Young Mr. Lincoln: Review
John Ford had to struggle to get Henry Fonda to play the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln, convincing him only when the director assured the actor he would not be playing the great emancipator, but a country bumpkin. Thank goodness he agreed, because the fit of the actor to the character was a perfect one, and brought out the best in both men.
In Young Mr. Lincoln Fonda stars as the 16th President of the United States, not at the height of his political career, but as a lawyer struggling to make a name for himself in the backwaters of the rural mid-west. The story covers a bit of Lincoln’s youth and the loss of his first love before it moves into his years as a country lawyer seeing over minor disputes. That is until he takes on the case of two brothers accused of murder. The case is a real “who done it” as neither brother is sure that the other one didn’t do it, but each tries to confess to save the other. (SPOILER) Of course Lincoln sees through their selfless act and tricks the real murderer into revealing himself, all while being nothing more than a self-effacing man who has the unique ability to see through the bull and pleasantly call a spade a spade.
As sensational as the story sounds this is actually a nice quiet little film presentable for the whole family. It's beguiling charm rests completely with Fonda who seems to have been born to play Ford’s disarming self-educated man of the people. With a bit of makeup and the proper wardrobe the actor turned out to be a dead ringer for the lanky and gaunt “honest Abe”. And although Fonda was initially hesitant to play his childhood idol, he certainly embraces the persona of a humble, yet brilliant man who is the embodiment of America itself during this time period.
In fact it seems as if Fonda approached the character of Abe Lincoln as Lincoln himself regarded politics – with a great deal of respect and understanding for a divine creation that by nature must have some inherent flaws. Fonda’s portrayal (under Ford’s guidance) is an earnest effort to show that even great men begin as blank slates. They experience hardships and stumble along, making mistakes as they travel the road to greatness. And that is exactly the way Ford chooses to end the film, with Lincoln literally standing at the cross roads of his life. It is a powerful moment that offers a glimpse of the leader he is to become while simultaneously demonstrating the Lincoln he always was. (SPOILER) He has just dismissed the accolades for his accomplishment and turned down the offer of riding along with the men he has saved. Instead, he lets them go on without him, as he puts on his stovepipe hat and journeys toward his destiny alone.
And who but Fonda could possibly pull off this magnanimous moment with such grace and humility? Certainly Ford didn’t think anyone else was capable. No one else of the era possessed a screen persona so full of quiet strength and sincere modesty, standing out among men while wishing for nothing more than anonymity. Eventually this quality would become a signature trademark, but even at this early stage of his long career one could see that much like Young Mr. Lincoln, young Mr. Fonda let his actions speak for themselves. I call that great casting.