Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1939).
In the courtroom.
Facing the stormy future.
When cinema was still wet and lumpy as river clay, directors like John Ford took huge gobs of it in their godlike hands and sculpted fluid monuments to the noblest and most moving dreams of humanity. Hell yes, I'm mythologizing, and so were they, magnificently. Like you, I don't trust such legend-mongering on a basic ideological level. Also like you, I hope, I need at times to be susceptible to what it offers: a vision of ideals that may always already be corrupted, but that nevertheless represent the heights of our imagination as a democratic culture, and deserve to be given expression, if only as a reminder of what a painful abandonment of such ideals our cynicism demands.
Henry Fonda's Lincoln is truer than true. He looks nothing like him until about ten minutes into the picture, at which time the force of his embodiment causes you to readjust your notion of the historical man, to replace his face with the one in front of you. The story itself is slight, a quaint and tangential courtroom drama, in and around which the more significant historical figures--Mary Todd, Stephen Douglas, even Lincoln himself in some ways--hover as detached observers, or phantoms. The young Mr. Lincoln is mercurially buffoonish, melancholy, gallant, mischievous, inscrutable, more like a trickster hybrid of Paul Bunyan and Mr. Deeds than a president-in-the-making. He splits logs, wolfs down alternate bites of peach and apple pie, cheats at a tug-of-war, mopes over graves, goes into reveries over rivers. He cuts an endearingly absurd figure in his stovepipe hat and frontier boots, riding a mule into Springfield to begin his practice of law. At a moment's notice, he clouds over with an inconsolable darkness, lost in his private apprehension of bleak truths too painful for words.
Sergei Eisenstein said that Young Mr. Lincoln was the dearest to him of all American films (his essay on it is included in the liner notes to the Criterion DVD, along with an appreciation by Geoffrey O'Brien). This will not surprise those who see the obvious affinities between Eisenstein and Ford, most notably their reliance on the stirring historicized tableau as the central visual force in their work, Eisenstein's pioneering approach to montage notwithstanding. In addition, however, he is responding to what so many others have responded to in the movie: its sweetness that is never saccharine, its wistfulness that obliquely foreshadows events beyond the frame of the story.
The brief two-part Ann Rutledge episode near the beginning acts as a sort of reverse coda, a setting-up of the overall mood, with its juxtaposition of youthful blitheness and fatal disappointment. Like so much else in the film, it does not resolve into the main plot. It is there for us in the same way it is for Lincoln himself, as part of what is real and inescapable, what colors all other everyday events with its memory and implications. It takes a few moments to sink in that this movie, with all its vitality and grace and light touches, is a death hymn.
Oh, if you haven't yet, see it at once!
Labels: John Ford