Young Mr. Lincoln
The Criterion Collection is releasing John Ford's highly personal 1939 imagining of the early career of Abraham Lincoln in time for Presidents' Day, though the film itself — one of the highest accomplishments of American film, if not one of the best known — is a bit of a poisoned present. Ford's Lincoln, played by a 34-year-old Henry Fonda with a long, prosthetic nose and an unruly forelock, is not a saintly figure out of a children's civics lesson — or at least, he is that and something else, something quite darker and more difficult, at the same time.
At certain moments, particularly early in the picture, before Abe has discovered his vocation in the law, Ford shoots him with reverence and awe; the lighting seems to emanate from his figure, as in a Renaissance depiction of Christ. But at other moments, when Lincoln dons the dark suit and stovepipe hat that are his uniform as a young attorney, Ford films him like a bird of prey, hovering and hawklike. His figure is almost always the darkest element in the frame, as if he were drawing all the light into him, much as F. W. Murnau (one of Ford's masters, from the time he and the great German filmmaker were under contract at Fox) filmed his spindly vampire in "Nosferatu."
The internal contradictions in "Young Mr. Lincoln" were the subject of a pioneering, much reprinted study of the film that appeared in a 1970 special issue of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, which drew on neo-Marxist and psychoanalytical theory and helped set the style of much of the academic film criticism of the 70's. If, as Geoffrey O'Brien asserts in a fine essay included with the Criterion disc, the Cahiers analysis is by now "scarcely readable," many of its observations are still illuminating. Ford's Lincoln is a bit of a monster of pragmatism, who uses his deadly skill with language to (in the Freudian jargon of the period) "castrate" his opponents, as well as an incipient capitalist who may take on a case out of compassion and concern (two farm boys have been accused of killing a local bully) but unflinchingly pockets his fee, even though the money represents the entire savings of the boys' desperately poor family. (I've often wondered if Ford's simultaneously folksy and cunning Lincoln wasn't inspired by Will Rogers, an equally complex figure with whom Ford made several important films in the early 30's.)
Ford's dual vision of Lincoln leads him to one of the most extraordinary closing acts in American film. The film has two distinctly different climaxes — one cold, harshly lighted and a little bit frightening; the other emotionally charged and shot with brooding shadows — that play out sequentially, as if Ford were offering his audience a choice of which Lincoln to take home. For Ford, clearly, both Lincolns were true, and it is his ability to acknowledge and embrace such contradictions, and make brilliant visual poetry out of them, that sets Ford in the very front rank of American filmmakers.