YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (John Ford, 1939)

Sergei M. Eisenstein declared John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln his favorite American film and, given the depth of its criticism of the American political landscape, it isn’t hard to see why. There is also the rural visual poetry that, early on, the film musters for the occasion. This was the first of Ford’s seven collaborations with Henry Fonda, who plays young attorney Abraham Lincoln beautifully—hauntedly, tragically, stoically.
     Two films later, in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Ford would use Fonda to suggest a moral connection between “outlaw” Tom Joad and Lincoln, to help set the increasingly radicalized Okie on the side of the angels. Earlier, however, the more pertinent basis for comparison was a film by Frank Capra that appeared later the same year as Ford’s Lincoln: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The insularity of Capra’s idiotically right-wing film distresses; this aspect lends a frightening edge to the hero Jefferson Smith’s parochial nature, suggesting a fascist-in-the-making. His legion of supportive Boy Rangers, alarmingly, come to resemble Hitler youth. It takes one’s breath away that Capra resists applying any sort of analysis or critical distancing. By contrast, Ford sounds out the potential for demagoguery in American democracy. Beginning with the film’s bucolic first movement, Ford premises Lincoln’s exemplariness in order to suggest that Lincoln’s susceptibility to being demagogic—the film relates his need for crowd adulation to the deaths of both his mother and Ann Rutledge—reveals something besides individual defect; for, using the past to comment on current hard times, and mindful of Germany’s example, Ford worries where a frightened people may let leaders lead them and where these leaders may be willing to go. Not so Capra, whose Mr. Smith, at the very least, courts fascism by endorsing a U.S. senator’s strident populism.

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