Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)
A family traveling through New Salem, Illinois in their wagon need groceries from Lincoln's store and the only thing of value they have is a barrel of old books including a law book, "Blackstone's Commentaries." After thoroughly reading the book, Abe (Henry Fonda) opts for the law after receiving encouragement from his early, ill-fated love, Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore).
This fictionalized rendition of the first big trial that Abraham Lincoln had to plead as a lawyer is quite entertaining and is dripping of American partisanery. Lincoln is one of the most notorious American Presidents after he sealed the Civil War, stopped slavery, and was sadly murdered. With Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford and writer Lamar Trotti told a story that may have or may have not defined Lincoln has a man of justice, equality and freedom. He was not the richest or poorest but he could understand human emotions and its struggles. The trial scenes are the most interesting aspects of this biopic and even if they are made for an audience with the easy jokes and the pedestrian approach to law, the message sent is that Lincoln was a man who could see right and wrong clearer than anybody else. Made in 1939, Young Mr. Lincoln was historically not that far from the 19th Century and the ghost of Lincoln was quite fresh. I’ve read in interviews that Fonda and Ford were in complete admiration with the President.
As Ford used to say; if you have the choice to print the facts or the legend print the legend. In this case it is quite right because President Lincoln comes out as a pure American hero. Don’t get me wrong, he was a hero and an inspiration but a better study of the character with a study of his weaknesses and a more profound observation of him could have benefited this landmark.
However, this a very Fordian film and it might be one of the best Ford/Fonda collaboration with My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. During the time span of 1939 and 1941, John Ford directed seven feature films and they all are recognized as some of the most important films of all time.
With Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home, Tobacco Road, and How Green Was My Valley John Ford gave to films more than most of any director have done. There’s a coda of simplicity and storytelling that John Ford elaborated with his huge filmography. He was the perfect example of the mix of the commercial director and a director who respected his vision in filmmaking while doing successful movies. With Young Mr. Lincoln we find the distinctive elements that have followed Ford’s films and his unique storytelling.