1939, the year of Young Mr. Lincoln, was also the year of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) communes with The Lincoln Memorial to revive his faith in the Constitution. For people born in 1890s, like Ford and Capra, Abraham Lincoln was America. And Lincoln was part of themselves, like Christ. Somehow Lincoln sheltered them from the incalculable horror of their Civil War, a war commemorated in every town daily and still alive in relatives who had fought in it or been born slaves. Somehow Lincoln embodied feelings that transcended sordid reality, that gave the war a kind of happy ending: suffering, redemption, a new freedom. To perpetuate Lincoln, impersonators abounded. Among them was Ford’s brother, Francis, who played Lincoln in at least seven movies between 1912 and 1915. John himself devoured books on the war.
Civil War generations shared a Romantic, Hegelian belief in the state as the ultimate implementation of human reason. The first words we hear in Young Mr. Lincoln could not be more appropriate; they are even set to music: “Yes, we’ll rally round the flag […], shouting the battle cry of freedom!” Similar belief in the state survives even today, in spite of the 20th century. And, willy-nilly, we continue to contest the meaning of “America” in much the same way as Civil War generations contested the meaning of “Lincoln.”
Alas, after the Civil War the victors, contrary to the adage, did not write the histories. The losers did – generations of distinguished Southerners – and it all got re-spun. As a typical result, in Ford’s Judge Priest (1934), a Kentucky Confederate corrects a reference to “the war of rebellion” to “The War for the Southern Confederacy” – and everyone agrees that the war was fought over these divergent points of view: the North opposed “rebellion”, the South defended “rights”. No one mentions slavery. For in history-as-written, slavery does not cause the war. Slavery does rate a mention in D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930), but Griffith was also from Kentucky: his Lincoln’s war obsession is “The Union!” (1)
In truth, the war did erupt over what “Union” meant. Specifically: did the Constitution give the federal government authority to stop the spread of slavery into new territories? It did not, according to the Supreme Court. Indeed, the Union devised by the Constitution was established on political parity between free and slave states, tilting toward the latter; eleven of the presidents preceding Lincoln had been slave-owners. But now, as new free states entered the Union, the South would lose parity, unless new slave states entered equally.
In other words, the Union Lincoln sought to “preserve” was not the Union of the Constitution. It was a new and different Union, one that Lincoln and the North imposed by war and then wrote into an amended Constitution. It was simply untrue that fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But Lincoln made it true.
For Griffith, Lincoln (Walter Huston) is redeemed by his desire not to punish the South, and by his death. But, until that point, Griffith’s man is crude, simian, brutish. He grows up in dark forests without sunlight. Everything in the North is dark, stony, diagonal, aggressive, brutal. The South is light and gay, flowers, pretty girls, gallant cavaliers. The North wins because it is a hammer – because of Lincoln’s dogged determination.
What Griffith, along with Southern historians, does not underline is that the “states’ right” the South defended was the right to slavery. But Ford liked to describe himself as “a State of Mainer”, and his Lincoln (Henry Fonda) counters Griffith with a higher law: “what’s right and what’s wrong”, he says. Sam Adams, albeit from Massachusetts, had insisted on this same idea in 1776:
We may look to armies for our defense, but virtue is our best security. It is not possible that any state should long remain free, where virtue is not supremely honored. (2)
Nevertheless, slavery is not mentioned in Young Mr. Lincoln either (a passing reference aside), and no blacks appear in its 1830s Illinois. Nevertheless, implicit in the movie’s call to virtue is how far from equality blacks in 1939 were from Lincoln’s evocation at Gettysburg. Such an observation had to be implicit in 1939, or the movie would simply not have been shown. Ford could not, for example, have had young Lincoln defend black youths from a lynch mob. He had had Judge Priest (Will Rogers) do just that in 1934, and the studio simply had cut out the sequence – and had the studio not cut out the sequence, most theatres would have done so themselves, or not shown the film at all. Even black bellboys were routinely cut out of films shown in the South; from the evidence of Hollywood pictures of the 1930s, one might not suspect that black people existed in America – with the glaring exception of Ford’s pictures, which were therefore denounced as racist. Meanwhile, lynchings still occurred monthly in this Land of Lincoln. Thus implicitly, but nevertheless, Ford’s subject is slavery and equality, which is what “Abraham Lincoln” meant to a State of Mainer. Ford takes a line Griffith puts into the mouth of Lincoln, “I’m the biggest buck in this lick”, and puts it into the mouth of a lynch-mod inciter – whom Lincoln deflates with one growl. Griffith’s Lincoln is a “baboon”; Ford’s Lincoln is so lithe and graceful that no one at the dance cares he’s the only one not in white tie: his hostess chases after him all the harder. Ford’s Lincoln has nobility. “I may not know much about the law,” he says, “but I know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
How does he know? Was it right or wrong that 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War? And what about the hundreds of leaders in the past century who followed Lincoln’s precedent and transcended existing law for what they “knew” was right? Doesn’t every leader claim to know “what’s right and what’s wrong” and haven’t the consequences frequently been fatal? What of a president who says God told him to invade Iraq?
Ford’s movies are absorbed in such questions. They are a constant tapestry of the bad results of good intentions. Movie after movie, everyone suffers because someone insists on “duty”. Virtue is unvirtuous, reason unreasonable, intolerance rules everywhere, everyway. For the Augustinian-Irish-Catholic John Ford, sin is inescapable; without God’s grace, we are lost. Thus Ford’s movies are melodramas set-to-music of darkness battling light – in myriad shades of grey. Each life is a pilgrimage and a cross. Such ideas are real for Ford. His movies are miracle plays. The magic to know right and wrong inhabits the air and passes to his Lincoln through rivers, trees and books.
“BOOKS!”, Lincoln exclaims, awestruck. Then, “LAW!” And his wide eyes scanning the pages dissolve to the river and tree.
Law is nature, law is beautiful, law touches eternity. And more. Suddenly out of nowhere there is a miracle.
Perhaps at first Ford’s portrait – almost an oil – of Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) may seem Victorian. On closer inspection, it’s Keats and Byron: the outline of Ann’s figure, the simple way she stands in paradise, her forthright beckoning, her flowers, all project an overwhelming sexuality. In the godhood of nature, Lincoln discovers that law is nothing but right and wrong, and in the same instant he discovers woman. (In Griffith’s film, in contrast, when Ann (Una Merkel) reads to Lincoln about “Law”, her voice is accompanied by the slow steady hammering of Abe’s axe.) Each element in Ford’s painting is more an idea than a tracing of reality: river, tree branch, Ann’s sexiness, the flowers, her greeting, the fence portal, her magical apparition.
Ford is fond of miraculous apparitions: Debbie (Lana Wood) to Ethan (John Wayne) in The Searchers (1956); Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara) to Sean (Wayne) in The Quiet Man (1952); Bronwyn (Anna Lee) to Huw (Roddy McDowall), How Green Was My Valley (1941); Lucy (Louise Platt) to Hatfield (John Carradine), Stagecoach (1939); my darling Clementine (Cathy Downs) to Wyatt (Henry Fonda); and many more. These apparitions manifest “what’s right” for Ford and his heroes, not only in the persons of the women, but also in the person who is looking at the women’s miraculousness. In each case, the apparition imposes a moral course of action.
Here the miracle is reinforced by the tree branch, and by the fence portal that Lincoln momentarily jumps into, and by the flowers he borrows from Ann – for only so long as he remains inside the portal. For Ann inhabits another sphere,
a netherworld beyond the fence in which reality beyond reality is found. More higher knowledge will flow from Ann’s grave later, and later still from the moon itself (which solves the murder), and always will flow from the river and branch. Ann materializes like an angel above Abe, tells him what to do, then disappears – again with a tree branch and portal.
The tree-branch prosceniums framing and witnessing Ann’s shots are themselves portals from the netherworld, passageways like the river, connecting us to what is really real. Lincoln uses a tree branch on Ann’s grave for her to tell him what to do.
Tree branches also connect Abe to his dead mother, Nancy Hanks. It is she who tells the tale, who inspires Abe from afar, and who comes back almost “as a ghost”, as Abigail Clay (Alice Brady). Her leafy tree branch runs through the opening titles, reaching from her world (off-space) to shadow ours (within the frame).
Her branch recurs at midpoint, leafless when things are bleakest,
and in bloom at the climax, when Lincoln takes payment from Abigail Clay. Law is also a cycle of debts, a sharing, a connecting.
The mother’s tale, like Ann’s sequence, is structured on portals, three of them, in which Abe realises his life is on a new course:
|Running for legislature;||defending the Clays;||becoming a myth.|
In each case, an encounter with Abigail Clay follows immediately, and a tree branch.
Abigail Clay’s appearance out of nowhere is as miraculous as Ann Rutledge’s. It is she who gives Abe “Books!” and “Law!”,
and who shows him how law comes from heaven, where she and Ann are now. Indeed, the solution in the murder trial will be a book pulled from a magic hat
– an almanac in which the moon uncovers the hidden guilt of Cass (Ward Bond). In contrast, although we ourselves watched every second of the actual murder in one unblinking take, and although Abigail and her sons watched it as well, none of us knew what we saw. Indeed, not knowing what we know, or don’t know, is, like in Plato’s cave, a reason why all people grasp eternally for higher knowledge. For the tragedy of myopia is as constant in Ford as the tragedy of good intentions (e.g., How Green Was My Valley, The Whole Town’s Talking, 1935; Steamboat round the Bend, 1935; Fort Apache, 1948; 7 Women, 1966; …). “Facts” without character are almost always delusory.
After the second portal, Abe fantasizes that Abigail Clay is his mother, Carrie Sue (Dorris Bowdon) is Ann Rutledge, and Sarah (Arleen Whelan) his sister – all of whom “died”, he emphasizes. Abe becomes a son again, becomes boy-like physically, and imagines the Clays’ cabin is the one he grew up in. It’s as though Nancy Hanks has come to see for herself the answers to her questions, and Ann and sister Sarah have come as well – Irish-Catholic oneness with one’s dead (like at the end of The Long Gray Line, 1955). Is it that we are part of other people (living and dead) in ways we do not suspect, and that we do not know what we see?
Surely I have seen Young Mr. Lincoln fifty times over as many years, yet what most strikes me today is a scene so remarkable that I did not see it till now. Carrie Sue shakes hands with Abe, curtsies, then runs behind the wagon, with a quick glance back.
The openness and vulnerability of this Carrie Sue bursts the screen. A single shot plays like a ballet and in eight seconds I find myself physically immersed in the manners and formalities of a culture. This is what’s special about John Ford and at the heart of this movie: how people are connected.
And mal-connected. Good people do bad things, but there are bad people, too. Lincoln accepts jurors who enjoy hangings, provided they have an honest character. Character is everything. Thus for example, it is enough for Lincoln that Bill Killian (Robert Lowery) takes after his dad to assure him that Bill will be an honest juror – just as, in Judge Priest, guilt or innocence is established not by any facts of the case but by the accused’s character in past events. An honest man may swing from mood to mood like a weathercock, like coonskin drunk Sam Boone (Francis Ford).
But people do not change character in Ford. Dishonesty corrupts nature like an infectious disease and makes connections impossible. Rare are those people in Ford who, once corrupted, rediscover honesty in themselves (exceptions: Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey), Straight Shooting, 1917; Lora (Karen Morley), Flesh, 1932; Hannah (Henrietta Crosman), Pilgrimage, 1933). It is not the formalities at the ball held by Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver) – the butlers, pattern dances, and white ties
– that are at anti-poses to the curtsies of Carrie Sue and the versed postscript of the letter Matt (Richard Cromwell) wrote from prison. It is the masks of Stephen Douglas (Milburn Stone), Prosecutor Felder (Donald Meek), Mary Todd, and murderer Cass; it is their false faces, their phoney characters, that sever them in varying degrees from the netherworld to which the Clays and Ann belong – and which Abe visits on occasion, before returning to the world of masques. And nowhere is the masquerade so much a parody as in the courtroom, where law is supposed to serve truth. Abe himself, moreover, is not simply guided toward virtue; he glories in ambition. He is not above a bit of dissimulation, cheating or force to get things done. Whereas Judge Priest (Charles Winninger) feels old and weary and terrified after facing down a lynch mob in The Sun Shines Bright (1953), young Lincoln is thrilled: he wants to become a myth, a Christ, a sacrifice. He declares his ambitions in the movie’s first scene and warns Douglas out of his path at the end. And he is drawn like-to-like to the ambitious Mary Todd.
Mary’s moments with Lincoln parody Carrie Sue’s. The ingenuous becomes imperious. Mary charges at Lincoln demanding a dance; runs off commanding he follow; turns back to glance that he’s obeying.
Like Ann Rutledge, Mary spurs his ambition. Unlike Ann, she ends up curtsying,
and the play of eyes the two exchange on first meeting is another of the special moments in Ford’s movies,
along with Abe’s eye plays with Ann or Abigail or Carrie Sue: each play as different as the woman, each play so strong a sharing of openness that it almost overwhelms the players. The way the river overwhelms Lincoln. Says a friend, “Folks would think it’s a pretty woman or somethin’, the way you carry on.” Knowledge and women, knowledge and sex, knowledge and nature.
Back to the question. Granted, humans are sinful and laws imperfect; and neither theocracy nor humanism insure freedom; and our knowledge is myopic. How then can we know if Lincoln is right in claiming higher knowledge of “what’s right and what’s wrong” and forcing it on the rest of us? What gives Abe the right to be so cocky? How can any of us ever know that we know?
This most ancient of questions inevitably becomes a moral question. Ford’s answer is in the virtue of connections. As Plato attempts to define justice by analogy to a harmoniously functioning society, so Ford looks to honesty and openness toward people, nature and books. Such connections are impossible in a slave society. Finding goodness, finding character, is the pilgrim’s quest. The world will lead us. Politics is the art of the individual, connected with the community.
Actual communities in Ford, however, are far from paradise. They are riven by every possible fracture. Movie after movie, culture and traditions which are supposed to sustain people end up destroying people and families instead (as the law was destroying the Clay family and the Constitution was destroying the Union). Unhappy the land that needs a hero, and for Catholics all lands need Christ to die for them. Ford’s heroes are: celibate, thus a bit outside of history and possessed of higher knowledge; anointed, to moderate intolerance, re-unite the family (and union), and establish a New Testament; and destined, by their own character, to become sacrifice. The thrust in Young Mr. Lincoln is passage: the branch, the portals, the river, the connections among people, the dances and parades, the repeated interludes of Lincoln riding or walking, the passage from one world to another, youth to age, innocence to wisdom, man to
monument. Lincoln’s pilgrimage leads him back to the cradle and ahead to the cross, which are much the same thing because history, like God’s omniscience, puts everything outside time, into a static determined: we know what must happen. The hat, the branch and the portals foreshadow the Monument. Abe passes into history.
- In Griffith, slavery is the issue in the debates with Stephen Douglas (Milburn Stone), but Lincoln insists on Union; Southerners talk against abolitionists with the film’s sole black, a comic character; and Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. In Ford, Lincoln alludes to poor farmers having to leave Kentucky because they can’t compete with slaves.
- Samuel Adams to Benjamin Kent, 27 July 1776, in Harry Alonzo Cushing, The Writings of Samuel Adams (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-08), II: p. 305.