Young Mr. Lincoln

The other night I introduced my daughter to John Ford and Henry Fonda by way of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). She was excited because Abraham Lincoln is one of her heroes (mine too). The image above, which comes early in the film, caught her interest. Lily loves books and she said the image was where she wants to be: Under a big tree along a river bank on a warm day in a cool breeze reading a book. I couldn’t agree more.

I am convinced that much less attention would be given Young Mr. Lincoln if it were not for that seminal article by the editors of Cahiers du cinéma. Regardless, the film has loads of qualities that would draw anyone into its orbit.

What is so wonderful about Young Mr. Lincoln is how perfectly mythical it all is. Lincoln was a truly unique individual in American history. His life did, in fact, take on the character of myth at times. However, many have added additional myths to his story, as though just the plain truth is not enough. This film is no exception. And yet, Young Mr. Lincoln gives us what we want, at least it gives me what I want: A good myth told well.

I love the idea that the fate of this nation, and by implication, the whole world, hinges on which way a stick will fall.

But isn’t that how life really is so many times? The great sweep of human events is mostly out of the hands of any particular person, but frequently (and curiously) it is the individual who makes the difference. And sometimes it is the flip of a coin, or the missed train, or the letter delivered too late, or the accident, or the small good deed that makes all the difference in the world. I like that kind of story. I like the twin ideas that the individual can make a difference and that sometimes it is the littlest things that cause the greatest effect. I think this is a very American preference, though not entirely unique to America.

And who could forget the last few images of Young Mr. Lincoln? Two stand out for me.

Lincoln walks alone up the hill. His tall figure, with its oddly tall stovetop hat, stands in silhouette against a beautiful cloudy sky. This image portends his future journey into America’s uncertain future, and all that that will mean.

Then Lincoln crests the hill. Lightening flashes. He pauses and looks ahead, maybe to the top of the next hill. He then walks out of the frame. Heavy rain begins to fall. This portends his future as well, but this time the future becomes more specifically defined. His future will be stormy. But he still faces it and walks into it without fear. He is the local hero still yet to become the great hero. He is the young Mr. Lincoln.

* * * * * * * * * *

The beginning of the film includes a portion of the following poem by Rosemary Benét about Lincoln’s mother (Nancy Hanks Lincoln) who died when he was a boy. After we finished the film Lily wanted to go back and read the poem. Then she just had to copy it out by hand. I love that about Lily.

If Nancy Hanks
Came back as a ghost,
Seeking news
Of what she loved most,
She’d ask first
“Where’s my son?
What’s happened to Abe?
What’s he done?”

“Poor little Abe,
Left all alone
Except for Tom,
Who’s a rolling stone;
He was only nine
The year I died.
I remember still
How hard he cried.”

“Scraping along
In a little shack,
With hardly a shirt
To cover his back,
And a prairie wind
To blow him down,
Or pinching times
If he went to town.”

“You wouldn’t know
About my son?
Did he grow tall?
Did he have fun?
Did he learn to read?
Did he get to town?
Do you know his name?
Did he get on?”

5 thoughts on “Young Mr. Lincoln

  1. >You know, I’ve never actually seen Young Mr. Lincoln (although we have it here at the video store and I’ve almost checked it out several times). I can’t why I’ve yet to take it home since Lincoln is one of my heroes as well and I think a) Henry Fonda is the perfect actor to play Lincoln in his youth and b) John Ford is the perfect director to bring his story to the big screen.In fact, there may be only one other director and actor “team” in the history of Hollywood that could do cinematic justice to that great man and his life: none other than Steven Spielberg and, Oskar Schindler himself, Liam Neeson.Oh, BTW, have you heard what one of Spielberg’s upcoming projects happens to be? 😉

  2. >Damian, I would most definitely recommend watching it. In some ways it’s like watching Mr. Smith goes to Washington, but more mythical. Fonda is perfect too.As for Spielberg’s Lincoln, I think that might be incredible. I hope so.

  3. >i love this post. i love the insight into Lily’s young life, her personality and her intrigue into things beyond her peers.

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