Young Mr Lincoln Review

What the fuck is all this shit about you not wanting to play this part? You think you’d be playing the goddam Great Emancipator huh? He’s a goddam fucking jake-legged lawyer in Springfield, for Christ’s sake!

That was how John Ford persuaded Henry Fonda to play Lincoln and it’s a great quote but Ford is not being entirely honest in the above effusion, an expurgated version of which served Fonda well during his later years when he was doing the rounds of TV chat shows. Young Mr Lincoln may well deal with the early days of the man who reached his apotheosis during the American Civil War but given that it’s only dealing with him because of the man he eventually came to be, Ford’s comment is patently evasive. For American liberals such as Fonda and, at this point in his life, Ford, Lincoln was up there at the top of Parnassus and any screen treatment of him that they produced was bound to be hagiography of the highest order. In this account of incidents during his early life, foreshadowing is everywhere and we are constantly prodded in the ribs with the basic irony that this young, jake-legged lawyer is eventually to become one of the great men of his age. Not that you’ll find me complaining too much because Young Mr Lincoln is a wonderful piece of myth-making and one of Ford’s most enjoyable movies, enshrining a delightful – and very typical - performance from Fonda.

Not a great deal of the film owes anything to historical fact but that’s not especially important. Beginning in 1832 with Lincoln as a young storekeeper, it traces him through his decision to go into the law. Much of Lamar Trott’s screenplay is fabricated but the particular case upon which the film concentrates, where he successfully defends two innocent boys on a murder charge, is very loosely based on various incidents in Lincoln’s career as a lawyer and a detail is added from the real trial of Duff Armstrong in 1857 when Lincoln proved his client innocent by consulting an almanac. Throughout, Lincoln is shown to be an incorruptible force for justice, possessing an almost god-like capacity for understanding and fairness. There is a question to be asked about whether or not Lincoln deserved this kind of deification and it's certainly true that our picture of him is based more on reputation than historical fact. But I don’t think it’s particularly relevant to the film, because what matters is what he represented to Ford at this time, not what he actually did. By the 1930s, Lincoln was already a by-word for American liberalism and it was this reputation which was an inspiration to both FDR New Deal Democrats and, later, LBJ Great Society Democrats.

In David Thomson’s highly critical entry on Ford in his “Biographical Dictionary of Film”, he reluctantly admits that Ford “made lovely scenes” and Young Mr Lincoln is full of them. There’s a marvellous ability here to suggest and evoke as much as tell and nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the famous scene where Lincoln’s tentative courtship of his childhood sweetheart Ann Rutledge cuts straight into her death – a stone thrown into the river produces ripples and these undulations seem to rock time itself until it is suddenly winter, ice envelops the water and Ann is dead. The film seems to suggest that this tragedy leads inexorably to Young Mr Lincoln becoming Abraham Lincoln, as if history and destiny were inextricably linked and when Lincoln talks to Ann’s grave – a scene which is later mirrored by one in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon - it is to persuade himself that she is telling him to make the law his profession as if there were some choice in the matter. But the film indicates quite clearly that Lincoln’s belief that the law is a simple matter of right and wrong springs not only from his reading but from his character – his first speech in the film says much the same thing in a homespun manner designed to appeal to his audience – and this part of his character is what directs him to his ultimate destiny.

It’s the first forty minutes of the film, told in a succession of short images that take Ford from his home of New Salem to Springfield, Illinois, that come across most powerfully, culminating in the sequence where Lincoln persuades a lynch-mob to disband, armed with nothing except sincerity, humour and moral authority. “I’m not here to make any speeches!” he says, shortly before making one, and the speech which follows pretty much defines the Lincoln that Ford and Fonda looked up to – the wisdom which could weigh great issues in the balance – while acknowledging that he was as much a great orator as a great lawyer. This comes across later too, in the courtroom, where Lincoln wins the case through a trick which is bound to remind modern viewers of Perry Mason. The scene is a classic example of Henry Fonda’s ability to be righteous without seeming pious, pacing the dialogue to perfection and using pauses as the rhetorical equivalent of one-two punches. Make-up creates a certain resemblance to Lincoln, as do the hat and frock coat, but the important aspect of the characterisation is that it formed the basis for Fonda’s cinematic persona. This is essentially the same character he plays in films such as Mister Roberts, Twelve Angry Men, Fail Safe, Advise and Consent and The Boston Strangler and it was the persona he liked to present to the world in interviews. Whether or not it was the real man is entirely beside the point – though it’s not hard to see Fonda’s liberal inclinations as the basis of the more radical allegiances of his daughter Jane. What made Fonda’s career particularly interesting, of course, is that he sometimes deliberately played against the image, most memorably in Once Upon A Time In The West and Ford’s Fort Apache. But I think it all springs from Young Mr Lincoln and that’s probably why Fonda always considered Ford one of his favourite directors even after their major falling-out in 1955.

Once the cogs of the plot begin to whirl and the film gets to the courtroom, there’s a paradoxical slackening of tension, perhaps because we’re more interested in Lincoln’s character than his actions as a lawyer. Ford seems to realise this, compensating by framing Lincoln is a variety of poses all of which are designed to either put him alone at the centre of the frame or force him to dominate it, sometimes simply through his long legs. Trying to make the case of great symbolic importance, Ford deliberately plays up the prosecution’s belief that one brother may be innocent while the other guilty into an issue of moral importance that foreshadows the conflicts of the Civil War. It’s a little bit heavy-handed and self-conscious but I think, as in Ford’s later films, we forgive it because Ford’s vision is so strongly present. And even when the film goes into dime-novel territory, there’s much Fordian fun to be had in the lively courtroom scenes, presided over by an avuncular windbag of a judge and featuring a motley array of potential jurors – one of whom says “guilty” before he’s even had time to be sworn in. In Ford’s movies, there’s a fine line between eloquent sincerity and pious verbosity and, in Young Mr Lincoln, it’s usefully summed up by the contrast between Lincoln and the musty old prosecutor whose lengthy biblical allusions are enough to send even the judge to sleep.

Some reviewers have suggested that Young Mr Lincoln is one of Ford’s most typical movies. To some extent that’s true and the slightly grandiloquent style is something which is carried forward into his other Fox movies and, later, into the Cavalry Trilogy and beyond. But it has to be understood that this represents the zenith of what Joseph McBride calls Ford’s ‘Popular Front’ period, a set of broadly left-liberal attitudes which only survived intact up to Ford’s time in the military during the Second World War. It seems that a combination of friendships with right-wing Republican officers and an endemic Irish-Catholic opposition to Communism changed Ford’s political allegiances – which had never been uncomplicated in the first place – and linked him, not altogether fairly, with the hawkish right-wing bravado of his friends John Wayne and Ward Bond. By the late 1940s, Ford’s incredibly complex set of social and political views led him to a very peculiar position regarding McCarthyism, much to the dismay of some of his former collaborators. But there are three important points to emphasise. The first is that Ford’s liberal streak never entirely left him and it shows in the portrayal of American Indians in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, his disgust for rampant military bravado in Fort Apache and, most spectacularly, the moral complexity of The Searchers. The second is that his later films return to a more liberal standpoint, beginning with The Last Hurrah, peaking with Sergeant Rutledge and culminating in the confused but very moving Cheyenne Autumn. The third, and perhaps most significant point, is that Ford’s liberalism was always interwoven with an intrinsic reactionary conservatism, yearning for a more simple past and instinctually turning away from the morally confused and complex modern world. Thus, in Stagecoach you find a hatred of class divisions, the tolerance towards social outcasts and the satirical portrait of moneyed Republicans intermingled with a naïve and racist portrayal of American Indians.

I raise this subject because it seems to me that Ford’s greatness as an artist lies precisely within these confusions and his groping around inside them, looking for different ways of addressing and resolving them. His life was similarly chaotic, as Joseph McBride brilliantly demonstrates in the definitive biography “Searching For John Ford”, and if we try to look for the ‘real’ Ford we are missing the point. A singular, straightforward John Ford isn’t there to be found, as McBride ultimately discovers, and the various defences, diversions and circumlocutions with which Ford protected his inner self are all on display in his movies. There are many different John Fords – the angry social campaigner of The Grapes of Wrath, the nostalgic poet of My Darling Clementine, the rampaging drunk of Donovan’s Reef, the examiner of the soul we find in The Searchers, the ironic judge of history of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - and it’s only by putting all of them together and acknowledging that the pieces don’t quite fit that we can appreciate what a great and extraordinarily complicated artist Ford was.

Young Mr Lincoln is, in its portrait of Lincoln, the work of a director with certainties and particular convictions but it’s complicated by his vision of the past. In one sense, Ford wants to return to a comforting past wreathed in nostalgia. In another, he can’t help showing the past as a cruel, brutal place where innocent people are as likely to be lynched as face a fair trial. At the end, he shows Lincoln walking up a hill into a coldly beckoning storm which is meant to represent the horror of the Civil War and, ultimately, the assassin’s bullet which killed him.

It’s a remarkable image, changing gradually into the stone effigy in the Lincoln Memorial. But it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. If Lincoln is moving into a storm, the rain of which John Ford called “the tears of the multitude”, what is he moving away from? If we need men like Lincoln to take us forward, can we uncomplicatedly celebrate, through nostalgia, the past from which they emerged? It’s this ambiguity which is carried forward into Ford’s later work and I don’t think he ever satisfactorily addressed it. What makes him a remarkable artist is that where other directors would cast such considerations to one side, Ford decided instead to immerse himself in them.

The Disc

Criterion’s 2-disc edition of Young Mr Lincoln is the kind of release which has made Criterion a legend in the field of DVD production. It combines a stunningly good transfer with equally impressive bonus materials and omits some of the more annoying excrescences which have marred some Criterion releases in the past.

The transfer is a thing of beauty, blowing away the 2005 Optimum UK release in every respect. The monochrome images are simply stunning, showcasing the glorious photography by Bert Glennon and (in one scene) Arthur Miller, with plenty of fine detail and a sharpness which never goes overboard into over-enhancement. There is a lovely range of greys on display and the blacks are deep and true. Some fine grain is present but it’s suitably filmic and not intrusive. The restoration job is thorough and satisfying. The soundtrack is equally good with clear, crisp dialogue and a satisfyingly rich music track. Considering the age of the film, I think we should regard this audio and visual transfer as a triumph.

The second disc contains the supplemental materials and they are all marvellous. Fans of Ford and Fonda will love the audio interviews that they gave for Ford’s grandson Dan, and it’s wonderful to hear the stories from the mouths of the people involved. Ford is reasonably good tempered although he doesn’t give a great deal away and he states that the film is one of his favourites. Fonda is very charming and funny. Both interviews run around five minutes. Even better is a 1975 ‘Parkinson’ interview with Henry Fonda. Parky is his usual sycophantic self but it’s easier to take his schmoozing when he’s interviewing a real legend as opposed to the likes of Billie Piper and his relaxed style prompts Fonda to tell some wonderful anecdotes. What he doesn’t say is often as eloquent as what he does, particularly when evading some more probing questions about his real life. He’s very generous about Ford, despite their rift, possibly because Ford had only recently died but probably because the films he made with Ford remained some of his best.

The best of the extras, however, is the first part of a Ford profile which was made for the BBC’s ‘Omnibus’ series in 1992. It’s written and presented by Lindsay Anderson and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the director’s work makes it a definitive TV biography of Ford’s life up until 1941. The profile is highly informative and packed with good interview material from people who worked with the director and have since died. The second part is more problematic but we will have to wait to see that on a future release, perhaps a Criterion edition of one of the director’s later movies?

On top of these jewels is an excellent gallery of production documents - including parts of the script - and a full version of a radio version of the film which can be downloaded as an MP3 file. This stars Henry Fonda and is a nice collector’s item. The MP3 is a particularly nice touch and one to be encouraged. The show condenses the film into 30 minutes and was first broadcast in July 1946. Obviously it can’t match the film – the script is hardly a substitute for the visuals – but it’s very pleasant to listen to.

Also included in the package is a delightful booklet, carefully designed and containing two excellent essays. The first, “Hero In Waiting” is an academic piece by Geoffrey O’Brien which covers most of the significant points without being too dry or theoretical. The second, “Mr Lincoln By Mr Ford” is basically a love-letter to the film by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Both are well worth your attention.

All in all, these supplements are about as good a collection as I’ve seen for some time. Everything is worthwhile, nothing is irrelevant and the presentation is as good as it could possibly be. Some may mourn the lack of a commentary but since I’ve found some recent Criterion commentaries to be distinctly lacking I can’t say I’m too bothered, especially given the inclusion of the two essays. Anyone wanting to know more is directed to the books “Pappy” by Dan Ford and “Searching For John Ford” by Joseph McBride.

The film is divided into 23 chapters. Although the film has optional English subtitles, the extras do not and I have deducted a mark for this. Otherwise, this would be perfect 10s.

I’d like to acknowledge my debt to the writings of Joseph McBride, Lindsay Anderson and Michael Wilmington, without which I might never have discovered the world of John Ford

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