He's one of our most beloved presidents, and yet very little about his real life is known - especially in the "reel" world of films. Oh sure, there are legends and myths, stories about his walking to school in the snow and reading by the light of the family fireplace. He's consistently painted as a country rube and rail-splitter who educated himself into becoming an attorney. His debates with Stephen Douglas are the stuff of oratory eminence and he is often cited as the Great Emancipator, the freer of the slaves (though the reality of said statement is far more complicated). While it's true that Abraham Lincoln is more than just an image on the back of our $5 bill, or an amazing monument on mountain sides and city malls that symbolizes the soundness of our "United" States, he remains almost ephemeral. But he was a real man with personality and problems. He faced incredible catastrophes both individually and politically, and yet managed to survive everything except a rogue assassin's bullet. Sadly, Hollywood hasn't done this deserving man justice (though Stephen Spielberg is supposedly taking up his biographical cause very soon) - at least from a factual standpoint. Forgiving its fictional facets however, John Ford's fantastic fable, 1939's Young Mr. Lincoln stands as a powerful testament to the notion of truth, and the manipulation of myth to get to the very heart of a true American hero.
Surprisingly, Young Mr. Lincoln is not really a bio pic. It is more an exploration of allegory, a chance to visualize the values that makes this fallen hero a political and moral icon to generations. Ford obviously wanted to preserve the man's mystery, loading the screenplay with all manner of Honest Abe tall stories. That is why we see Lincoln splitting rails or recalling his days by the fire, filling his head with book learning. We see him admire a tome on the law and humbly help himself to an education in jurisprudence. Indeed, this concept of found, common sense justice is primary to what Ford is after in this film. Yet he is not interested in complete fairness, or the literal sense of giving each man his due. No, in this filmmaker's eyes, justice is served via honesty, integrity and unpretentiousness. There is nothing fake about Lincoln (at least in this version of his heralded life) - Fonda radiates a kind of inner genuineness that seems to stream off in waves of unquestionable wholesomeness. When faced with playing local politics as usual, he politely passes, arguing that he's not the kind of man to bail out on a scenario before it's completed, for good or bad. As an attorney, disputes are settled with consideration, not corruption or connections. All throughout Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford wants to find the inner man. He could care less if he gets the entire story straight. If you walk away knowing the internal temperament of this American emblem, that's all that matters.
That is why Fonda is not required to do much more except look the part and offer up his always genial gentleness. Even when Lincoln is mad, angry at the wrongs and discriminations surrounding him, his voice is mannered, laced with reasoning and resolve. Indeed, Ford never lets his lead come unglued, showing the kind of Method mentality that complicates modern performances. No, his Illinois idealist is a thoughtful man, one constantly looking off into the distance as if called by a higher purpose and power. Scattered along the backdrop are those issues that will later plague our future President: businessmen making back door deals; slaves supplanting jobs from the decent country farmers; political divides and individual agendas; the rugged frontier vs. the emerging city sensibility. Part of what makes Young Mr. Lincoln so powerful is that you can see the simmering trouble - it's written in the wild-eyed enthusiasm of the vigilante mob. It's found in the rugged and haggard faces of the men who built the country. By foreshadowing what he could become, and relying on our already intuitive knowledge of what will happen to this man during his time in office, Ford finds a poignancy and emotional center that is incredibly moving. You see the good in this man called Lincoln, and you lament the fact that it will be extinguished for very suspicious, and very specious, reasons.
Don't get the wrong idea about this film, though. It is not a platform for the politics and policies that Lincoln would use to try and repair a near-fatally fractured Union. Indeed, Young Mr. Lincoln is more or less a prequel/blueprint for To Kill a Mockingbird, with the future Commander in Chief as Atticus Finch and two Caucasian country brothers as the object of everyone's legal claims. This is a standard courtroom drama, laced with wonderful moments of homespun wit and judicial wisdom. Fonda does some amazing work during the trial, letting Lincoln slowly and deliberately get to the truth. The story is interesting, since we don't know enough of the facts after watching the crime unfold to make a discernible decision on our own. By allowing the legal wrangling to play out naturally, with the standard linguistic games and give and take between opposing counsel, Ford offers the maturation of Lincoln. He is pinpointing the moment when this jack-legged country lawyer became a singular man of purpose. By giving his own oath on top of the one imposed by the bar, Lincoln is putting his entire life on the line. He's letting his future be guided by his own actions now, so that later it can be lead by experience. There are some hilarious moments here, times when the humor borders on humiliation. But Ford is out to find the redemption in even the most minor of instances. That is why Lincoln is able to laugh at himself. It is also why he is deadly serious when the situation demands it.
As a result, Young Mr. Lincoln is the kind of film that makes you glad to be an American. While it may sound like so much patriotic pabulum, the fact is that this corny cliché actually held some absolute truth. The United States once held men, and ideals, like those of Abraham Lincoln in high regard. People lived by their word, and their bond could no be broken. Opportunities appeared endless and freedom was the foundation, not the only reason, for everything we did. In Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford tries to encapsulate that notion of power in the people. It argues that one man can make a difference, as long as he is the right individual for the calling, and has found his own place among the populace. Throughout this minor masterwork of a film, Ford allows Lincoln to wander, and watch. Eventually, something clicks inside this thoughtful, compassionate man, and he realizes that if he does not take up the cause for those without a voice, no one will. It is this dimension of destiny, this notion that fate cannot be fought or beaten that makes this movie so special. While it's not the biography of an emblematic individual in our nation's history, it is a startling psychological profile. Or better yet, it's a reflection of all our inner optimism. This is Lincoln the way we wish he were. This is Lincoln the way we hope he was.
The director speaks for himself in audio interviews conducted by his grandson, and he's as irascible as ever (a Fonda Q&A is also featured) and there is a gallery of production documents for the film that one can "electronically" page through. Toss in a downloadable MP3 file containing a radio dramatization of Young Mr. Lincoln by the Academy Award Theater and a 28 page booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and an homage to Ford by Sergei Eisenstein and you have an excellent package. As usual, Criterion finds the proper supplemental material to give insight and perspective into the featured film, and it's importance to both its maker and its star.