Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

By Eric Jessen 8/10/09

As a result of my movie temperament being warped by the current slam bang brand of cinema, at least two boobs and a punch in the face per 30 minutes (I'm still recovering from Natural Born Killers), my first impression of Young Mr. Lincoln and most John Ford movies is that they are dragging blah. Young Mr. Lincoln's astute patience and even delivery plays flat and artless. The overly folksy “Lincoln” is commercial Americana, like bland campaign propaganda: Henry Fonda in full make-up, suit and top hat chops wood, eats pie, plays a Jew's Harp and tells stories of cattle and “the cabin” to overall-wearing, straw-chewing midwesterners. But with multiple viewings or careful consideration a John Ford film slowly penetrates the psyche (I found myself fervidly arguing that Abe Lincoln is the greatest U. S. President in history), splitting my depraved sensibilities with its saintly, calm naturalism. Its depth becomes apparent.
Although Henry Fonda (not a favorite actor of mine) once again tilts his head and looks to the skies with a pious self-assurance like a deity, never engaging the audience, in this case he's perfect as legendary hero President Lincoln. At the same time his overpowering goodness and morality are thankfully not shoved in our face to the point of being nauseating. Fonda as Lincoln has a blind confidence and sense of reason. His witty remarks and down home chats are refreshing, making him a ideal trustworthy politician.
The skill in Ford's direction and Fonda's acting is in creating a noble but nuanced figure. Watch closely Lincoln's awkwardness around women and Illinois bourgeoisie. At heart he is just a bashful country boy with a bumpkin attitude masking a religious mentality and inherent wisdom, speaking the honest truth with the utmost clarity (at one point to soften an angry mob). Watch closely for the appearance of fear and indecision when he is alone with his thoughts by the river. He seems distressed as if he is shouldering a great burden. In the final scene when a lovable drunkard asks him “ain't you comin' Abe?” Lincoln replies, “No, I think I'll go on to the top of that hill,” (not as cheesy as it sounds).
Young Mr. Lincoln may often seem overly simplistic in portraying democracy and mid 1800's America. At times it may seem boring. But even if you've been forever jaded by the sexploitive, bloody macho porn of CGI infested, washed out 3D and IMAX modern cinema, take some time to think, watch “Lincoln” again, watch The Searchers, My Darling Clementine and all of John Fords films again, because they're subtle, enduring and sublime.

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