"And on the most exalted throne in the world sits nothing but a man's arse." – Montaigne
John Ford directs "Young Mr. Lincoln." Released in 1939, the film plays like a precursor to Ford's "The Sun Shines Bright", itself a loose remake of Ford's own "Judge Priest". All three films feature kindly, wise, rural lawmen who pretend to represent "American values" and who save "wrongfully persecuted" workers from lynch-mobs.
"Lincoln" charts the early life of Abraham Lincoln, the soon-to-be sixteenth president of the United States. Early scenes sketch Lincoln as a humble, folksy hero. He's plain speaking, modest, shrewd, witty and identifies with the poor. The film's opening sequence finds Lincoln's handlers denouncing acting President Andrew Jackson. Lincoln then states his own policies: "I am in favour of a National Bank and for everybody's participation in wealth!" Jackson, of course, was famous for his Bank Wars, which sought to dismantle and limit the exploitative powers of the central bank system. Lincoln, meanwhile, would back the National Banking Acts, which created a highly cartelized banking system (and partially necessitated a growing Empire).
Other odd scenes abound. Early in the film, Lincoln champions credit, which a poor family reject. They prefer straightforward barter. The scene is repeated later in the film, only here Lincoln is paid with coin for his pro bono work. Later Lincoln is shown "struggling to judge two pieces of pie", possibly an allusion to the Civil War; Lincoln, the purported bringer of unity rather than division. Before this he is portrayed as a rural law-man who "defends the poor" and presides over petty disputes, though in reality he'd quickly become a corporate layer, Whig and stooge to special interests.
Elsewhere the film portrays Lincoln as existing, or operating, outside the "normal" sphere of politics. Lincoln stands for God, moral virtues, truth, the scripture and family ("Right and wrong, that's all there is to it!"). He embodies an instinctual or innate sense of Justice and Fairness which transcends written laws. He believes the state should honour the most humble and vulnerable people and that personal sacrifice – a long walk which he himself takes - is a good thing. Such a stance encapsulates the idealist project of the film.
One of the best written examinations of this aspect of the film can be found in a 1970 Cahiers du Cinema text titled "Young Mr. Lincoln, texte collectif". Written by all the magazine's editors, the essay became a landmark of Anglo-American film criticism, and what some would call "the most anthologised, taught and referenced essay in film theory", primarily for its role in politicising film-criticism (the Cahiers group at the time were influenced by French philosopher Louis Althusser).
Writing on the way Ford portrays moral and spiritual virtues as being worth more than political guile, the magazine said: "But this very repression of politics, on which the ideological undertaking of the film is based, is itself a direct result of political assumptions (the eternal false idealist debate between morality and politics: Descartes versus Machiavelli); the very ideology of American Capitalism is to assert its divine right, to conceptualise it in terms of permanence, naturalism, and even biology and to extol it as a universal Good and Power. This enterprise, which conceals politics under the idealist mask of Morality, has the effect of re-gilding the cause of Capital with the gold of myth, by manifesting the "spirituality" in which American Capitalism believes it finds its origins and sees its eternal justification. The seeds of Lincoln's future were already sown in his youth; the future of America (its eternal values) is already written into Lincoln's moral virtues, which include the Republican Party and Capitalism."
"Young Mr. Lincoln" was produced by the infamous Darryl Zanuck. Some read the movie in terms of the upcoming 1940 Presidential election, which pitted the incumbent Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, against the Republican party. The Cahiers writers themselves described the film as "American Big Business goes to war against the New Deal", but Zanuck produced "The Grapes of Wrath" soon after, and Ford was long trading in "Lincoln's" themes. The film ends with Lincoln striding off into a thunderstorm, the whirlwinds of the Civil War on the horizon. Here the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" plays, a song which covertly links Lincoln to Christ, a lawman sent to judge the wicked.
Aesthetically, "Young Mr. Lincoln" is excellent. Ford's customary rural poetry and immaculate framing are on display, as well as his fondness for communal activities, dances and town gatherings. For Ford, family, state, community and moral virtues coalesce into an ideal which is sometimes threatened – by ridiculous straw-men (racists, Indians, drunks, bullies) - but never destroyed. The film possesses another likable performance by Fonda (Fonda's Lincoln is out of place amongst both the poor and the wealthy, but uses his charm to seduce both groups) and a neat vein of humour, particularly in its final act, where Lincoln destroys his opposition with a series of jokes. Like a superhero origins tale, the film paints in broad, mythological brush-strokes. Ford even goes so far as to have Lincoln ride into town on a donkey, evocative of Jesus' famous mule-ride into Jerusalem. This was the first of Ford's seven collaborations with Henry Fonda.
5/10 – Worth one viewing.