Why does this movie get so little attention? Maybe because it came out in that overstuffed great-movie year, 1939 (Wizard of Oz, Dark Victory, Grand Illusion, GWTW [which I can't stand]). But I really think it's because YML is a transitional film for Ford -- it's stuck between his early expressionistic period ("The Informer") and his classic Western period, with one stylistic foot in each. And it's unabashedly patriotic, only hinting at the dark reimagining of the American experience that the Master would come to in "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" -- but still hinting at it enough to turn off the McVeighs among us.
Maybe that's why I love it. You can see Ford coming to terms with the grand, Griffithesque vision of America through its most complicated avatar, Lincoln. Ford's love for his country was more like Lincoln's than Griffith's, anyway: like Lincoln, he acknowledged the genius of the democratic experiment, but he was also aware of its dangers: mob rule and self-satisfaction. YML's greatest scenes are all about this.
First, there's the local parade Abe attends, surrounded by yahoos whom he loves but also sees for what they are. (We see him in another scene accepting a legal case from one of these -- and warily biting the coin offered him for a retainer.) Veterans of the recent War of 1812 and Indian Wars march through; the crowd is wild for them, Abe merely respectful.Then a agon of old men in tricorners is pulled through the parade route. No one seems to know who they are. Lincoln quietly informs his friends that they are veterans of the War for Independence -- and gravely doffs his stovepipe hat. His friends, mildly ashamed (it appears) of their prevous jingoistic glee, follow suit, and stand silent and hatless as the old men pass.
Then the mildly ludicrous plot -- about two brothers accused of another man's murder -- kicks in, and Abe goes to work. The scene where he confronts a lynch mob, putting his foot up against the log they're using for a battering-ram against the jailhouse door, is a classic by any standard. But note how Abe talks to the mob on its own level while remaining, in spirit, resolutely on his own higher plane. After appealing to their macho impulses by offering to "lick any man here," he delivers a house-divided speech that soothes their savagery and leaves them confused and irresolute. "Dontcha wanna put that log down now, boys?" he asks when they have been flummoxed by his eloquence. "Ain't it gettin' a mite heavy?"
Throughout Ford indulges in shameless historical foreshadowings that would have made Stephen Vincent Benet blush. Abe meets Mary Todd and Stephen Douglas; he rides down a dirt road with a bumpkin who's playing a new tune called "Dixie" on a jaw-harp. "Kinda makes you feel like marchin'!" says the bumpkin, as he and Abe ride through a muddy patch in the road.
The ending is impossible to describe without inviting derision, but I swear to you, it works. Having won his case, Lincoln allows as how he might take a walk -- "maybe to the top of that hill." As he trudges on, the skies send down rain and lightning -- and Abe seems to know what this is a prelude to.
I acknowledge the superiority of the great Ford films that came after, but I will always have a special place in my heart for "Young Mr. Lincoln." Independence Day (the federal day of observance, not the movie) is coming; you could do far worse than to watch this great film before the barbecue.
In 2003, Young Mr. Lincoln was selected for preservation
in the United States National Film Registry by the
Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".