Young Mr. Lincoln

Studio: Criterion

Jan 24, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

To call Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford’s first collaboration with actor Henry Fonda, a biopic is to do the film a disservice beyond being relatively inaccurate. Yes, it depicts a young Abraham Lincoln (Fonda) as he navigates his early days as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. And while it is loosely based on an actual case Lincoln was involved in years before becoming President of the United States and a face of the abolition of slavery, it’s far more an exploration of how Lincoln’s ideals formed. It’s a character study.

Maybe this distinction serves as mere semantics, but it’s important to go into Young Mr. Lincoln without an expectation of encountering a history lesson or a documentary-like retelling of specific events. As such, it only has the vaguest notions of a plot and it winds up being the least interesting element of the movie. A local man pesters a pair of young women at a town event while the rest of the community hoots and hollers – including Lincoln, who judges a pie contest (apple for life!), wins a log-splitting competition, and cheats to take down an undefeated tug-of-war team – so no one notices the nearly benign beginnings of what turns into a distressing affair. The women’s partners get into a tussle with the man in a more isolated locale and it turns ugly with the original assailant dead in the woods. The young men are each charged with murder, and Lincoln becomes their lawyer.

The plot machinations of the courtroom drama are well-trod territory, but here they seem almost secondary, though the details within are fascinating. The courtroom is chaos personified, and the judge is a bumbling hayseed who barely understands what’s going on. Everything is far less formal than what you’d expect, though the rough outline of what courts would become is there.

But the case is window-dressing for Lincoln’s journey. Like how the courtroom provides a sketch of later versions, so does this iteration of Lincoln. He’s humble, but not weak, as seen when he confronts a mob frothing at the mouth for revenge against the two boys who are believed to have killed the aforementioned man. He tries reason, but also references his skills with his fists challenging any man who thinks he’s worthy. Lincoln never raises his voice, and this sternly calm demeanor quiets the gathering crowd, and even injects them with shame.

Fonda is the perfect choice for the role – even though he initially didn’t want it, as seen in the supplement documentary Omnibus: “John Ford” – as he brings an inherent, thoughtful goodness to the role. His presence is one of peaceful strength. These traits, interestingly enough, are what make him such a thrilling villain in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Fonda had cultivated the expectation for his characters to possess an unflinching moral compass, so to see him be a clear-eyed killer is very jarring.

Young Mr. Lincoln also represents a relatively early version of this noble everyman trope that is a staple of Fonda’s performances in The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men, and it’s doubly appropriate because of where in Lincoln’s own timeline the film is set. It’s almost as though both actor and character are discovering elements of who they are and who they wish to be, and this symmetry makes for an exceptional, layered performance.

It’s a unique film in a sense because it doesn’t have the thrilling, raucous narrative that is synonymous with Ford’s John Wayne-centric westerns. And if this story were to be told without the context of it being about Lincoln, and instead were some anonymous youthful lawyer in the 1800s, it wouldn’t carry the same kind of weight. Instead, it may feel woefully unfinished or underdeveloped, and I think this can still happen upon an initial viewing. Having the knowledge of who Abraham Lincoln would become, these formative moments are far more substantial than they seem. This is true from the perspective of other members of the community who underestimate Lincoln, or see him as a harmless, amiable sort. He has a sort of ‘aw shucks’ charm making him seem inconsequential, and he learns to use this as a weapon, or at the very least a tactic to surprise.

As can be expected from a Ford film, Young Mr. Lincoln is gorgeous, and Criterion’s transfer helps capture its beauty from composition to composition. It isn’t as heavily populated with grand vistas as his Monument Valley films, but its stark serenity – along with the score – fit perfectly with the character work being done by Fonda.

The disc features, in addition to the BBC documentary, interviews with Fonda and Ford, and a radio adaptation of the film with Fonda reprising the role as Lincoln. The accompanying booklet (a constant favorite of mine) features an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien called ‘Hero in Waiting’ dealing with many of the themes discussed here about Lincoln being a president-in-the-making. Additionally, a 1945 essay on John Ford by iconic Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein rounds out the collection.

So no, Young Mr. Lincoln isn’t purely a biopic, and its plot is entirely secondary to peeling back the layers of Lincoln’s humble beginnings, and exploring how goodness is cultivated in a time of chaos and uncertainty.



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