Since his infamous assassination in Ford Theater was re-imagined for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, American movies have been just as fascinated by Abraham Lincoln’s image and legacy as American culture at large. Besides the general veneration directed towards his name, there are specific reasons why Lincoln has been a subject of considerable preoccupation in the moving image.
Lincoln is an icon ubiquitous in American culture; his face resides on our currency and his larger-than-life status has literally been set in stone by the Lincoln Memorial. But at the same time, Lincoln occupied the Office of the Presidency years before the emergence of mass media as it is recognizable today. Having died several decades before the first images were captured on film, history knows Lincoln only through still portraits. On the one hand, this reality has emboldened the notion that Lincoln was a uniquely authentic President; this Kentucky rail-splitter of modest means and education didn’t have to perform leadership for microphones, mass-distributed newspapers, or television cameras.
On the other hand, the pre-cinematic status of real-life Lincoln emboldens curiosity about Lincoln the symbol versus Lincoln the human being. Live action cinema forces a rendering of reality concrete even if its subject matter concerns the mythic and the symbolic; any cinematic rendering of Lincoln may pose answers to a variety of questions, including details as difficult to know certainly as the sound of his voice.
Two Top Hats
But while there have been many portrayals of Lincoln in cinema, even as a vampire hunter or loyal friend to Bill and Ted, few attempts at a straightforward, “definitive” biopic have been made, as if his mythology were too imposing and his life story too grand to fit in any film of a conventional running time. In place of an attempted totalizing view of Lincoln, the 16th President has mostly been portrayed through singular representative episodes in his life (when not relegated to a supporting role).
One of the most famous of such films is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which provides an apt comparison to Steven Spielberg’s similarly microscopic approach in his recently released Lincoln.
Like Spielberg’s film, Ford’s rendition of Lincoln uses one incident of considerable struggle to represent, and confirm, existing assumptions about the larger legacy of the man himself. Sure, both films (to varying degrees) humanize Lincoln through his portrayal by iconic actors (Daniel Day-Lewis in Spielberg’s film, and the icon of Americana that is Henry Fonda in Ford’s), but neither engage with the institution of the 16th President in a way that overtly challenges existing understandings of his legacy.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s canonical account of Lincoln’s presidency, Spielberg’s Lincoln situates itself as a film of historical authority, as exhaustive and detailed as anything resembling a Hollywood biopic can possibly be. Young Mr. Lincoln, by contrast, makes no gestures toward concrete historical legitimacy. Instead, Ford’s film is about preserving Lincoln’s mythology, and myth-making is an arena where facts are largely irrelevant.
Lincoln has been an ever-adaptive figure: almost always venerated since his death, but never in the same fashion. Lincoln’s legacy has been readily adaptable to the various political contexts that his image circulates through, and cinema has played an important role in this. Fourteen years before directing a biopic of the man, Spielberg framed General Marshall quoting Lincoln’s Bixby Letter in Saving Private Ryan in order to justify risking the lives of eight men to save one: here Lincoln’s ghost is an indisputable authority to a conflict he did not witness. Similarly, Young Mr. Lincoln works in service of the context in which it was made.
The subject of a famous 1970 Cahiers du Cinema essay about Hollywood and political ideology, Young Mr. Lincoln was understood as a product of pre-war, post-New Deal politics, namely “federal centralism, isolationism, strengthening of the Democrat-Republican opposition” just as Spielberg’s Lincoln sees application to current partisan stalemates, secession threats, and contemporary Civil Rights struggles. As the figure of Lincoln evidences, American ideology constantly reinvents its past to better understand its present (after all, why else would history be important?). As Ford and Spielberg have a legacy of visualizing ideals that dominate the American imagination, it’s inevitable that each of these filmmakers would eventually embrace Lincoln as a fitting subject.
Ripping the Beard Off
But Young Mr. Lincoln is a surprisingly odd film when examined from the purview of 2012 (though, as that widely celebrated other film Ford made in 1939 evidences, Young Mr. Lincoln may not have been fully embraced in its time as well). Ford’s film, which depicts a largely falsified account of a green lawyer Lincoln defending alleged murderers in Illinois, is a historical curiosity both because of its depiction of history and its place within American culture at the time it was made. According to J. Hoberman’s excellent piece on Spielberg’s film, Lincoln was “praised as a self-made man of the people, a frontier hero, a pious Christian, an eloquent speaker, and a charitable victor” rather than the Great Emancipator early in his legacy.
It was not until Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, the year Ford’s film was released, that the 16th President began to gain a reputation dominated by the story of black liberation. Made during the Jim Crow era and at a time in which black faces were rarely if ever seen on movie screens, Young Mr. Lincoln is, in short, not at all about understanding African-Americans as Americans.
Thus, the pre-1939 understanding of Lincoln is most prominently on display in Ford’s film. The trial Lincoln chooses to participate in is hardly one that sets in concrete a righteous life trajectory of seeking justice on behalf of the feared Other. Fonda’s Lincoln takes the case to prevent an untried hanging of two white brothers, the guilty-or-innocent status of whom Lincoln has seemingly no idea.
As a film that emphasizes this understanding of pursuing “the right thing” in any and all circumstances, solving an accidental murder at a fair seems small potatoes even for an origin story. But Young Mr. Lincoln purports to be about the man’s character rather than his circumstances: his sense of humor, his impeccable compass for justice, his “aw shucks” modesty, his attuned sense of righteousness. Ford’s Lincoln is, in short, Henry Fonda.
Young Mr. Lincoln never attempts anything beyond the existing knowledge of hindsight. As with Spielberg’s Lincoln, even while there may be rich drama in the process, there is no uncertainty about Lincoln’s eventual triumph. As Geoffrey O’Brien states in his Criterion essay, “Ford seeks a cinematic language fit for democratic myth, and finds no easy resolution of the paradox that Lincoln, the great democratic hero, triumphs by a real intellectual and moral superiority over his fellows.”
Even as we’re given access to his “early years,” every frame of Young Mr. Lincoln is informed by existing notions of the man he would become rather than attempting to depict, without pretense, the man he may once have been but might not have become, thus imbuing the beyond-simply-human American figure with a sense of inevitable destiny towards unparalleled accomplishment – in other words, the type of history Hollywood does best, or at least most often.