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Young Mr. Lincoln

Introduction by Tom Conley
Screening on Film
Directed by John Ford.
With Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver.
US, 1939, 35mm, black & white, 100 min.
Print source: HFA

Weaving together history and myth, Young Mr. Lincoln has intrigued commentators from Sergei Eisenstein to the Cahiers critics and Andrew Sarris. This biopic presents not the agonized Civil War President but the gangly, even awkward, backwoods lawyer in Illinois whose pursuit of justice hints at greatness to come. The film’s genius and appeal come from this simple device: everything we see and hear gains an extra dimension of poignancy and significance from our knowledge of Lincoln’s future. Many of Henry Fonda’s roles for Ford exemplify this pattern, in which the hero must always move on; driven by fate, he can never settle down, even if he would like to. Nevertheless, far from being a forbidding figure, Ford’s Lincoln is both a man for the ages and a man of the people. As Joseph McBride puts it, “For Ford, Lincoln is the archetypal figure of justice, a man who dispenses legal wisdom with a priestlike humor, charity and tolerance.” 

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