Review: John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
American filmmakers have always had a particular fascination with Abraham Lincoln. From Griffith to Ford and Spielberg, many of America’s greatest directors feel inclined if not compelled to once again impart the legend of President Lincoln. So what is it about President Lincoln that continues to attract the interest of filmmakers and storytellers? Well, you begin with the irresistible time-setting of a fledgling nation finding its place in history. Then build on to that the turmoil of a divisive political leader who, whether through idealism or pragmatism, navigated the United States toward a more progressive and tolerant future – a future that it easily may never have reached. And, once you mix in the spectre of tragedy that his assassination retrospectively cast upon the events of his entire life, you have a recipe for something filmmakers can never resist; the mythology of a martyr.
A dramatization of Lincoln’s murder by John Wilkes Booth One is probably the most compelling sequence in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915); an extremely racist motion picture which was also has the honor of being the highest grossing film of the silent era. Nearly a century later, 2012 seems to have been a seminal year in the mythologization of Abraham Lincoln. Last year saw the release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis as well as the screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (one of them has been recognized with several Oscar nominations, but I just can’t remember which of the two it is).
If you are in the market for a Lincoln prequel that manages to steer clear of superfluous vampirism, might I suggest John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln starring Henry Fonda as the title character? Fonda originally declined the offer to play Lincoln because he felt “as if I were portraying Christ himself on film” – but after a confrontational meeting with Ford, Fonda was eventually shamed into accepting the part. The film is not considered amongst John Ford’s best loved works, but it is an extremely well-made and worthwhile motion picture concerning one of the director’s favorite themes: the path of a righteous man. In the film, patriotic lionization trumps any pretense of historical accuracy when Ford begins to cast Lincoln as a folk hero akin to Davey Crocket. In these early scenes, Young Mr. Lincoln does have some light comical value when we see the Great Emancipator riding a donkey, winning a wood-chopping contest, cheating at tug-of-war and flummoxed to decide which pie gets the blue ribbon at the county fair.
A little more than half way through this dialogue-driven film about quiet decency, Ford suddenly reminds us of his firm command of cinematic action when a knife fight breaks out at an independence day celebration in New Salem, Illinois. The trajectory of the film then shifts as Young Mr. Lincoln becomes a courtroom drama with Lincoln defending the brothers accused of the murder (a scenario based on Lincoln’s successful defense of William ‘Duff’ Armstrong which took place later his law career than the film depicts). The most compelling scene in the film is when an unruly mob arrives at the jailhouse with a makeshift battering ram, intent on lynching the accused brothers. Ford masterfully employs P.O.V. perspective when Lincoln places himself between the battering ram and the jailhouse door, and he even uses an over-the-shoulder shot as if Lincoln is protecting the audience from the bloodthirsty mob. Although this event seems to have been invented for the screenplay, I was struck by how similar this scene was to the heroic actions of another altruistic lawyer; Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s novel about a lawyer defending an unjustly accused black man in 1930s Alabama was published twenty years after Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln, and the analogous lynch mob scene an integral reason why Atticus Finch is considered one of the greatest heroes of American literature.
In the 1930s, Ford made two films related to President Lincoln: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) which is about Dr. Samuel Mudd who was a southerner wrongfully convicted as a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination. Within Ford’s body of work, these biographical dramas appear out of place amongst the westerns that became his stock and trade. Even though these historical dramas stand apart from the director’s more well-known cowboy movies, they dovetail with Ford’s overall oeuvre because the legend of Abraham Lincoln remains indivisible from the story of the American west.