Young Mr. Lincoln (1939): John Ford’s Epic Biopic, Starring Henry Fonda in Towering Performance

John Ford’s epic, “Young Mr. Lincoln,” an unusually effective biography,  captures both the rich life of this famed president and the origins of his mythology in American history.

Film Review

One of the decade’s most important films, “Young Mr. Lincolnn” was admired by Soviet director Eisenstein because of its embodiment of the national spirit and by the French critic of Cahiers du Cinema due to the convergence of its ideology and style.

Young Mr. Lincoln opens on a mythic note, a question posed on a title card: “If Nancy Hanks came back as a ghost, seeking news of what she loved most, she’d ask first, Where’s my son What’s happened to Abe What’s he done”

The narrative begins in 1832, in New Salem, Illinois, when Abe Lincoln is introduced as a candidate for the legislature. Lincoln’s speech is brief and simple. He is in favor of “a national bank, internal improvement system, and high protective tariff.” When Abigail Clay and her two boys approach him to buy flannel for shirts, for which they have no money to pay, he suggests they send him the money. But they have no name for credit, all they possess are books in the barrel. “Blackstone’s Commentaries” says the overwhelmed Lincoln, “Why, that’s law, I could make head or tales out of it, if I set my mind to it.” Lincoln is a man who can accomplish anything, once he sets his mind to it. Soon after, in isolation at the river, he absorbs the contents of the book, convincing himself (and the audience) of the importance of defending basic rights.

His courtship of Ann Rutledge is characteristically brief and matter-of-fact. “Some men don’t like red hair,” says Ann, but Lincoln contradicts her, “I do.” She recognizes in him the great ambitions of which he is, yet, unaware: “You’ve a real head on your shoulders and a way with people too.” “You educated yourself,” she tells the insecure Lincoln after he claims he has got no education, “you read Shakespeare.” This reaffirms the priority of informal over formal schooling: Lincoln is a self-made man. In the next scene, Lincoln visits the tomb of his deceased wife. In a favorite scene of Ford (which recurs in many later films) he confides in Ann, “I can’t make up my mind what to do.” Indeed, it’s Ann who decides he should become a lawyer (the stick fell toward the grave), and she continues to provide moral support long after her death.

Structurally, the film consists of two parts: the first half deals with Lincoln’s rise to legal power; the second with the trial of the Clay brothers. Moving to Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln is an attorney with John Stuart, Douglas’s opponent for Congress. He treats his clients with the same simplicity and matter-of-factness he used in New Salem. As in other small-town films, Young Mr. Lincoln abounds with scenes of communal activities, which reaffirm the underlying social structure and its dominant values.

In addition to the long court sequence, which establishes Lincoln’s (and the country’s) legal ethics, there is the Independence Day Celebration with the parade of patriotic groups, the “War of l8l2 Veterans,” or “Veterans of the Revolution, l776.” Lincoln participates in just about any contest: Pie Judging Contest (again, having hard time to make up his mind), Rail Splitting Contest (which he wins with modesty), Tug O’War, and Tar Barrel Burning. Up to this moment, the film’s mood is peaceful and progressive–small-town folks living and enjoying their ordinary lives. This equilibrium is suddenly disrupted by a brutal fight and murder in which the Clay brothers are involved. Their mother, watching from a far, becomes the crucial witness and, later, the film’s moral center.

Lincoln’s persona is manifested in a series of confrontations. He is the idealistic lawyer, willing to volunteer his services for the cause. “Who are you” asks Abigail, “I’m your lawyer,” says Lincoln and it is clear that he expects no remuneration for his services. Modest, Lincoln describes himself as “a sort of jack-leg lawyer without much experience in this business.” Asked where is his office, he replies, “in my hat.”

According to Young Mr. Lincoln, the most important tenet in the American legal system is its conception of the Truth and its relation to the Law. Lincoln balances the social need for law with the human desire for justice. He is a firm believer in common sense: “I may not know so much of law, but I know what’s right and what’s wrong, and I know what you’re asking is wrong.” Lincoln charges that the prosecutor is “willing to offer the life of one of your sons if you tell which” (one committed the murder). By contrast, Lincoln would rather “lose both boys than break her heart.” He is presented as a man willing to take risks, and as a family unifier, not a breaker.

In the film’s coda, Ford suggests how the legend of Lincoln originated, showing the workings of the elements which made him a myth. Lincoln expresses his wish to be left alone, walking to the top of the hill. The camera pulls back as he marches on, with the soundtrack playing “Glory Hallelujah” louder and louder. Amidst rainstorm and lightning, the real figure of Lincoln is transformed into the statue of Lincoln in Washington D.C.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Story: Lamar Trotti

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Writing Oscar went to Lewis R. Foster for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Special Edition

The special DVD edition of a double-disc set includes a new, restored high-definition digital transfer; a 1975 episode of the BBC talk show “Parkinson,” featuring star Henry Fonda; archival audio interviews with director John Ford and Henry Fonda; Academy Award Theater dramatization of “Young Mr. Lincoln,” downloadable as an MP3 file; a gallery of archival documents and publicity materials.