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In Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford achieves the perfection of his art. Never were his matter and his method more aptly fitted, and never were his tendencies toward sprawl and overemphasis more rigorously controlled. It is a masterpiece of concision in which every element in every shot, every ratio, every movement, every shift of viewpoint seems dense with significance, yet it breathes an air of casual improvisation. While its surfaces paint, with relaxed humor and effortless nostalgic charm, an imaginary antebellum America, it sustains an underlying note of somber apprehension, all the more powerful for being held in check.
Ford finds a mood that avoids the clutter and ponderousness of most Hollywood history movies, a mood more of parable than of textbook chronicle. That preoccupation with history and its contradictions—the variance between actual human experience and the official version that will be constructed after the fact—that suffuses films as different as They Were Expendable (1945), Fort Apache (1948), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) resonates troublingly at the heart of this film, for all its apparent serenity. Nothing here is as uncomplicated as it seems designed to appear, which may be why the editors of Cahiers du cinéma, in a celebrated, if by now scarcely readable, special issue of 1970, brought the full force of their post-’68 Althusserian-Lacanian rhetoric to bear on the film in a scene-by-scene analysis, as if here the secret mechanisms of the American ideology itself might be decoded and exposed. In trying to pin down the meanings of Ford’s art, however, Cahiers du cinéma missed his mercurial—and, admittedly, sometimes infuriating––ability to be in two places at once. If Ford’s Lincoln exhibits at once a radiant sincerity and the devious subtlety of a trickster, he is to that extent the director’s mirror image.
Bertrand Tavernier described Young Mr. Lincoln as “worthy of Plutarch,” and there is indeed something ancient in the bareness with which Ford and his screenwriter, Lamar Trotti, lay out their episodes, allowing each scene its independent life and leaving much unspoken. As history, it is on many points not much more accurate than Plutarch; like the Greek historian, Ford relies freely on anecdote, rumor, and imaginative reconstruction to fill out his portrait. But, in a way, that is the point: he carves out a space beneath or before history in which past events, not yet ossified into the stuff of monuments, retain the lithe flexibility of what is not yet formed. The myth of the Great Man is subverted by presenting a hero who has not yet become himself, who is all the more admirable for still being in a state of pure potentiality. The film radiates a youthful joy, while at the same time insistently implying that the hero’s destiny—the moment when the weight of history becomes unavoidable—will necessarily mean the loss of all joy.
Henry Fonda’s remarkable performance is impossible to consider apart from Ford’s framing of it. His location in space, his relative distance from those around him, his physical stance, his degree of comfort or discomfort: these are constant reference points. We can’t take our eyes off him, and yet there are moments when he is almost lost in the crowd. His blossoming as a politician, as he confronts the mob seeking to lynch his clients, is balanced by the moments of turning away, of looking into the distance or into himself. Every point of contact or loss of contact is registered with an electric hypersensitivity, not least in scenes that seem bathed in pastoral tranquility.
We are invited to indulge a naive lyricism that always proves deceptive. The linked sequences encompassing Lincoln’s muted courtship of Ann Rutledge and his visit to her grave are as beautiful as anything in American movies, but it is not a simple beauty. Even the initial moments, of Lincoln sprawled on the riverbank with a law book, head on the ground and legs propped up on a tree trunk, the camera reversing to give us the same posture from opposite angles, before Lincoln himself reverses his position, scratching his leg as deliberately as he absorbs the moral principles of law, hint at what can’t be shown or said. Ford consistently undermines any overemphatic or oversimplified explanation of events, or of Lincoln. His consciousness is the center of the movie, and it remains as much a mystery as the river that is constantly evoked.
Young Mr. Lincoln is the product of an era when, elsewhere in the world, political mysticism was finding form in movies like Triumph of the Will and Alexander Nevsky, geometric odes to ritualized collective redemption. Ford seeks a cinematic language fit for democratic myth, and finds no easy resolution of the paradox that Lincoln, the great democratic hero, triumphs by a real intellectual and moral superiority (not to mention the physical superiority of the champion rail-splitter) over his fellows.
The singularity of Lincoln is the most difficult of things to depict in the vocabulary of American genre tradition, a tradition where singularity is more frequently associated with evil or failure, while heroism, leadership, and success are linked to figures seen to be, at heart, one of the guys, one with the people. We are shown Lincoln as a natural-born populist, a canny joke teller and judger of pie contests, a spirited participant in tug-of-war contests and tar barrel burnings, a courtroom lawyer whose self-deprecation is clearly effective strategy, a budding politician who surely knows the political value of his heartfelt pleas for the poorest and humblest. Yet who are these people for whom he speaks? Take away Lincoln, and who is left in the movie to offer anything like a sense of direction or vision? This America of the 1830s looks like a squalid class-based society, with prating politicians at the top and resentful bullies at the bottom, while good Christian folk like Abagail Clay suffer in silence, and amiable drunkards loll on the sidelines as they venture another snort.
Lincoln is of them yet apart from them: a loner of a different sort than John Wayne in The Searchers (1956), but no less alone. “People used to say I could sink an ax deeper than anybody they ever saw,” he remarks; he might be hinting, for anyone subtle enough to catch the hint, at his own depths, while at the same time maintaining a guileless front that could pass for country boy naïveté. We are led to understand—always obliquely—that the depth of his self-awareness makes everything around him look like an absurd and mindless puppet show. The movie studies Lincoln’s shifting relations with the ignorant, fickle, rowdy, self-interested inhabitants of Springfield, Illinois, demonstrating how profoundly he understands them, how effortlessly he can amuse and manipulate them, and, at the same time, how utterly alien they must be to him. (When he wins the tug-of-war by tying his end of the rope to a wagon, is he showing a capacity for cheating or merely demonstrating that he has more important struggles to spend his energy on than such mindless contests?)
He has indeed “a certain political talent,” as his future rival Stephen Douglas remarks—an ability to calculate others’ reactions that could be almost frightening in its implications—yet he is most himself when he withdraws, standing apart, in the background, at Mary Todd’s while the high-society dancers circle in the foreground; or turning his back on Mary to stare toward the river; or looking away and downward as he says, “Ann died too”; or bending his head raptly as he opens a law book for the first time; or losing himself in music as he plays “Dixie” on the Jew’s harp while riding past the river.
In the film within the film, which tells the story of Lincoln’s defense of two brothers accused of murder, the chaos of the courtroom provides a vision, at once comic and horrific, of an unidealized democracy. Fordian humor is in full sway, with a bespectacled judge shouting “Put them jugs away” while attempting to impart some order to the proceedings. The prosecutor—unforgettably embodied by Donald Meek, who seems nearly mummified—supplies volleys of rhetorical hot air that foreshadow, ironically, the kind of all-American rhetoric that would eventually attach itself to Lincoln’s legend. At the heart of the courtroom scenes are several extraordinary close-ups of Lincoln in the full splendor of his solitude, brooding and wrathful as he contemplates the injustice that seems about to triumph.
The trial—based very loosely on Lincoln’s successful defense of William Armstrong, in 1858, with the aid of an almanac—provides a neatly resolved narrative within a film otherwise notably lacking in both plot and resolution. Instead we have scenes from an uncompleted journey—scenes structurally akin to the emblematic episodes in some medieval saint’s life—culminating in that walk up the hill, in which the isolated figure of Lincoln is further delineated by a violent thunderstorm that seems to embody a prophetic rage that has lurked all along within the film. The storm’s fury, symbolically prefiguring the Civil War, marks the point at which the world of the film—a world essentially comic in its promise of justice and harmonious endings, a world that with a few changes might be that of the comedies Ford made with Will Rogers, Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)—collides with the unforgiving cataclysm that is history.
When Lincoln walks into history, he walks, in a sense, out of the world of John Ford’s cinema. Ford was rarely comfortable portraying great historical moments head-on, and on those occasions when he did, as in the assassination of Lincoln in the earlier Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), it has something of the quality of a Currier and Ives print: the event is already its own monument. What interests him is the freedom that exists outside of history, the freedom symbolized, in its lighter aspect, by the fleeting pleasures of camaraderie and communal merrymaking that he loves to linger on. Heroes are hard to find in his movies—those who seem to be often aren’t (Henry Fonda in Fort Apache); or represent only half the story, the other half having been buried (James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance); or will be shown not victorious but defeated (Robert Montgomery in They Were Expendable). Ford accepts triumphalism as a necessary evil—accepts the need for a Great Man and a monument to affirm his greatness—but his movie is not quite that monument. It is more a lament for what the world might almost have been, if there had been no need for a Lincoln to save it.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s writings on film can be found in The Phantom Empire and Castaways of the Image Planet: Movies, Show Business, Public Spectacle. His other books include Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, Dream Time, The Browser’s Ecstasy, and, most recently, Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears.