Greenhorn attorney Abraham Lincoln, struggles with an incendiary murder case on which the lives of two innocent brothers hangs in the balance. Combating public prejudice of his abilities, he fights off the slings and arrows of his harshest critic Stephan Douglas in a precursor to their politically adversarial future which is exacerbated by the intertwined duel to win the affections of Mary Todd. When Lincoln wins the freedom of the brothers by discovering the identity of the real murderer, he wins the respect of Stephan Douglas as well as the admiration of the future Mrs. Lincoln.
Part comedy, part courtroom drama with a smattering of small town romantic angst, Young Mr. Lincoln has a richness that speaks to the human spirit on so many levels that words to describes it’s cinematic poetry seem almost blasphemous.
So with much trepidation I lay tracks toward describing one of John Ford’s most poetic, lyrical and powerfully rendered of cinematic parables.
Although the case Lincoln takes in the film, is loosely based on an actual murder case involving William "Duff" Armstrong, in 1857, Young Mr. Lincoln is not a factual account of the early life of the Great Emancipator, but a series of events that shape and define the character of a young man who is trying to make his way in this world. It is a morality tale crafted for the everyman, the innocent and bold who would defend the righteous despite social peril of public ridicule. Make no mistake, this film is simplistic in it’s depiction of its’ central characters, particularly Lincoln and Douglas. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford lovingly portrays the common man as warm and endearing saints, saving a judgmental finger for the brazen upper echelon which shamelessly inure themselves to the benefits of class distinction for political gain while demeaning those less fortunate, the very threads of the social fabric they strive to rule. It is within this climate that Lincoln’s compassion for the oppressed is expressed and the foundation of his reputation built, a foundation that has the benefits of a reputation firmly poured by the understanding of what Lincoln would later represent in the course of history of the United States. It is no surprise that one readily accepts Ford’s treatment of Lincoln as biographical fact, based solely on historical hindsight of 20/20. It is almost as if Ford is painting a portrait of Lincoln with fictionalized events that support his mythology of character, which is the true thesis of the film: Character does matter.
No man destined for greatness avoids the proving test of the fiery furnace and in Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford’s story reveals a man who is no stranger to adversity, for he is tested and proven from opening frame to the closing credits. Henry Fonda portrays the future president as a man of enormous potential, awkward and mawkish, yet embodying a modesty, decency and sound judgment that endear him to the vulgar as well as the refined of disposition, because in this film, Lincoln is all things to all people.
John Ford and Henry Fonda created an impeccable portrait that, although laden with overwhelming sentiment, its’ characterization speaks to the inner spirit of what we hope to be as not only as individuals, but as a nation.
A people of character.
In my youth, unencumbered by the over-intellectualism that often distracts us from the poetry of cinematic expression, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln was one of those films I would watch on the “Million Dollar Movie.” Interrupted by commercials hawking everything from detergent to pet food, it was not necessarily the optimum outlet for one masterpieces of Hollywood’s Golden Age. However, no matter how ignoble the venue, the film’s warmth, compassion, humor and strength made such an impression upon me that I could not give language to my experiencing of this young man’s attempts to make his way in this world, a world desperate to hinder the defining of this hero-in-waiting.
It is though the eyes of innocence that John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln was an experience of poetry so pure that it haunts me even today.
Perhaps it is better that some things remain left unsaid.
In 2003, Young Mr. Lincoln was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
This special edition double disk set features:
1. New, restored high-definition digital transfer 2. A profile of John Ford’s early career and a talk show episode featuring Henry Fonda, both from the BBC 3. Archival audio interviews with Ford and Fonda, conducted by the filmmaker’s grandson Dan Ford 4. Academy Award Theater radio dramatization of Young Mr. Lincoln, downloadable as an MP3 file 5. Gallery of production documents 6. Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 7. PLUS: A 28-page booklet featuring critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an homage to Ford by Sergei Eisenstein