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