Has Young Mr. Lincoln--the first cardinal masterpiece of director John Ford's career, and the finest film of that epochal Hollywood year 1939--been neglected because people fear it's a stodgy history lesson? Even Henry Fonda, drafted to play the title role, was reluctant till Ford testily explained, "This isn't 'The Great Emancipator,' for God's sake--it's a movie about this jackleg lawyer...." And so it is: a small, slow-gathering village tale about a young man whose biggest moments--such as losing the love of his life--occur between scenes, and whose emergence as a historic figure is decades away. Yet the essential Lincoln is being forged in luminous scenes that unfold with the simplicity of fable, only no one knows it's a fable yet. The French title for the movie says it beautifully: Toward His Destiny.
The script, by Lamar Trotti, introduces Lincoln as a frontier storekeeper and drolly inadequate politician. In an early scene, we see Abe receiving his first books of law in a casual transaction with a pioneer family on their way to make a new home in the wilderness. But was it Trotti or the director who decided that this same family should circle back into Abe's life years later for the dramatic heart of the film, a murder trial in which his wit, ingenuity, and bedrock decency shape Lincoln's first public triumph--and that neither Lincoln nor the family recognize they have met before? That's typical of the movie, in which what is most important, most definitive, most valuable, is always outside the frame, out of reach, beyond naming. Even triumph is imbued with a heartbreaking sense of loss.
This transcendently beautiful film was a modest production, without the Pulitzer Prize cachet of Abe Lincoln in Illinois (not a Ford picture) the following year. Fonda, in his first of six collaborations with Ford, is the only marquee name in the cast, though Alice Brady is radiant as the pioneer matriarch (her final performance), and Ford stalwart Ward Bond has a key role. Sergei Eisenstein, no less, wrote a lucid and impassioned appreciation of the film, hailing it as "a movie I would like to have made"--and proved it by stealing a few visual tropes for his own Ivan the Terrible! This is a great, great motion picture, eminently deserving of the Criterion treatment on DVD.