Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The History of John Ford: Young Mr. Lincoln

Running parallel with our series about Akira Kurosawa ("Walking Kurosawa's Road"), we're going to start running a series of pieces about the closest thing America has to Kurosawa in artistry—director John Ford. Ford rarely made films set in the present day, but (usually) made them about the past...and about America's past, specifically (when he wasn't fulfilling a passion for his Irish roots). In "The History of John Ford" we'll be gazing fondly at the work of this American Master, who started in the Silent Era, learning his craft, refining his director's eye, and continuing to work deep into the 1960's (and his 70's) to produce the greatest body of work of any American "picture-maker.".

Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) Essential "John Ford at Fox" movie about the "jack-legged country lawyer" who would become the 16th President at the time of the nation's sundering. The film is filled to the bursting with fore-shadowing, from Abe playing "Dixie" on a jew's harp to encountering Stephen Douglas and Mary Todd to the penultimate shot of him striding up a storm-tossed hill lit by lightning (more on that later). Henry Fonda, heel-lifted, stiff-gated and nose-puttied plays Abe with a slow "drawrl" and far-away look, the film concentrating on the young Lincoln's learning and early practice of the law in Springfield, Illinois. Along the way he's haunted by the loss of his first love, Anne Rutledge and takes part in a murder case involving an angelic country family that stirs up feelings of home. Ford has a fine time skewering the pomposity of trial proceedings and the airs of high society.

The film is a prime example of the emotional mood swings that energized Ford's films.

But it also showcases the director's eye for composition and use of Nature to reinforce story points. For example, there's this early scene where Abe and Anne tentatively express feelings. Anne is friendly with Abe, while he is tragically smitten. Ford frames them by a river where a great tree forms an arch extending from Anne and branches out to barely graze Abe.

The scene will end with Lincoln walking under that arch, alone, and throwing a rock into that swiftly-flowing river, its ripples starting a transition in time that will show the river clogged with ice, and a graveyard containing Anne's grave. In the background, a yearning violin piece serves as "her" theme, but also, generally, of memory and loss, as it keeps coming back throughout the film (23 years later, Ford would use it again in the same context in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)
And there's no denying the power of that almost-final shot (
a more obvious studio shot serves as the last one, followed by Lincoln Memorial views) of Lincoln's film-ending hill-climb "goin' on a-piece." The bordering fence forming a barricade and the huge sky rumbling with thunder. It's one of the most beautiful representations of Destiny ever committed to film, from the film-laureate of History and nostalgia with a painter's eye and a poet's command of metaphor.

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