Friday, October 23, 2009
Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)
How do we make and then remake our heroes? That’s a topic for another discussion, but the many versions of Abraham Lincoln devised by historians, novelists, poets, painters, and film-makers are fascinating in their diversity. Each one is constructed to address something in what has come to be called the “American character,” and Lincoln, apparently, serves as the sort of culture hero who embodies the best of what we would like to be true about our potential. In this case, John Ford fixes on Lincoln’s formative years, but of course he meant to project what Lincoln became by showing his qualities already strong at an early aged. Somehow Henry Fonda manages to pull off a decent impersonation of Lincoln as a young man, shy and tall and shambling and given to feats of strength and wit and storytelling.
Most of the plot is given over to what is supposed to be one of Lincoln’s first trials as a lawyer. He pulls off a coup, freeing two innocent young men and pinning the crime on an obnoxious sheriff’s deputy. Along the way there are some proleptic bits, like Lincoln twanging “Dixie” on his mouth-harp, and a walk to the top of a hill as thunder booms nearby, suggesting battlefields of the future. Mary Todd shows up, too, as does Stephen Douglass, but their part in the story is not taken up. There’s a lot of the old-timey music, some good, and some (refurbished and diluted with lame 1930s style orchestral scoring) not so much.
Ford is interested in American epic; here he represents Lincoln as a force of nature, a man made for his time, all wrapped up in a gangling, long-legged, craggy, folkloric, back-country lawyer with a strong attraction to justice. Meanwhile, Fonda looks Lincolnesque partly because of the lofty haircut, some nose adjustment, a mole, and something that makes his eyebrows prominent, cheeks hollow, and to this he adds a drawl and a bit of sprawlingly lazy movement. His best lines sound casual and off-hand, fitting the notion of the man of the people anti-sophisticate. All in all, it’s a pleasant exercise, more iconic than profound.