Young Mr Lincoln (1939)

John Ford | 1hr 40min

John Ford may be most recognised for his work on some of the great Westerns of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but there is a reverent American mythology which underlies his work even more broadly, and which is rarely so evident than it is in Young Mr Lincoln. Though it is based on a real murder case that saw a pre-presidential Abraham Lincoln successfully defend a Union soldier in court, historicity is not important to Ford, and the future president’s landmark abolition of slavery is barely even touched on besides a brief nod to his strong moral convictions. Instead, Lincoln’s origins as an Illinoisian lawyer becomes a fable sketching out the bedrock of American civilisation, building it upon those small acts of liberty and justice that are eventually overshadowed by the monumental waves they later generate.

The first of many collaborations between Henry Fonda and Ford arrives here in 1939, transforming the actor into a remarkable rendering of Lincoln, complete with gaunt cheeks and an instantly recognisable mole. As impressive as the makeup is, it is Fonda’s take on the historical figure that is even more convincing, filling in those unknown pieces of his character with a gentle yet imposing presence, delivering eloquent, off-the-cuff speeches seeping with persuasive sincerity. In those moments where he takes a stance against riled-up crowds, he holds his lonely ground with confidence, appealing to a strong idealistic belief that believes Americans can always do better.

 “We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves.”

Lincoln set apart as a voice of reason, calming an angry crowd from an elevated platform.
Ford arranges bodies with care in shots like these, drawing our eyes around images to significant focal points.

Within Ford’s brilliant staging, Lincoln takes an elevated position among others, exerting a powerful influence upon his community. Around him, masses of smaller characters and extras are staggered across frame in arresting arrangements, emphasising their unity in collectively drawing our eyes to those figures who demand our attention – not just Lincoln, but barristers, politicians, and accused murderers. Ford doesn’t discriminate between large ensembles, smaller groups, and single, isolated characters when it comes to his blocking, evenly building emotional arcs across both intense courtroom scenes and quiet reflections in the countryside. The frames he draws out of delicate, low-hanging tree branches there aren’t unlike those from How Green Was My Valley, which he would go on to direct two years later, though instead of rural Wales, Ford uses the riverbanks and fields of the American Midwest to set environments of tranquillity around Lincoln’s pensive meditations.

Elegant frames formed from twisted branches along river sides, where Lincoln takes quiet breaks and studies.
The icy river flowing in the background of this shot brings dynamic movement to the scene, as Lincoln drops a stick to decide which direction his future (and that of America) will go in.

Back in the town of Springfield, young Lincoln is highly respected for his law services, intelligently settling disputes as a voice of reason and compassion. When a brawl on the night of an Independence Day celebration becomes a murder, the lynch mob that quickly forms within the community can only be quelled by a man with as refined a sense of justice and compelling a tone as Lincoln, offering him his first platform to make real change beyond petty financial squabbles. Earlier, he hung his entire life trajectory upon the direction a dropped stick would fall in, and as Ford moves into the courtroom drama segment of Young Mr Lincoln, we again feel the ripples of history being born in a seemingly insignificant moment.

It is in these highly-strung legal proceedings that we see another side to Fonda’s Lincoln, at times acting as the comic relief to his own story by cracking jokes that lighten the mood of the jurors and gallery. Whether he is laying back in his chair with his feet up while selecting the jury or patiently listening to the prosecution’s case, Ford frequently frames him in the foreground, dominating the shot in positions of relaxed confidence. Though he is admonished for his charming frivolity, he never loses sight of the trial’s stakes, with the lives of two brothers hanging on the line and an uncertainty as to which one landed the killing blow.

Fonda dominating the foreground as Lincoln in the courtroom, while the drama unfolds in sharp focus in the background.

As it comes to light that their mother is apparently the only person to have seen which one was holding the knife, much of the following proceedings are tensely wound over her dilemma as to which one she should effectively sentence to death, and Ford exerts fine control over every slight shift in tone here. Especially notable is the moment when the accused boys come into question during a witness examination, where he lets them sit silently in the foreground with their backs to the camera, offering us their view of their fates being decided.

Though the focus is on the witness and lawyers in this scene, our eyes are guided there by the accused boys in the foreground – who also happen to be the subject of discussion.

As for the culmination of the trial, Ford’s blocking allows Fonda and his perfect timing to take the spotlight. In a single wide shot that lasts for almost three minutes, the scene turns from one of disheartening defeat to rousing victory, moving Lincoln away from the edge of the frame towards its centre where he stares down the true culprit, backed up by the judge, jurors, and defendants now standing right behind him. It is not hard to believe that this man casting a spell over the entire courtroom will one day become President of the United States, given both his sheer charisma and judicious discernment. For all the accusations of Ford being mawkish and sentimental about American history, there is little arguing against the expressive power with which he renders it on film, crafting and imparting legends that offer us some insight into the storytelling traditions that have shaped the cultural values of an entire nation.

A single long take that raises Lincoln up from defeat to victory in short, swift movements – an entire story is told just in comparing the start and end of this wonderfully staged shot.
Lincoln walks off into this gorgeous American landscape, making for a stunning final scene.

Young Mr Lincoln is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and Tubi TV.

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