At one level I liked Young Mr. Lincoln a lot. The film is a black-and-white picture postcard to look at, with immaculate framing and carefully selected imagery to extend the visual idea of early America. It's also a remarkable example of Hollywood myth-making, laying on with a trowel the nobility, natural shrewdness, sensitivity and common-man origins of the man who became a myth. Plus it brings out all the John Ford sympathies for the honesty and goodness of hard-workin' folks. I found myself unmoved by the reverential attitude of the movie; I felt a hymn was always playing in the background, and, sure enough, a hymn, or something close enough, starts playing at the end. With all the research and excellent books about Lincoln around nowadays, with all that we've come to learn about the man, I can't help but think that Lincoln would be smiling if he saw this film.
Yet, it's effective as all get out in portraying a myth we want to believe about American life on the frontier and of the man who became our greatest president. There's not a scene in the movie where Ford doesn't fail to effectively stress a simple emotion, like love, humor, longing, honesty and doubt. He cleverly demonstrates in many scenes, particularly in the courtroom, Lincoln's shrewdness. Lincoln consistently outwits others, whether in a tug-o-war, with a man's name, selecting a juror, facing down a mob or trapping a murderer. He might use a request to sample some turnip greens because he's hungry, but he really wants a reason to ask a woman in private to tell him a secret she cannot say in front of others.
Henry Fonda, even with a false nose, gives a myth-making performance, himself. Lincoln's homespun nobility is emphasized by Ford with such an unrelenting consistency that I think only Fonda's innate likeabilty and skill make it interesting. Lincoln's ambition and ability to move a crowd his way are only alluded to, but Fonda shows us (and so does Ford) that there was iron in Lincoln's soul.
The movie is a beauty to look at. I don't know how many times we see someone, especially Lincoln, on a hill posed against a cloudy sky, with a tree framing the shot, but it works every time. The lengthy vignettes in the first half of the movie showing us the down-to-earth delights of the Fourth of July celebration -- the tug-o-war, the pie contest -- is pure corn, pure John Ford, and still purely effective in making us think there might really have been a time like this -- just like this -- in our history. Who knows, I'm sure there was.
The Criterion presentation is excellent. Included in the case is a 27-page booklet with essays on Lincoln and Ford. The extras on the second disc contain, among other items, a profile on Ford and a lengthy interview with Fonda.
I watched this movie on the Fourth of July, and was reminded that 180 years ago, also on the Fourth, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died...on the fiftieth anniversary of their signing the Declaration of Independence.