John Ford's Great Lincoln Movie Gets New Life

A John Ford movie is a tough sell these days. The sentimentality, the boys-club atmosphere, the broad humor—where the only thing funnier than a bar fight is a longer bar fight—these things don’t play well with modern audiences. If movie fans think of Ford at all, it’s as the man who made a lot of John Wayne Westerns. Never mind that he made more than 140 pictures, starting in the silent era and going right up through the ’60s. His subjects ranged from the building of the transcontinental railroad to PT boat squadrons in World War II, from the Okie migration to Mary of Scotland. He won five Academy Awards. But Ford is not one of those directors, like Preston Sturges or Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles, whose movies always manage to feel contemporary. His movies hark back to the 19th century in their outlook and the values they espouse. They are a little antique, a little prim. Still, they are populist in the best sense: he made movies for everyone, although not in the dumbed-down sense in which we understand that today. The best Ford movies operate on several levels at once. There are things a child can appreciate, and there are deeply contradictory elements that engage the wisest observer. His genius—and it took a genius to do this—was to put all these things in the same picture. Somehow he makes it all hang together.

Ironically, the one Ford film most often singled out for praise is “The Searchers” (1956),  a movie that to me seems one of his most contrived and strained—and most obvious, a rare Ford flaw. It’s as if he was trying to prove something—but what? That he, too, was capable of making a movie about estrangement and alienation? A “modern” film? It’s like a tough-guy movie made by a square, and it lacks the very real excitement and satisfactions so evident in his squarer efforts—which were paradoxically more complex and ambiguous.

If I were going to promote Ford to today’s movie fans, I would recommend starting with “Young Mr. Lincoln,” newly issued—maybe minted is the better word—on DVD from Criterion. It was originally released in 1939, when Ford was on an unparalleled roll: in 1939 and 1940, he made “Stagecoach,” “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Drums Along the Mohawk” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Ford was then under contract to Twentieth Century Fox, which assigned him to the picture. The script, by Lamar Trotti, was already finished and the star, Henry Fonda, already picked when Ford came on board. Yet the movie seems as personal and idiosyncratically his own as any Ford ever made. This is one of those films that are so good, you don’t even know where to begin talking about how good they are. Tucked into the booklet included with the movie is an essay by the legendary Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in which he says that if he were allowed to slap his name on any movie made by someone else, it would be “Young Mr. Lincoln.”

The people who make movies have always known how good he was. When Orson Welles—whose “Citizen Kane” lost the best-picture and best-director races to Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” in 1942—was asked where he learned the craft of moviemaking, he cited “the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Welles said that when he was preparing “Kane,” he screened Ford’s “Stagecoach” more than 40 times.

Oh well, you know you’re in trouble when you have to trot out the character witnesses this early. Any jury would be suspicious. Because they’re looking at the record, and what they see is a man guilty time and again of making genre pictures, and in genres that aren’t even popular any more. He didn’t just make Westerns, for goodness’ sake, he made war movies and historical dramas. If you saw “Young Mr. Lincoln” on a shelf at the video store, how could you not think it was just one of those midcentury Hollywood cardboard biopics about a dead president?

So I beg your indulgence, and I appeal to your curiosity. Because this movie is so much better than you have any reason to suspect. It is a costume drama about a dead president. After that, it will frustrate every preconception you bring to it. It will turn clichés inside out. I promise, this is not your father’s Lincoln. This is not even your grandfather’s Lincoln. So set aside your misgivings and see for yourself.

From the opening shot of a New Salem, Ill., street in 1832, you know at the very least that you’re in the hands of a visual genius. You could watch almost any Ford movie—certainly this one—and get your money’s worth. He wasn’t a fussy filmmaker. Almost none of his shots calls attention to itself. But when you watch his films more than once, you begin to see how beautifully he’s framed the action to let a scene unfold with minimum showiness and maximum impact And you could take just about any shot in this movie, frame it and have a beautiful still photograph.

The Lincoln in this movie is a long way from the White House. He is, as Ford described him to Fonda, a jackleg lawyer in Springfield, Ill., who finds himself defending two men in a murder trial. But Ford takes his time getting to that moment. First Lincoln has to decide he wants to be a lawyer. In the opening few minutes of the film, he’s a New Salem storekeeper. We see him talking and walking with Ann Rutledge, his sweetheart. Then, in a masterly bit of filmmaking that takes less than a minute, the river by which they’ve walked turns from summery and peaceful to icy torrent, and Lincoln is seen placing flowers on Ann’s grave. In one of the best of the countless scenes in which people address the dead in Ford’s movies—often talking to a photograph or a tombstone—Lincoln argues with Ann about his future, ultimately letting fall a stick to decide his fate. It falls toward Ann, who’d urged him to pursue the course of a lawyer. “So it’s the law,” Lincoln says to her tombstone, adding, with a sheepish grin, “Wonder if I could have tipped it your way a little.”

Fonda’s Lincoln is all elbows and knees. In scene after scene, he frames what we see with his gangly body, sometimes standing, sometimes prone, with his feet in the air like some upside down shore bird. When we see him at first, he’s awkward and boyish. When the action moves to Springfield and he takes up a law practice in 1837, he’s dressed in black. From here on, his is the darkest image in any scene. His eyes are hooded, his face a meditative mask emerging from shadow. He still jokes and makes fun of himself, but this is a man apart.

What he is not is any variety of cardboard. Nor is he particularly saintly. To win a tug of war, he cheats by tying the end of the rope to a wagon. At the end of the movie, when the impoverished mother whose sons he’s defended tries to pay him, he takes what little she has. There’s something hard about this man. Or maybe not. Another way to read this scene is that Lincoln understands more about dignity than Hollywood usually allows us to see. He understands that taking the woman’s money is far more decent than making her a victim of his kindness. What’s important is that Ford lets us alone to make our choice about the interpretation.

This was to be the hallmark of all his greatest pictures. “How Green Was My Valley” looks, at first glance, like an uplifting family saga, but if you think about it, it’s also about the destruction of family at the hands of a patriarch who’d wanted just the opposite. “Fort Apache” both celebrates and condemns the Custer-like martinet at the center of the story. “They Were Expendable,” made while World War II was successfully winding down—and made by a man who saw active duty during the war—may be the best movie ever made about defeat.

Ford’s movies are often as much meditations as they are stories. He assumes that the audience for “Young Mr. Lincoln” knows the story he’s about to tell, that they know who Ann Rutledge was, and Nancy Hanks and Stephen Douglas. “Rally ’Round the Flag” plays under the credits at the beginning, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” swells up at the end, when Lincoln, under a gathering storm, leaves a companion and says he thinks he’ll walk on a bit, “maybe up to the top of that hill.” But in between, Ford never gives Lincoln the Great Man treatment. Instead, he asks us to study his hero, to see who he was, to see if we can see where he’s going and what it would take to get him there. (Supposedly Ford briefly considered including a shot of Lincoln arriving in Springfield and passing a small, dark-haired boy who glowers at him from the porch of a theater where a poster advertises an appearance by the famed Booth family.)

Time and again, without making much ado about it, Ford takes the conventions of whatever genre he’s working in and shreds them. In “Young Mr. Lincoln,” there’s a scene at a ball where Lincoln dances with Mary Todd for the first time. Then, as couples invariably do in movies, they move out to the verandah to talk. Only they don’t talk. They approach the porch rail, where Lincoln is drawn to the view of the river, the same river by which Ann Rutledge is buried, and we hear the music that played under the earlier courtship scene (an Alfred Newman melody so beguiling that Ford used it again, three decades later, in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”). Mary Todd stands beside Lincoln, but when she realizes that he’s not going to speak, she quietly moves back to the depths of the porch, now watching him with a deeply curious look while he stares out at the river, lost in memory. It’s a brief scene, entirely without words, and it tells us more about these two people—and about the unknowability of people—than pages of dialogue could convey.

In the Criterion DVD release, “Young Mr. Lincoln” comes with a second disc that includes a decent BBC documentary about Ford made by the English director Lindsay Anderson and a couple of audio interviews with Ford and Fonda. If you watch this disc with the hope of hearing Ford himself say much of interest, you’ll be disappointed. He liked playing simple, telling lies and generally frustrating interviewers however he could. He hated playing the sensitive artist, or rather, he hated admitting that this was what he was. He preferred to hide behind a gruff facade that he tricked out with a slouch hat and dark glasses. No matter. What he was, in all its glorious complication, subtlety and immense feeling, he put right up there on the screen for all to see. All you have to do is watch.