Many people this week are focusing on the release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and how once again studios will make roughly the gross domestic product of Zimbabwe pandering to the lowest demographic. Not me. Why would I want to spend Independence Day huddled in a theater witnessing the worst that America brings to the world?
No, I am going to be rebellious and look at something good America has given to the world – Abraham Lincoln. He was a sainted leader who sought to preserve the union and end slavery. He was a brilliant orator who delivered one of the most talked about speeches in the world. He wore a stove top hat because he had a halo and did not want people to find out. He was not really tall – he just levitated rather than walked, and was thus higher than everyone. He did not need to eat; he ran on pure Americana. USA! USA!
OK, as you can probably tell, the previous paragraph was written with a sarcastic amount of joy. Truth is, Lincoln was as human as everyone else, who did some bad things in his presidency (like, for example, suspending the writ of habeas corpus and then trying arrest a Supreme Court Justice who criticized his decision). His actual views of slavery were also far more controversial than elementary school textbooks would have you believe. He specifically forbade generals from freeing slaves in captured southern territories and attempted, early in his presidency, to compromise with slave territories in the south. It was only later that he became more committed to ending slavery (although his Emancipation Proclamation did not do so – the Thirteenth Amendment did).
Still, Lincoln still is important for the myth that has built around him. He had been depicted in film numerous times (including the controversial Birth of a Nation) but this film is probably the best. Director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda seem to have been hired simply to help further that myth. It would have been easy to create almost a film that merely presents history “as it happened” without going into Lincoln’s psyche. But this film does so, showing a Lincoln who is all to human. Make no mistake – this film is propaganda, and relies heavily on myth and anecdote in constructing a Lincoln for the masses. Still, the character those men create is far removed from the grandiose president who is looked upon as a God in other works. That is what makes it work – Fonda could just have well have been cast to play Atticus Finch and not have to change much.
Young Mr. Lincoln is not about Lincoln’s time as president, but rather his beginnings as an attorney and a shop owner. Lincoln (Fonda) starts a law practice in Springfield with his friend John Stuart (Edwin Maxwell). At a Fourth of July celebration, a man is murdered in a brawl. Lincoln takes on the case and tries to save the accused brothers, with the encouragement of his future wife, Mary Todd (Majorie Weaver).
The opening scene, which shows Lincoln giving a speech on why he should be elected to the legislature. Lincoln does not give a grandiose speech, or even have any memorable quotes. His attitude is one of complacency. Whatever happens is what was meant to happen.
That down to earth demeanor is what coasts Lincoln throughout the film. He is a figure who tries his best to relate to the common man, and one who is determined to succeed. I cannot imagine such a politician being portrayed like this today without an enormous sense of irony. But it worked for Ford and Fonda.
Now, the film is not perfect. The first act is quite slow, and introduces a character, Anne Rutledge, who promptly disappears.I know that this is history, but it does not work from a dramatic standpoint. Why not have her spirit reflect Lincoln’s inner turmoil?
But the whole is so effective that this flaw is quickly forgotten. Ford and Fonda do not do so because it would take Lincoln away from the common man. How many laborers at the time openly discussed existential crises? This Lincoln was a man of the people, who would do anything he could to make sure that he did the right thing. Better yet, he did not have a motivation for it – it was all part of his nature. It is easy to see why this film became popular (it was even sequeled the next year). At the end of a Depression and on the eve of war, this was a perfect escape that showed how people had survived another bad part of history using nothing but their moxy and down to earth demeanor.
At the time the film was made, it had become all to common to use film as a medium to make individuals soar beyond the realms of ordinary man. Triumph of the Will, released a mere four years earlier, set to turn Adolf Hitler into the sort of mythical figure that I described in the second paragraph by showing adoring crowds and images of Hitler quite literally descending from the heavens. Producer Daryl F Zanuck must have had a similar mindset when he commissioned this film – let’s make an American movie about an American hero that will forever preserve our values! But Ford and Fonda avoided that pitfall, and show a Lincoln who is not aware of his own destiny nor seems to have any ambition of his own, except to do the right thing. That attitude, in the end, has helped guide American mythology more than any other.