Young Mr. Lincoln (1939): Iconic Hero, Played by Henry Fonda

In John Ford’s epic film, Lincoln’s singular persona is manifested in a series of thematic and ideological confrontations.

He is the idealistic lawyer, willing to volunteer his services for the right 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.”

Lincoln is not an intellectual, or man of ideas, but a man of action. In a scene similar to Fury, albeit lacking its frightening intensity, the irrational crowds are demanding revenge, throwing stones at the county jail and ready to lynch the two brothers (“what they need is a little taste of the rope”). Guarding the jail from the masses, he states unequivocally: “I am not up here to make any speeches. All I got to say is I can lick any man here, hands down.” But he follows with a speech about the harmful effects of irrational mob behavior: “when men start taking the law into their own hands, they’re just as apt, in all confusion and fun, to start hanging somebody who’s not a murderer as somebody who is…till it gets to the place where a man can’t pass a tree or look at a rope without feeling uneasy.”

Lincoln stands for small-town heroes who are obsessively committed to their mission, never considering defeat or resignation. Before the trial’s end, the Judge asks Lincoln if he needs a “more experienced lawyer to help him or take his place.” “You suggest that I retire, take a back seat” Lincoln protests, “I’m not the sort of fellow ‘t swap horses in the middle of the stream.” Conforming to the tradition of American screen heroism, quitting is not even in Lincoln’s vocabulary.

Lincoln’s relates to Abigail as a surrogate mother. Upon arrival at her house, he immediately puts himself to work, chopping wood. “People used to say I could sink an axe deeper than anybody,” he says, “Well, that’s still not bad for a city fellow.” “She is a lot like you,” he tells Abigail about his mother (who would have been her age). Lincoln’s attitude toward Sara and Carrie Sue is also quasi-familial: he had a sister named Sara (she died at giving birth), and he once knew a girl like Carrie Sue. Lincoln, like Abigail, experienced tragic events over which he had no control, events that ruined his life. He lost Ann Rutledge, and Abigail lost her husband shortly after they moved into the house. Abigail’s husband was killed by a drunken Indian, just as she was coming from milking. Once again, accidental violence is ubiquitous in small-town movies.

Lincoln is shy with women. Mary Todd describes him as having “aversion of feminine society,” but he is romantic in his own special way. Arriving at Mary’s elegant supper and watching well-dressed people dance, he feels awkward. “All the dancing I’ve ever done was behind a plow,” he tells Mary. He is also modest about his upbringing. Asked if he is a member of that “fine family” of Lincoln in Massachusetts, he says “No Lincoln I ever knew amounted to a hill of beans.”

The river assumes mythic functions in the film: it represents Nature. The earlier walks along the river with Ann convey romanticism; later, whenever he sees the river he thinks of her, and the music heightens this feeling. “It’s a mighty pretty river,” Lincoln tells his companion, who can’t understand his fascination with it: “Folks would think it’s a pretty woman, the way you carry on.” But to Lincoln it is more than a pretty girl; it stands for everything beautiful in his life.

Lincoln’s behavior at the trial is informal and relaxed. Feet elevated on a chair, he likes to sit on the stairs next to the jurors. Lincoln’s interviews of candidates for the jury reveal his moral principles. He dismisses the town’s barber because he claims he has never seen a brawl; a fight actually occurred in his shop. And, conversely, he accepts men who have been drunk and told lies, only because they have the courage to admit so.

Ford draws explicit contrasts between Lincoln and the prosecutor, Felder (Donald Meek). Shorter and older, the prosecutor is an unattractive man, bald, limping on a can, and possessing a mean spirit. Lincoln is tall, younger, and full of charm. Their styles of delivery could not be more different. The prosecutor’s speech is grand and bombastic, its contents pretentious. By contrast, Lincoln’s speech is down to earth, replete with human tales and jokes ordinary people could relate to. He possesses performance skills, acting at times like a clown or a comic. “He’s a great story teller,” says Mr. Douglas, “like all such actors, he revels in boisterous applause.” He is singled out for his “ability in handling an unthinking mob,” to the point where “not even his enemies deny he has a certain political talent.”

During her cross-examination, Abigail is at the center of the frame, signifying the film endorses the suffering mother’s point of view. The camera on her side, she is seated higher than the prosecutor, who appears to be at her feet. She stands for Lincoln’s mother and, by extension, all Mothers. Lincoln describes her as “a simple ordinary country woman, who can’t even write her name.” “I’ve seen hundreds of women, just like her, working in the fields…in the kitchens. Women who say little, but do much, who ask for nothing but give all. This idealization of the matriarch and her function in providing moral and spiritual support also figures prominently in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.

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.

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