roosevelt in the 2005 HBO movie Warm Springs.

Even the original contender for Spielberg's film, titled Lincoln, was not an American. When the director first signed the project to Dreamworks in 2001, Irishman Liam Neeson was pencilled in to play the part. But four months ago Neeson withdrew from the project, saying he was, at 58, already two years older than Lincoln was when he was assassinated.

Day-Lewis, 53, who has two Oscars, for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood, is regarded by the film maker as a more than adequate substitute. "Daniel Day-Lewis would have always been counted as one of the greatest of actors, were he from the silent era, the golden age of film or even some time in cinema's distant future," Spielberg said in a statement. "I am grateful and inspired that our paths will finally cross with Lincoln."

Filming is expected to start in autumn next year ahead of a release in 2012, though some have speculated it may be held over until 2013 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

The film will be based on the book Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which follows the in-fighting between Lincoln and his cabinet during the US Civil War. The screenplay has already been written by Tony Kushner.

Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire, a history of Britain's involvement in the civil war, believes that casting a Briton as the national hero could cause offence. "I think people are going to be upset. We're talking about one of the most famous presidents in America's history... There'll be much agony about this. Selling the idea to the American public that there was no American actor who could play Lincoln will be hard."

Commenting on the string of British actors who have played US presidents, Scott Lucas, professor of American studies at the University of Birmingham, said: "Film is international when you're talking about the top directors and actors – they transcend nationality."

He added that in the case of some presidents British vowels might actually be helpful, as, generations ago, the British and US accents would not have been far apart. "If you take John Quincy Adams, for example, his voice would not sound like a modern American accent."

Britons in the White House

Many distinguished British actors have been called on to play the President of the United States for the big screen.

Dan O'Herlihy was one of the first from the British Isles, playing Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1977 film MacArthur.

Spielberg has form in casting Brits as American leaders; his choice of Anthony Hopkins to play John Quincy Adams in the 1997 film Amistad was vindicated when the actor was nominated for an Oscar.

Hopkins's previous presidential portrayal, of Richard Nixon in the 1995 film Nixon, earned him an Oscar.

Michael Gambon has also ruled the free world, as Lyndon B Johnson in Path to War, 2002. He followed Donald Moffat, who played Johnson in The Right Stuff (1983).

Even quintessentially English Kenneth Branagh has taken to the Oval Office, as Franklin D Roosevelt in the 2005 film Warm Springs.

Susannah Butter

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