Sorry to spoil it for you, but at the end of this year’s White House Down Jamie Foxx’s President Sawyer isn’t actually shot dead – you’re just made to think he is. What saves his life is an old pocket-watch, inscribed to Abraham Lincoln from his wife Mary Todd, which stops the bullet. “Abe took a second bullet for me,” deadpans Sawyer as he raises himself from the ground. For that line, among others, you wish Abe hadn’t bothered.
Thankfully, cinema hasn’t always treated Lincoln so cheaply. Directors from D.W. Griffith to Steven Spielberg have had their turns at commemorating the great man, but my own favourite is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). In fact, along with A Face in the Crowd (1957), it’s probably my favourite American political film.
Which is strange, in a way, because there’s actually not much politics in Young Mr. Lincoln – at least not of the conventional, Grand Old Party sort. This is, as the title suggests, a film about Lincoln before he became … well, Lincoln. It conflates his early to mid-twenties, when he moved from being a store owner to a junior lawyer, and then embellishes them with the case of two men wrongly accused of murder that came later in his life. There is one brief scene in which Abe, running for the legislature as a Whig, outlines his political principles, but he comes across stilted and awkward: “I’m in favour of a national bank, of the internal improvement system and high protective tariff.” The Gettysburg Address is a long way off.
Young Mr. Lincoln himself is played by Henry Fonda, in the first of seven pictures he made with Ford. It was a fortunate bit of casting for both men. Fonda would later say that this was the film he most enjoyed making in his entire career, whilst Ford had struck on one of the few actors with the right alchemical blend of gentleness, strength, intelligence and aw-shucks likeability for this version of Lincoln. The script sees Fonda not just grappling with Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England – “By jing, that’s all there is to it! Right and wrong.” – but also placating a baying mob, and judging a pie-cooking contest. He’s meditator, mediator and masticator, and much else besides.
In fact, the whole film is multifaceted – not just our hero’s character. It contains some of the most delicate scenes in Ford’s entire body of work, as when Lincoln visits the grave, down by a snow-banked river, of his first love Ann Rutledge. And it also contains some of the busiest, including a town carnival in which the pie-cooking contest features alongside a tug o’ war and an immense bonfire. What keeps it all together, apart from Fonda’s performance, is the calmness of the direction. Much like its central character, Young Mr. Lincoln has an unhurried thoughtfulness about it. It isn’t the first Ford film that could be called “great” – Stagecoach (1939) preceded it, for one – but it could be the first that is as poetic as it is entertaining.
And do you know what? There’s something of America itself in that poetry. As much as this is a film about one individual, it’s also about the individuals who come across Lincoln’s path: some drunken and dissolute, some noble and good-natured, some who are a mix of those things and more. Which is why, when I said that there’s not much conventional politics in Young Mr. Lincoln, I didn’t mean that there is no politics at all. What this film shows us is the birth pool of American democracy: the townships and the homesteads, with all the messy bits attached. It’s what folk as varied as Alexis de Tocqueville, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Walt Whitman wrote about. It’s where Lincoln, in both a literal and a figurative sense, came from.
Of all Ford’s films, it’s surely The Searchers that has the most famous final shot: John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, the eternal outsider, framed by a doorway, walking off into the desert. But the one that closes Young Mr. Lincoln is just as satisfying. His case completed, Lincoln strides to the top of a hill as a storm sets in. The wind buffets him, lightning flashes up ahead, but instead of turning back towards town, he pauses, looks into the distance, and then keeps on going. This is American iconography, plain and simple – an art form that has had few better practitioners than Mr Ford.
This article originally appeared in Bright Blue‘s magazine The Progressive Conscience, which was launched at this week’s Party Conference. Here, it acts as the second entry in ConservativeHome’s Film Club. The next film will be will be Z (1969).