“Young Mr. Lincoln” Fabulous Friday Flicks

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 studies law under a tree

“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. Henry Fonda Young Mr Lincoln

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.

Young Mr. Lincoln kneels by the graveside of his first love.

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.

 

Do you have a favorite history movie?  Leave a comment!

Here is a link to an article on the Lincoln movie.

And My Darling Clementine is definitely one of my favorites.

15 thoughts on ““Young Mr. Lincoln” Fabulous Friday Flicks

  1. I really appreciate your analysis of why some historically-based films work, and others fall far short. My very next move is to add “Young Mr. Lincoln” to our Netflix queue.

    • Jay,

      I’ll be anxious to read what you think of it! Please share your thoughts after viewing.

      Part of the genius of the direction and Fonda’s portrayal is the subtle way in which they offer clues as to who the “jack leg lawyer” will become. “Young Mr. Lincoln” assumes we know who Lincoln was. It attempts to show us HOW he became that man.

  2. Fascinating analysis! I have seen the movie – and really enjoyed it – several times, but I did not pick up on some of the elements you mentioned. Did John Ford change the original script to create the symbolic images you mentioned or did they exist in the original screenplay?

    • This is a great question, Dani! The answer is that the script established many of the themes, then Ford worked on the rewrite in order to bring it more clearly into focus. And, working with the actors and the cinematographer, he crafted the performances and the visual style to reinforce the notion. Interestingly, according to Ford’s biographer, the fabulous final shot (Lincoln climbing the hill as a storm brews) was something of a happy accident. They were filming outdoors when an actual storm developed. Ford figured out the shot “on the fly” – and it has become an all time iconic image in film!

  3. I found your post after seeing the new movie “Lincoln” in the theaters. The portrayals are very different – which do you think is more accurate? And is the current movie historically accurate? I’d love your thoughts…

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  8. There is a famous story of Henry Fonda telling John Ford he was too intimidated to play Lincoln. Ford, never one to mince words, told Fonda to play it like a young backwoods lawyer at his first trial. It worked, as you pointed out in your review. This film IS nuanced and shows us the kind of person Lincoln was. Great job!

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  11. Brilliant essay—you “get it”, to be sure. Just as poetry can often depict the soul whereas a photograph only the outlines, so this movie is for its historical subject. It is perhaps no coincidence that Segei Eisenstein named Young Mr. Lincoln the one American film he wished he had made.

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