One doesn’t need to watch all of John Ford’s work to see why he has been called America’s greatest filmmaker. Ford’s 1939 film, “Young Mr. Lincoln,” is reason enough to understand why he belongs in the pantheon of great American filmmakers. “Young Mr. Lincoln” is not the kind of film you can watch for a simple viewing experience or casual conversation about its merits or demerits. Much like with Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), this film demands our attention—not only with our minds, but also with our hearts. It is a film that is both sacred and earthy, and one that searches for the thread between these two realities.
“Young Mr. Lincoln” takes us into the life of one of the most important American presidents, Abraham Lincoln (portrayed by Henry Fonda), long before he entered the White House. In the film, he is living in New Salem, Illinois when he decides to study law. He moves to Springfield, Illinois where he begins practicing law. He’s a humble man with a great sense of humor. He is also a budding politician and shown to be quite different from his peers and opponents who are clearly wealthy and part of the upper crust of the society.
Even at the beginning of the film, there is nothing especially idyllic about Lincoln’s life, but Ford highlights some of the “fun and games,” especially during the Independence Day parade. Lincoln takes part in many events: log splitting, tug o’ war, and he even judges a pie eating contest, which Ford turns into a rather humorous scene. Lincoln is unable to decide whether peach pie is better than apple pie and so he keeps stuffing his face, hoping that he will reach a decision. The judgment never comes but the pies sure are tasty.
Independence Day festivities turn sour when two brothers, Adam and Matt Clay, are accused of killing Scrub White, who is not exactly a pillar of the community. White had been a louse and a troublemaker, and this was clear at the beginning of the film when he was harassing the Clay family during the parade. White had been a bully among many other bullies. The brothers’ mother, Abigail, witnesses the event.
After the sheriff takes Adam and Matt into custody, a mob descends, yelling “lynch them, lynch them!” They are trying to break down the door of the county jailhouse when suddenly Lincoln emerges and stands in front of them. Through his wit and appeal to honor and virtue, he is able to subdue the crowd and send them home. But now, the hard work of defense begins, and after all, Lincoln is not yet an experienced lawyer.
The murder trial in “Young Mr. Lincoln” was based loosely on a real client Lincoln defended: William “Duff” Armstrong, who was charged with murder of James Preston Metzker. Lincoln, who was a friend of the Armstrong family, decided to defend William pro bono, in gratitude for the kindness they had shown him. In the film, Ford relies on the same evidence Lincoln presented in the Armstrong case, despite the fact that the story is somewhat altered to add dramatic action.
It is nearly impossible to watch this film, however, without thinking of the kind of man Lincoln would become and the fate that awaits him. Yet Ford eschews either deifying or profaning this great man. We witness Lincoln being a man, struggling through his own life, learning law, increasing his virtue and wisdom, knowing how important it is to live in a just world, and just plain being funny. Lincoln’s humor will come as an unexpected surprise to many who are not familiar with his life.
Ford moves swiftly between larger, collective history and the interior life of one man. In this sense, “Young Mr. Lincoln” encompasses Lincoln’s present (that is, the time when the film is taking place), his memories of a difficult childhood, the inevitable Civil War, and our relation as Americans to Lincoln. How does an actor even play such a figure?
As it happened, Henry Fonda hesitated before accepting the role. For him, trying to play Lincoln was like trying to play God. But Fonda later said Ford “shamed” him into playing Lincoln: “You’re not playing the president of the United States. You’re playing a jack-legged lawyer from Illinois!” Fonda accepted the role and delivered a performance that not only humanizes Lincoln but also all of us who bear witness to his character, in every sense of the word.
Fonda’s Lincoln doesn’t really deliver speeches in the film. He speaks plainly and clearly. One scene, however, is capable of bringing everyone to his knees to accept with humility the fragility of being human. When the mob descends on the jailhouse, with hatred in their eyes, and foaming like rabid dogs, Lincoln stops them. Standing in front of their vengeful faces, ready fists, and ropes, Lincoln begins to rein them in . . . with humor.
“Get away, Lincoln! We’re coming through,” says one man, whose face—matching those of most in the crowd—is contorted with hatred and anger. (One sees hints of German expressionism in Ford’s work, yet this is a distinctly American creation as well. The faces and body language speak volumes, and given the fact that Ford made many silent films, it is no surprise he prized image over word).
Lincoln appeals to his own selfish nature, or so the crowd at first thinks. “Look at this whole thing from my side,” says Lincoln. He is known to be a fresh lawyer who wants to make a name for himself. Why hang Adam and Matt Clay uneventfully and unceremoniously, he asks, when they could give the whole town a show with the trial? Why not gather people in the town square and watch the hanging? The brothers’ mother looks on, and can’t believe what she is hearing. Is this man going to defend her sons or is he going to betray their trust?
The atmosphere changes when Lincoln leaves jokes aside, and delivers one of the most moving scenes in cinema:
Trouble is, when men start takin’ the law into their own hands, they’re just as apt, in all the confusion and fun, to start hangin’ somebody who’s not a murderer as somebody who is. Then the next thing you know, they’re hangin’ one another just for fun, ’til it gets to the place a man can’t pass a tree, or look at a rope without feelin’ uneasy. We seem to lose our heads in times like this. We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves.
Turning to one of the men in the horde, Lincoln says, “For instance, you take Jeremiah Carter yonder. There’s not a finer, more decent, God-fearing man in Springfield than Jeremiah Carter.” Carter looks on until he begins to lower his head in shame. “And I wouldn’t be surprised,” says Lincoln, “if, when he goes home, he takes down a certain book and looks into it. Maybe he’ll just happen to hit on these words—‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’
Lincoln instructs the men to put down the log they were planning to use to break into the jail. Ford’s camera slows this movement down—as they’re lowering the log, gently and slowly, their gaze is only turned toward Lincoln. We never see Lincoln, only their faces full of remorse and exhaustion, as if they’ve been implored to look into the heavens and ask God for forgiveness. And in some ways, they have been, because although Lincoln is a man of honor and virtue, he is still one of them. He is showing them what they can and should be.
Ford’s talent highlights an American paradox: Its uneasiness with its difficult past is singular. Yet beauty and the possibility of creation and independence remains in America as well. Ford is not a cynic, but he’s not an idealist either. Instead, he is interested not only in making a good movie but also a true movie—one that ensures we see everyone in their full humanity. Here, we witness a fight for life, and an invitation to think about what honor, justice, and human dignity really means. Nothing is more important than that. And nothing is more American, either.