Young Mr. Lincoln

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #320: John Ford’s Young Mr. Lin­coln.


Young Mr. Lin­coln is a film by John Ford, star­ring Hen­ry Fon­da, about Abra­ham Lin­coln when he was just a green­horn lawyer in Spring­field, Illi­nois. The Geof­frey O’Brien essay linked at the end of this review is so well done that I insist you read it, if I can make you care about the movie itself. The Cri­te­ri­on lin­er notes also con­tain an essay from Sergei Eisen­stein about the film, enti­tled “Mr. Lin­coln by Mr. Ford”. If you can scrounge up a copy, that too is worth a read.

The film itself is Ford to a T; with an obvi­ous bond between man and land, a sense of Amer­i­can mas­culin­i­ty that would con­tin­ue to per­vade his lat­er films, and sim­ple but deft cam­era work. Fon­da plays an impres­sive Lin­coln, actu­al­ly man­ag­ing to look like him at times. It appears that they cast many short­er statured folks to make Fonda’s height seem unnat­ur­al, and I think Fon­da wore a suit just a lit­tle too small for him as well.

The por­trait we get of Lin­coln seems out of place, if we’re only used to see­ing him in state and famous. Watch­ing that famous stovepipe hat ride down a coun­try road on a mule becomes a strange site, even though Lincoln’s down-home roots are an essen­tial part of his mys­tique. So the pow­er of Young Mr. Lin­coln derives from the fact that we’re see­ing a side of the man that has always been assumed but nev­er real­ly exam­ined. The ini­ma­tions of impend­ing dis­con­tent are present, and ring even stronger since we know what is in store for Lin­coln, though he does not. Through­out, the non-diegetic music hints at The Bat­tle Hymn of the Repub­lic and Lin­coln him­self is seen play­ing “Dix­ie” on his Jew’s Harp.

Dias­po­ra is also a strong theme in the film. From Lincoln’s expla­na­tion that the Jew’s Harp came down and spread from King David’s harp, from the slow Con­esto­ga roads of pio­neers pass­ing through Illi­nois, and most impor­tant­ly from Lincoln’s own jour­ney, dis­placed from Ken­tucky by cheap­er slave labor, through Indi­ana and then from New Salem to Spring­field, there is an obvi­ous path and jour­ney tak­ing place, and this leg is Lincoln’s. Thank­ful­ly he’s got long ones.

His rival­ry with Stephen Dou­glas is already present, but not as pub­lic, his hon­esty and self-dep­re­ca­tion are already well-honed, but his employ­ment of these skills is some­times inspired and at oth­er times con­fus­ing. Lincoln’s humil­i­ty and patience and espe­cial­ly his will­ing­ness to take a swing at what­ev­er is pre­sent­ed to him are the traits we end up admir­ing most. Even if this sto­ry is more apoc­ryphal than fac­tu­al it still serves an impor­tant pur­pose by mak­ing us think about how where we’ve come from can help us get to where we’re going.


Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Geof­frey O’Brien
• Sens­es of Cin­e­ma arti­cle on John Ford
The Abra­ham Lin­coln Papers at the Library of Con­gress