After watching Young Mr. Lincoln earlier this week I found myself immediately starting the film over and watching it again. It seems to me that Young Mr. Lincoln more so than a simple biopic is one of the first superhero pictutres.
John Ford is a director who was known to have a certain vision of what America was, is, and should be. The many westerns he made through his career show a view of the West and of community in the West. And this community is sometimes brought about by legend. Remember the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when we are shown in the West that legend is sometimes more important to community than truth. So it's really no suprise that in this "highly fictionalized" account of Abe Lincolns earlier days we see him set up as hero in waiting.
The first shot we get of Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda, who was absolutely pitch perfect) here is leaning backwards in a chair before after being introduced by a friend as a meber of the blessed Whig party. He gets up to give a very short speech to a gathered crowd, and is modest throughout. It doesn't seem like much but children look at eachother and grin afterwards, Ford's way of telling us the respect he has of his community. Compare this with a scene further down the line in the movie when Lincoln stops a lynching singlehandidly by giving throwing himself between a mob with torches and teh door. He starts out saying he can lick anyone in the mob, but then goes onto to self depreciating humor and Bible quoting. As Stephen Douglas even mentions, he has a certain talent.
There are also those iconic Ford shots. Lincoln walking by the river which plays a huge role in the movie. A shot also after he becomes a lawyer that freezes him in the frame in the hat and suit which many of us picture Lincoln in as a President. Ford obviously know what he was doing here.
But there is also that enigmatic side to him. He cheats at a game of Tug of War at the fair. That's not the Honest Abe that we know. When he takes money from the clients that he defended, even though "it's all they have to give" is it because he knows that it would be a bigger insult not to take it or is it because he just wants the damn money? Is he talking down and patronizing to the people of the town, or is it a genuine self depreciating humor? Whatever the case, all those moments are there because if we will have a hero at all, it needs to be one we can relate to somehow.
There are those who think this is a weaker Ford film. And sure it's formulaic, but that's part of the point, isn't it? It's the building of a legend, it follows certain rules, and in the end it only works of the legend is told well. And here, it more than works thanks to Ford and Fonda.