Film Review: Young Mr Lincoln

 

 images Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln.

John Ford’s directing career began in the silent era (his directorial debut was in 1917) and stuttered to a close in the late 1966 (seven years before his death) and his legacy includes a slew of masterpieces including ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘How Green was My Valley’ and ‘The Searchers’, the latter often included in critics lists of the greatest films ever made. ‘Young Mr Lincoln’ is less celebrated but must rank among the best in the Ford’s considerable catalogue.

A celebration of the life of the man considered one of three greatest figures to ascend to the American presidency, this joyous and celebratory film condenses the mythology of Lincoln’s young adult years in a yarn about a lawyer, Lincoln, defending two young brothers accused of murder. Along the way we witness Lincoln’s celebrated wit and humour and his skill at managing tense situations. The man is revealed to be sharply intelligent and one whose easy going attitude and demeanour leads foes and competitors to easily misjudge and underestimate him.

It is an incomplete portrait as revealed in the scenes dealing with the death of his first love Ann Rutledge. The light melancholy of these moments belies the actuality recorded by his friends and associates in their personal diaries at the time. Lincoln fell into a deep depression and many worried that he was going to take his own life and care was taken to ensure that no firearms were available to him and he was otherwise carefully watched.

Also ignored are his faults, which at that time included a propensity for using his considerable verbal and intellectual skills to aggravate and rile political opponents. He learned the hard way that this was not the best way to deal with people and later changed his ways. Otherwise the evolution of Abe is handled with grace, reverence and humour. The general thrust of ‘Young Mr Lincoln’ could be summed up in central scene where the young Abe is pondering on the nature of the law. He concludes that all it comes down to is doing the right thing thereby setting the foundation on which he will build his life’s philosophy.

Throughout ‘Young Mr Lincoln’ Ford’s deep focus lens is intent on examining time and place. The landscape of the American frontier is detailed with loving authenticity and the performances of Ford’s ensemble cast are mesmerising especially so Henry Fonda who as Lincoln the younger offers a nuanced and finely honed representation of all the characteristics Abe was famous for.

Films like this are all about building/accentuating mythology and one must always keep in mind that at the end of the day, no matter the talent of the individual, the person remains human and to be human is to be possessed of flaws as well as virtue. That aside Young Mr Lincoln is an allegory about the man and his America made most obvious in the astonishing closing scene. As Abe walks away from his friends and home, the sunshine of his innocent youth turns into the storm (the civil war) and yet he flinches not, smile unmoved as he faces what has to be faced. Overall a fantastic film viewing experience and one that I will long cherish.

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