Young Mr. Lincoln
It is a basic American scene. Torches, a rope, a jailhouse, a crowd; darkness lit by fire, smashed windows, vulnerable door. A basic, terrifying scene. No American can fail to recognize it.
Someone was murdered earlier tonight. Two men are in custody, and the crowd wants them. In front are elderly drunks who at another time might be lovable. “We’ve gone to a heap of trouble not to have at least one hangin’,” one drawls.
Only Abe Lincoln, lawyer for the accused, is there to oppose them. He pushes through the crowd and defends the door of the law. Dressed in black, face glowing white, he screams at the crowd to listen.
He allows that, had they lives to spare, the prisoners inside could stand some hanging. “But the sort of hanging you boys’d give ’em would be so—so permanent. Trouble is, when men start takin’ the law into their own hands, they’re just as apt, in all the confusion and fun, to start hangin’ somebody who’s not a murderer as somebody who is.”
Lincoln knows that only the surrender of identity and responsibility makes the mob event possible. So as he speaks, he looks the lynchers in the face, becoming the mirror that reflects and judges them. He says their names, and shrewdly throws in a bit of Bible so they may walk away reassured of their morality.
“This scene,” writes the German novelist Peter Handke, “embodied every possibility of human behavior. In the end not only the drunks, but also the actors playing the drunks, were listening intently to Lincoln, and when he had finished they dispersed, changed forever.” That’s lovely to imagine. But it doesn’t last two seconds. We know these same men will be back in a month, a decade, a century to hang someone else. We know they’ll succeed, because Abe won’t be there to stop them. Lincoln has risked his life to forestall what he knows to be inevitable—that in this world, mobs kill.
It’s Springfield, Illinois, circa 1839. So much of the worst is still to come.
* * *
“A jack-legged young lawyer from Springfield”: That was John Ford’s Lincoln. He’d drawn this Lincoln from daguerreotype, the narratives of schoolbooks, the mythology of martyrdom. He’d fashioned a noble, humorous, cagey man with a reverence for law and an instinctive sense of right. This was the Lincoln photographed by Mathew Brady and chronicled by William B. Herndon, yet he was barely a historical figure. He was something both simpler and stranger: a product of the national imagination. Facts could be arranged as needed.
Now this was a hero. Courageous, articulate, visionary, yet a common man, respected from mansion to shack. He’d been through pain of his own, and knew what other people suffered. Ford’s Lincoln had wit, love, and a sense of loss. Ford’s Lincoln was heartbreaking. It broke the heart to know that no leader so ideal had ever walked our country’s roads, in any century; and it broke the heart to imagine—as Ford imagined, and would have his audience imagine—that that ideal just might, this one time, have been the truth.
To play his Lincoln, Ford wants that jack-legged young actor from Omaha. Henry Fonda has spent the last few years in Hollywood quietly making himself remarkable. Career-advancing intervals of romantic comedy and rural hokum have been cut with a handful of harsh performances: a mountaineer in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936); an ex-con in You Only Live Once (1937), first of the Bonnie and Clyde movies; an aristocrat in the plantation weeper Jezebel (1938), sweating feverishly as he carried Bette Davis to an Oscar; and brother Frank in Jesse James (1939), in which all Fonda had to do to steal the picture from Tyrone Power was spit a stream of tobacco juice and glare over his mustache.
Fonda has leaped past his competition, and past himself. He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest near-stars and most protean support players; he’s shown tensile strength on the screen, and a gift for charismatic silence. He’s handsome and healthy, but when the climax comes, he dies eloquently, memorably.
So he seems fated to play the sixteenth president. The two have had a long association: At the age of twenty, Fonda toured the Midwest with a Lincoln impersonator, portraying Lincoln’s secretary in a sketch he wrote himself. He estimates he has already read most of the Lincoln books that exist. And there was that scene in his very first film, The Farmer Takes a Wife—a brief encounter between the Fonda character and a prepubescent John Wilkes Booth. In terms of the story, the meeting between Booth and Fonda’s river rat in an 1850s canal town had no function. But in the context created by Young Mr. Lincoln four years later, it was a clear case of foreshadowing.
Fonda cannot claim surprise at being asked to play Lincoln: As early as 1935, he was named in Hollywood columns as the next Abe of the screen. But when John Ford calls, rational Fonda resists. Playing Lincoln’s secretary is one thing, but the man himself? “It’s like playing Jesus,” he says.
Ford, a stout, fleshy, hard-drinking Irish-American, is already famed for his dark glasses and floppy hat, his briar pipe and profanity. He is keenly aware of his personal power and developing legend, and he wields them as weapons of fear. He cows Fonda with a four-letter aria: “What the fuck is all this shit about you not wanting to play this picture? You think Lincoln’s a great fucking Emancipator, huh? He’s a young jack-legged lawyer from Springfield, for Christ sake.”
Heroes come of humble beginnings, and artists are humbled to become great.
Henry sits for the laborious application of prosthetics and pancake. Photos and screen tests are taken, and all are stunned with the result. The great man’s gravity is there: The nose is soft putty, but the brow ridge is as hard and dark as a log.
The film, shot mostly around Sacramento, is completed in time for its world premiere, in Springfield, on March 30, 1939—exactly a century from the point the events it portrays took place. Soon it goes into broad release and is recognized as a profound piece of American popular art, warm and earthy as bread from a cabin stove.
From the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein it will draw, in 1945, one of the most poignant appreciations ever written of a movie. “I first saw this film on the eve of the world war,” Eisenstein will recall, a crucial detail that directs him to Young Mr. Lincoln’s “womb of popular and national spirit.” He will extol “its unity, its artistry, its genuine beauty,” and, with a poet’s yearning tugging at his technician’s mask, describe how “the rhythm of the montage corresponds to the timbre of the photography, and where the cries of the waxwings echo over the turbid flow of muddy water and through the steady gait of the little mule that lanky Abe rides along the Sangamon River.”
Eisenstein cares only so much about the rhythm of the montage. For this moment, he wants nothing but to ride along that river, see that beautiful country.
* * *
The archetypal Hollywood director, D. W. Griffith, released his first masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, in 1915. It was based on The Clansman, Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s best-selling novel of ten years before—an exhortatory romance meant to illustrate how, in “one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race,” an “‘Invisible Empire’ had risen from the field of Death and challenged the Visible to mortal combat … and saved the life of a people.”
That “Invisible Empire” was, of course, the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon painted the postbellum night riders as heroes, protecting the South from carpetbaggers, and magnolia belles from black rapists. Griffith disclaimed any personal racism, yet he inflated Dixon’s theses with thunder, pageantry, and innovative technique. Made to sweep history in its wake, and granted a famous endorsement by President Woodrow Wilson—“Like writing history with lightning”—The Birth of a Nation grossed over sixty million dollars and was viewed by more Americans than any film yet made.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People succeeded in getting it banned in many cities but could not prevent its seep into the American mind. On leaving a theater in Lafayette, Indiana, that was screening the Griffith film, a man named Henry Brocj shot and killed Edward Manson, a black high school student. Bosley Crowther, later film critic of the New York Times, was a boy in North Carolina in 1915. “If the people coming out [of the theater] did no more than abuse the Negroes they saw in the street,” he recalled, “it was fortunate. Actually, a lot of people would throw rocks at them and do things of that sort.” In his novel Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara flashes back to the Pennsylvania boyhood of his protagonist, describing how his street gang “would play Ku Klux Klan, after having seen The Birth of a Nation.”
Historians concur that Griffith’s film played a significant role in the surge of race violence that marked the late teens and early twenties. Certainly it was instrumental in the revival of the Klan: It became a recruiting tool for the terror group, and well into the 1960s, Klan chapters throughout the South were known to screen private prints in chamber of commerce basements and Masonic lodges whenever blood courage and race inspiration were called for.
Appearing as one of Griffith’s Klan riders—a nearsighted White Knight holding up his hood to see through black-rimmed spectacles—was a young Hollywood hang-about named John Martin Feeney. Feeney had yet to assume the professional name of John Ford, and he was years away from beginning to become one of the great American directors, and the camera poet behind Young Mr. Lincoln.
Sometimes histories meet to make chaos. Sometimes they weave a shapely braid: the new strand unfurls from the last.
* * *
As mythic narrative and secret history, The Birth of a Nation is actually about the birth of a nation within a nation—that is, the Invisible Empire itself: a violent conspiracy to enforce a supremacist doctrine through rape, murder, and fear. Its countermyth, Young Mr. Lincoln, is about the birth of a different America, whose progress is driven instead by compassion, objectivity, and respect for truth: a shadow utopia, a conspiracy of kindness. Both are fantasies woven from chosen bits of American history; which one is closer to the truth may depend on who is looking.
Yet the young man who rode in D. W. Griffith’s Invisible Empire is also the older man who brings the countermyth to life. It’s as if the director is discovering his subject, his medium, and his country in every scene. Serenely assured, Ford dissolves his scenes to black as they are performed, by stopping down his lens to close out the light; he prints only one take of each scene, ordering all others destroyed. Thus, myth springs complete and articulate from his eye, no rough draft flapping in its wake. He strolls through an Independence Day fair, not so much following Abe as encountering him at every turn—as rail-splitter, judge of pies, anchorman in a tug-of-war. Ford turns to watch a parade of war veterans roll past in buggies, the only witnesses left to the War of 1812 and the Revolution; and he can only stare, amazed that he is so close to the origins of his country.
Never again will Ford’s patriotism be so affirmative. It’s not the patriotism of an old man clutching a flag and cursing dissenters, but that of a much younger man entranced by the possibility of goodness in America. Ages later, we hear a muffled dialogue behind it, questions the film can’t ask itself but which we can scarcely avoid: Could these patriotic clichés and Americanist homilies ever be true? Despite the massacres, slave ships, burnings, lynchings?
Young Mr. Lincoln is an act of empathy and of imagining. It is also a myth, or even a fairy tale. Let us imagine, it asks, that these homilies are true, that this man is just that good, and that America once offered such a man the opportunity to steer it. Let us imagine that Lincoln’s goodness will enable him to save the innocents and expose the truth. Let us imagine that, by placing a complex character at the center of simple events, we can imply the complexity of this country and its history. Let us imagine that we can raise a few bloodied specters of the American past, and, in the realm of myth, if nowhere else, purify them.
Let us imagine: That’s the process that enables myth, and it’s the mythic hero that enables the process. In Young Mr. Lincoln’s act of imagining, all the unspoken truths of our bloody history will flow through Lincoln, as mud through a river. He will take in the poison of violence, absorb hatred and pain, die for our sins, and live in our myths forever as a ghost of righteousness and rebuke.
And as Ford and Fonda portray him, he’ll walk, talk, sit, think, speak, and spit with the resolve of one who has seen it all coming—one who knows, as other men and women simply do not.
* * *
Fonda carries these details in every gesture and expression, his bearing as elemental as the film’s lowering skies. There is something about how he lures the Lincoln out of himself that enables him to speak and move like an unseen watcher, an omnipotent witness. That something is the deep silence of one who will never surrender that last part of himself—the part that digests information and emotion, and produces empathetic vision from a private place.
Everything in Young Mr. Lincoln depends on this tension between the public figure and the private man, the servant who offers everything and the individual who relinquishes nothing. It all depends on this tension being felt but not discussed, and being felt immediately, at Lincoln’s first appearance on a clapboard porch on a dusty afternoon. A pompous attorney addresses a cluster of earnest countrymen. Someone named Abe, familiar to the locals, is introduced as a candidate for the legislature. The attorney steps aside with a flourish. Cut to a figure reclining in the shade—a man with a private smile and a gift for dramatic timing, who eases himself to fullness and steps into the sun.
“Gentlemen—and fellow citizens … I presume y’all know who I am.”
It’s dizzying. How often does myth take flesh before our eyes? Seldom have movies achieved, through makeup or miracle, so arresting a combination of attributes as this, so bizarre and fixating a meld of physical actor and imaginative essence. The face is Lincoln’s; the voice is Fonda’s. The body moves with the proper languid resolve, looking just as Lincoln’s would have, had it ever been caught on moving film.
We witness a fusing of faces, and of fates. Lincoln starts to speak; Fonda starts to exist. The one steps into destiny, the other into movie myth. And to both we can only say, Yes, this is how it was supposed to be.
* * *
Part of the magic of Fonda’s portrayal is that at the same time he speaks for Lincoln, he asks Lincoln to speak for him. Each uses the other to express his own sadness and conflict; two spirits war within the imperturbable costume that to us appears filled out by one integrated body.
What is the sadness? What is the conflict? Primal scenes are both inadequate and irresistible; myth couldn’t do without them. So the Lamar Trotti screenplay founds itself on not just one primal scene, but two—the near lynching on the prison stairs, and a young woman’s death.
That woman was Ann Rutledge, Abe’s first love, whom he met upon moving to New Salem, Illinois, in 1831. Her father, a tavern owner, was young Lincoln’s employer; one of her forefathers had signed the Declaration of Independence. Ann had ambitions beyond New Salem, and planned to attend a women’s college. She saw Lincoln’s potential and encouraged him toward the law. Abe was besotted with her, and they were engaged. Then, in August of 1835, she took sick and died from what was called “brain fever” but was probably typhoid.
The story was first embellished by Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and first important biographer, and has been a wrangling point of historians. “He mourned her loss with such intensity of grief that his friends feared for his reason,” Carl Schurz wrote in 1905. “A highly dubious business,” Gore Vidal called the story some eighty years later. Melodramatics aside, there is sufficient evidence that Ann’s death left a deep void in Lincoln. He was already given to long despondencies, not surprising given the poverty of his childhood and the deaths he’d witnessed, starting with both parents and an older sister.
In Young Mr. Lincoln, Abe and Ann have just one scene together. Fonda presents Lincoln as a serious young man, though callow in his coonskin cap, and Ann is Ford’s model of supportive American womanhood. The two stroll beside the flowing Sangamon, nearly bursting with anticipation of the future and each other, but the exchange is infused with sadness. Already we have the sense of things too fine and fleeting to last.
Abe tosses a stone in the river. A dissolve turns the concentric ripples of springtime water into jagged pieces of ice dragging past the Sangamon’s banks in deepest winter. Ann Rutledge is dead—gone, just that fast—and Abe lays flowers at her grave. From the natural world of springtime, we go to a studio set of simulated winter. The transition from love, youth, and yearning to chill, death, and snowy ground is pure instinctive mysticism. It’s what religion tries to make sense of, and what art, in its highest moments, may capture.
Douglas L. Wilson writes of the “symbolic significance” that Ann’s sudden death had for Lincoln. That symbol was the grave. A Lincoln neighbor told Herndon, “I never seen a man mourn for a companion more than he did for her he made a remark one day when it was raining that he could not bare the idea of its raining on her Grave that was the time the community said he was crazy he was not crazy but he was very disponding a long time.” Wilson finds this convincing evidence of “Lincoln’s emotional fixation on Ann’s grave.”
Not just the grave but also what it represents: the obligations left by the dead upon the living. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Abe stands a stick on the frozen ground over Ann’s grave and offers a proposition. He will let the stick fall, and if in falling it points to the grave, he will fulfill Ann’s dream of his destiny and become a lawyer. If it points away, he will stay a shop clerk.
Abe wonders, when the stick points to the grave, if it was more he or Ann who influenced its direction. It doesn’t matter: The stick has two ends, and Abe knows that if one points at the grave, the other points back at him. He and the ghost are one.
* * *
Fonda knows he’s not impersonating Lincoln, but collaborating with a specter. His eyes are sunken and haunted, as if Abe were half man and already half spirit. He lives in two worlds—a sunlit world of elections and baking contests and political calculations, and another of stark elements, apprehensions, omens. The icy river running past Ann’s graveyard; the forest clearing where a stabbing occurs; the rainy hilltop where Lincoln sees his country’s future. Light and dark, day and night; material world and ghost world.
A. Alvarez describes how Freud “showed that in mourning and its pathological equivalent, melancholia, the ego tries to restore to life whatever has been lost by identifying with it, and then incorporating, or introjecting, the lost object in itself.” Young Mr. Lincoln shows the steps by which Abe absorbs Ann’s ghost and becomes a different man. He feels humble, special, responsible; he thinks and speaks with uncommon deliberation. This is the weight we sense in people who seem to have more than the usual portions of sadness, gravity, and modesty. It’s the sense Lincoln carried that the dead required something of him, that the stick pointed at the grave and at him, and that there was a ghostly determinant to human events.
It’s a sense he never shook, and died trying to fulfill.
* * *
Back on the prison steps, Lincoln addresses the lynching party: “We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves.”
His words go right to the heart of democracy. In the film, Lincoln is always suspicious of that brutal togetherness: He is a thoughtful watcher, where his neighbors are impulsive doers; a loner, where they are joiners. Often—as when the townspeople besiege the Clay brothers in the clearing, or when Mary Todd coquettishly lavishes attention on Lincoln’s rival—Abe stands back, observing the display from a shadow or an upper floor. Eisenstein sensed Lincoln’s sunken watchfulness structuring the film, calling it “a gaze of cosmic reproaches to worldly vanities.”
But Fonda’s Lincoln doesn’t just observe democracy; he participates in it, jokes and dances with it. Henry is a stiff, inhibited dancer, but he knows how he looks, and from stiffness comes style. He’s so bad, he’s charming: Directors persist in making him dance. Ford’s dancing scenes in particular are ways of making democracy itself dynamic and physical. Springfield’s town dance is the daylight counterpart to its after-dark lynching party, the community showing its best face and allowing Abe to relinquish all his tragic suspicions of his neighbors, if only for the moments it takes him to reel about the square with Mary Todd and incarnate the great man as deadpan physical comedian.
As a lawyer, Abe is master of the folksy shim-sham, and Ford and Fonda plant and detonate some of the biggest courtroom laughs since The Pickwick Papers. But throughout, the mob is a testy presence. So easily excited, so stupidly passionate, it is as ready to tear down a building as it is to roar with laughter. Abe is right not to trust it. And, with the guilty man finally exposed, he knows when to step out of its way. Having affirmed law and order, probity and logic, Lincoln replaces his hat as if restoring the lid to democracy’s boiling pot, while offscreen, the mob howls again, as it had at the prison steps.
During the trial, Fonda sits to hear a witness. Ford poses him in shadow and profile, so that Abe looms upon the scene as a spirit in the foreground, a history-book silhouette. The film has such somberness and weight that the image, while contrived, doesn’t register as anything less than justified and true. At that moment—and at Ann’s graveside, and at the march of the war veterans, and at the prison steps—Young Mr. Lincoln’s countermyth is redeemed. The revisioning of history comes emotionally alive, and rings with a profound clarity of conception and belief. Again and again, the film achieves this pure sense, not just of a national ideal expressed in composed and harmonious drama but also of the sadness and fear such an ideal would conceal.
Fear of what? Of people and their prejudices, as implacable, seemingly, as mountains and rivers; of the violent mass; of America itself. Young Mr. Lincoln—in its deep night, its grave, its noose, its observant Lincoln certain the worst is to come—is rich with that fear. Ford and Fonda know it and feel it. They will offer a mythology of purity, an idealized imagining of the American past, but their fantasy will tremble with the falling of night.
* * *
Joseph McBride believes the film’s central metaphor “is that of Lincoln as a symbolic reconciler of opposing forces in American life.” But we’re unable to view the events of Ford’s film without realizing the disjunctions between Lincoln’s aspiration and America’s reality. If McBride is correct, this Lincoln symbolizes nothing so much as failure—his, and ours.
But a great popular artwork yields metaphor as Midwestern soil produces food. So other metaphors present themselves, ones containing other parts of the truth. Two, to be exact: the noose and the grave. Abe at the prison, facing down the mob; and Abe at the graveside, talking to Ann’s ghost. The first symbolizes public fear; the second, private sorrow. Both symbolize loss, and a lifelong condition of yearning for the unattainable. Both imply that essential opposing forces—the man’s private life, the American’s public life—cannot be reconciled.
John Ford needs Henry Fonda to make these metaphors breathe. He knows Fonda will bring Abe down from the monument and make him a man. Fonda is the essential counterweight to the pro-American tone, both nostalgic and progressive, to which Ford aspires. He needs Fonda to step into the American story, to embody its tragedy and its memory.
Fonda knows enough about Lincoln, America, and himself to play Abe as a haunted man aware of what is in store for him, who moves and speaks carefully because of the burden such foreboding places on him, and who spends the film, in Graham Greene’s words, “preparing himself for his last defeat at the hands of a violent world.”
* * *
The ending gives us this: Lincoln has saved the innocent men from the mob, justice from the noose, democracy from itself. The Clay family’s wagon climbs a hill into thunderclouds, and Lincoln follows. He reaches the hill; pauses. Thunder, lightning, wind, rain. All elements converge on his lean outline. Lincoln, holding his hat, walks into the storm.
Historians have always fancied, following the man’s own writings, that Lincoln foresaw his destiny, and walked into the storm freely. So it is fair to interpret Lincoln symbolically, given that he lived that way; and fair to conclude of Young Mr. Lincoln that its judgment on both his character and our history is formed by the elements of destruction and loss, the noose and the grave.
If Fonda tells us anything about America, it’s important that Young Mr. Lincoln tells us something about Fonda. Like the young jackleg lawyer from Springfield, Fonda feared the closeness of the crowd even as he sought its soul. He was an artist of democracy and a man of sorrows. He knew about the noose, and about the grave. And like Lincoln, he acted as though there were a certain kind of life he was obliged to live: some long-ago death he was bound to honor.
Copyright © 2012 by Devin McKinney