Young Mr. Lincoln might be John Ford’s greatest film. And that’s saying something. Especially considering Young Mr. Lincoln was one of three films Ford made in 1939 alone. The other two: Stagecoach is cited by many to be the best western an American studio ever produced, and Drums Along the Mohawk, Ford’s first film in color and the only film he made about the Revolutionary War.

Drums stars Henry Fonda—he would make eight films with Ford— but Young Mr. Lincoln is their first. At the time, Fonda was a freelance actor, and Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck was grooming him for the role of Lincoln. Fonda, who repeatedly said playing Lincoln was “like playing God” in interviews, held off as best he could, but after a screen test, he agreed he did look a lot like Honest Abe. It was just his voice that gave him trouble. Ford, who was working at Fox at the time, decided he wanted to make the picture and badgered Fonda into taking the role. “He’s not the great emancipator!” Fonda recalled years later, cleaning up Ford’s language for television. “He’s a jack-legged lawyer from Springfield.” Fonda took the role.

Photos courtesy The Criterion Collection.

And Young Mr. Lincoln might be Fonda’s best screen role. Not too shabby for an actor who could do anything and make it look effortless. Fonda does nothing to disguise his voice—though it sounds a little higher than his other performances of the same time—and it somehow makes his Lincoln even better. When Lincoln stops the lynch mob at the jail, he moves effortlessly from standing on their side with humor and understanding before dropping a reversal and chastising them for the hatred in their heart. Within minutes, they turn away empty-handed and shameful. A bomb has been diffused, and Lincoln didn’t even lift a finger.

That’s one of the movie’s revelations, both for the audience and for the young lawyer: Words carry more power than an army could ever muster. Fitting considering that the 212 words comprising Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are among the most memorable moments of the Civil War. Indeed, they might be among the most memorable words in the history of American democracy.

There’s a small but powerful moment in Lincoln with a summertime parade through Springfield. Among the processional are three Revolutionary War veterans—a reminder that when Lincoln was coming up, and as the country was starting to split in two, there were those alive who still remembered America’s birth.

And when Young Mr. Lincoln was released in May 1939, there were still veterans of the Civil War alive. We are never as far from the past as we like to think. A nagging notion that rings painfully true watching Young Mr. Lincoln in 2021. Though Ford and Fonda imbue every frame with American idealism, you can still see a country on the verge of fracture.

Young Mr. Lincoln is sentimental; there’s no way around it. Ford was a sentimentalist, and that always rubs audiences on the raw regardless of the time and place. There’s even a touch of sympathy for the South embedded in the film, which scholar Joseph McBride interprets as Lincoln’s ability to lament the passing of one era while knowing he had to be the force to usher in the next. Lincoln was both the great divider and the great uniter, McBride continues, but he was not the great healer. A bullet from John Wilkes Booth’s gun put that promise on ice. That work is still to be done.  

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