Sunday, September 9, 2007

Review - Young Mr. Lincoln

September 8, 2007

Young Mr. Lincoln – U.S., 1939

It's hard to imagine a movie being made about young William Jefferson Clinton struggling to find himself, coping with personal loss, and finally realizing his dream to serve the public. If the movie were positive, the right would blast it, and if it were even slightly negative, the left would blast it. Perhaps it is simply that there is no politician in recent memory whom the public collectively revers. Those presidents that are loved by the public have films made about them that show them at their finest moment, such as 13 Days. John Ford's 1939 film Young Mr. Lincoln is another example of showing a president at a defining - albeit fictional - moment.

Young Mr. Lincoln actually begins in 1832, 29 years before the start of the American Civil War. A young, idealistic Abe Lincoln, played superbly by Henry Fonda, is running for a seat in the legislature, a seat which he indeed wins. After delivering a brief speech, a wagon arrives with a family without means but in need of food and supplies. Abe accommodates them and in return gets a book about law. Self-taught in other subjects, Abe studies the book and comes to understand a simple truth about the law: It's about right and wrong. The young Lincoln appears to be in love with a woman named Ann, who encourages him to study law and to do so at a school close to hers. However, fate has a more tragic plan. Ann, as well as many other people dear to Abe, dies. While visiting her grave, he ponders which road to go down; should he stay in Kentucky or go to law school? He tells Ann that he will use a stick to decide. If the stick falls in his direction, he will stay; if the stick falls toward her grave, he will go to law school.

The young Abe has a sense of humor, as well as a strong sense of justice. At a fair, there is a fight, and a man dies. Two brothers from the countryside are arrested, and a mob, convinced of the boys' guilt forms to dole out a bit of mob justice. Abe's speech to quell the mob is pure genius, as it uses a mixture of humor, morality, and scripture. Abe decides to represent the two brothers, both of which say they were the one to commit the crime. To make matters worse, the only witness appears to be the two boys' mother, and as Abe explains later, making her testify would be like asking her to choose between sons.

Other aspects of the film are worth noting. The film shows Abe meeting his future wife at a parade. At a party, she says it is her custom for a guest to ask her to dance. He explains that he wants to dance with her "in the worst way" but he doesn't know how to dance. After she gets her way, Mary remarks, "You said you wanted to dance with me in the worst way, and I must say you've kept your word.” The last half an hour of the film is devoted to the trial. It is surprisingly funny.

Young Mr. Lincoln is a tribute to a leader whose sense of right and wrong was so strong that he was willing to make decisions that he knew would divide the country. That is a rare quality in today's presidents. Perhaps Hollywood should show more of it.

3 and a half stars

Young Mr. Lincoln was released on DVD by The Criterion Collection.

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