John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln feels like a forgotten parable that’s been rediscovered by historians, though it pulses with modern reverberations. The 1939 film chronicles 10 years in the life of Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda), long before he became president of the United States and led the country out of cataclysmic civil war. This Lincoln is just a “jackleg lawyer,” to use his own words, who’s attempting to establish himself as an attorney in Springfield, Illinois in the 1830s. And Ford takes enormous pleasure in the notion of an authentic American legend finding his groove and collecting a variety of folkloric signifiers: If this film were to be remade for our contemporary age of prequels, it might be called Lincoln Begins.
Like many of Ford’s best films, Young Mr. Lincoln analyzes the intersection of politics and various types of narrative (factual, fictional, and mythical), anticipating the director’s 1962 masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Throughout the film, Lincoln gradually learns how to influence others via the arts of his posture and oration, particularly his deadly effective way of using a winding and seemingly pointless story to land a rhetorical punchline when his audience least expects it. (It’s a brilliantly manipulative device that’s also a source of fascination throughout Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.)
But there’s much to be learned first, and Fonda offers a precise portrait of a person’s physical and cultural evolution. Before the fates decide that he’s to be a lawyer, Lincoln awkwardly runs for elected office. While giving a speech on a cabin porch, he’s unsure of where to put his long arms as he speaks and how to drape his large and angular body. By the end of the film, though, Lincoln casts himself in casually iconic reposes that advertise his intellectual generosity while subtly intimidating others, his calculated sense of relaxation serving to parody the pomp and pretense of his stuffy opponents. He’s Rodin’s The Thinker as a dandy cornpone comedian. Lincoln’s career as a lawyer prepares him for politics, instructing him in the art of sending multiple and sometimes contradictory messages to a conflicted populace.
Ford grasped the hypocrisies of America, as he was himself torn between progressive and reactionary platitudes. The filmmaker understood, on an almost chemical level, a central irony of an American democracy that preached of all “men” being equal: Even if one ignores the sexism, classism, and slavery of the country’s backbone, a theoretically fair government still depends on the ruling of the majority by the few, i.e. exceptionalism, various forms of which we openly fetishize in this country anyway. In Ford’s film, Lincoln continually recalibrates his performative gestures depending on his audience and whether they wish to hear of the greatness of their individualism or of themselves as smaller particles within a mass social unit.
At one point, Lincoln flatters a broad audience in the courtroom with his pretense of humility as a country bumpkin, implicitly telling his listeners that they could be in his position should they have desired, allowing them ownership of his potential success—a gift that’s required of all great politicians and, nowadays, celebrities. Elsewhere, Lincoln uses a subtler form of this humility while flattering the gilded class at rarefied events, though he also publicly antagonizes those who will privately enable his success.
We’re talking politics and justice as show business. The courtroom where Lincoln makes his name resembles a stage where the “play” of a trial commences, with the jury sitting in what appears to be a balcony box, waiting to reward the lawyer who presents the best story. (The assemblage of the jury is defined by raucous, boozy interludes that, characteristic of Ford’s films, celebrate the glorious cacophony of American life at its most primal and unassuming.) Meanwhile, the wealthy parties suggest a backstage where the producers do their most important business. Politicians must speak a dizzying number of languages, then, alternating between the powerless and the powerful as well as the shifting moods of each of these factions.
While defending her sons on a murder charge, Lincoln claims that Abigail Clay (Alice Brady) is a simple working woman whom he’s gotten to know after only a few visits, as she represents the humble, basically unthinking American populace. It’s a stirring moment, but Lincoln is dehumanizing and condescending to Abigail, essentially likening her to all the “little people.” Lincoln is learning to fine tune his rhetoric here, understanding when the populace wants to feel singular and when it yearns for the misleadingly safe comfort of a mob-like state. This notion of mobs is complemented by an amazing earlier scene, when men try to batter down the Springfield jail and hang Abigail’s boys. Using his wit and flair for self-mockery, Lincoln turns the situation into a joke, satirizing the clan’s brutality without them really knowing it. After Lincoln quotes the bible (“blessed are the merciful”) Ford cuts to a shot of the men lowering the battering ram, which has the literal and figurative weight of a cross that’s been denied a crucifixion.
When Ford’s detractors complain of his films’ imperialism, they’re presumably missing these sorts of textures and ironies, which acknowledge the savagery, cronyism, and social complexity of America as surely as its propensity for philosophical transcendence. Above all, Ford profoundly understood the power of myth, which, yes, occasionally scans as a diplomatic word for bullshit. A myth of America as a beacon of tolerance is something that can drive us through darkness though, and it’s something that contemporary progressives, with their endless scolding, could learn to strategically embrace.
Lamar Trotti’s screenplay is full of witty, resonant bits of Americana, which Ford lends an earthy and corporeal tactility as well as an unpretentious sense of exaltation. One never feels Ford striving for iconography, as his deep and coherent compositions appear to be carved in wood. Poetry is clarity, and few filmmakers have ever known that as fully as Ford did. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford considered a legend and saw in him everything America is and could be.
The blacks of this transfer are rich and bold, notably in a master shot of a murder and in the frequent close-ups of Lincoln’s face, which pivotally sell Henry Fonda’s resemblance to the future president of the United States. Shadows are full and dimensional, and vividly contrast against the stark whites. The transfer also sports an intense sensitivity to subtle textures, such as the smoke wafting out of a judge’s pipe while lawyers make their case. Ford is a master of such detail, which gives his fantasias and myths the weight of the ordinary, and every nook and cranny of this image is exhilaratingly dense and alive. The soundtrack is cleaner than ever before, emphasizing not only the film’s use of established songs, but the nearly musical punctuations of silence that occur between the symphonic range of noises, from talking to fighting to listening to the tranquil bustling of a river.
Joseph McBride's new commentary nimbly balances discussions of history, particularly pertaining to Lincoln and Ford, with deep dives into the film's symbolism. There are many allusions to Lincoln's future in Young Mr. Lincoln, some obvious, some quite subtle and ambiguous, such as Lincoln's playing of "Dixie" on a Jew's harp. McBride also offers a sharp and convincing defense of Ford's oft-criticized sentimentality, which is bolstered by part one of a two-part episode from the TV series Omnibus that's included on the disc. Written and narrated by the British filmmaker Lindsay Anderson, the episode follows Ford's career up until WWII, with juicy footage of interviewers attempting to puncture the filmmaker's self-conscious and finely honed "man's man" façade. A talk show appearance from 1975 finds Henry Fonda reaffirming his own persona as a humble and liberal man of arts and letters (bitterly refuted by his son, Peter, in a quotation included in the Omnibus episode), which is complemented by a pair of radio interviews by Ford and Fonda. Excluding the McBride commentary, little of this material is revelatory, though it will be catnip for fans of Ford, Fonda, and Young Mr. Lincoln at large. Rounding out this package is a radio dramatization of the film, featuring Fonda, a characteristically beautiful essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien, and a reprint of a poetic series of ruminations on the film by the legendary Sergei Eisenstein.
John Ford’s masterful political drama receives a lush transfer from the Criterion Collection, with a passionate and erudite audio commentary that sensitively examines the director’s thorny brilliance.