I am a historian. And I am a movie fanatic. So you would think that I would love all history movies. Not so!
Despite my love of history, I am not one of those nit picky fanatics who gets bent out of shape if a Civil War film shows a unit wearing the wrong regimental buttons. My problem with history movies is that many tend to fall into one of several categories that make them hard for me to enjoy.
There are some where the film is well made but the history is abominable. (“Mississippi Burning,” “JFK”)
There are some where the history is related fairly accurately, but the movie is dull as dishwater. (“Amistad”)
And then there are those gems that seem to be both generally historically accurate and very entertaining. I love those movies! (“The Queen,” “Glory”)
Today’s “Fabulous Friday Flick” created a new category: a masterpiece about the moments when myth and reality intersect, when the fog lifts and obscure historical events suddenly become profound.
“Young Mr. Lincoln” is, first and foremost, a fabulous movie. Every aspect of the production, acting, direction, and writing are memorable and moving.
The film does not attempt to be a literal retelling of the life of Abraham Lincoln before he entered politics, but rather an attempt to explain something deeper, more nuanced, and infinitely richer. “Young Mr. Lincoln” attempts to explain the origins of the myth of Lincoln. Henry Fonda’s performance is mesmerizing because he makes no attempt to re-create the Lincoln we expect. This is a young man, albeit one of emerging gifts, but still coming into his own. It is not the Lincoln of Mount Rushmore or the Lincoln Memorial. The assassination is far in the future. It is a man creating himself against the backdrop of an emerging frontier community and in an America learning to accept the rule of law.
Although we know what Lincoln will become, the characters – most notably Lincoln himself – do not. We can see the signposts that indicate the greatness that will emerge, but to the characters, it is just another few months in their lives, albeit capped by a riveting trial.
While most of the events in Young Mr. Lincoln are at least somewhat inspired by actual events in Lincoln’s life, neither director John Ford nor screenwriter Lamar Trotti make the pretense of a documentary. Instead they create a masterful portrait of a hero in waiting, a leader yet to have a following, a great man who is still a bashful, backwards hick town lawyer.
Fonda would have other great roles, of course, but he is never better; perhaps because as a man he combined the reticence, intelligence, wit, and self-effacing nature of Lincoln himself.
Ford would make other great movies, of course, but never is his sheer storytelling ability shown to better effect. There are scenes in Young Mr. Lincoln, such as Lincoln walking by a river, which on the surface appear to be quite simple and rather sentimental. But when you look closely at the composition of the scene you realize that Ford is showing us something more subtle, and more complex than what it appears to be.
This same contradiction is seen in Fonda’s portrayal. The surface of Young Mr. Lincoln is only part of the story.
The Sneaky, Delightful Structure Of Young Mr. Lincoln
Part of the joy of watching “Young Mr. Lincoln” is that we are constantly measuring the seemingly ordinary actions of the character against what we already know about Lincoln. We can see the deceptively simple screenplay is actually creating a profoundly memorable portrait of an extraordinary man who would change history.
The Spielberg “Lincoln” movie is more literal but less enjoyable. Young Mr. Lincoln actually brings us closer to the man.