Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1939)

A pure and extraordinary performance by Henry Fonda, brilliantly portraying, both physically and mentally, one of America’s most important figures developing from mortal into icon. The material fits director John Ford’s myth-making process perfectly, favoring passionate moments of change over complex incarnations of conflict or doubt. One standout moment occurs when Lincoln throws a rock into the river he admires throughout, causing ripples which Ford uses to fade downstream, into a now icy mise-en-scene, showing a passage of time with astounding clarity. Young Mr. Lincoln has as straight and narrow a trajectory as it’s protagonist’s lanky frame, Ford filling every moment with lush B/W images dominated by Lincoln’s presence and evolving political aptitude. I’ve never seen a John Ford film obsessed with such a singular vision of character, pressing onward with a third person perspective, the viewer never knowing what Lincoln might say or do until after the film world has experienced it first. In turn, the audience marvels at the nature of the man, the myth, the legend, as he’s becoming. A great film, unique within the canon of one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

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