The early days of Abraham Lincoln get the full treatment in this film by Ford, who simultaneously makes Lincoln both a man and a myth. The film opens with a poem familiar to most: "If Nancy Hanks/came back as a ghost/seeking news/of what she loved most/She'd ask first/`Where's my
son?/What's happened to Abe?/What's he done?"' This sets the tone for the rest of the film, in which these questions are answered, but only in the context of what Lincoln (played by Fonda) had done by 1837. The film's first scene has Fonda making a speech to a convention of the Whig party in 1832,
in which the first words from his mouth are "You all know me." In that same year he talks with his girlfriend, Moore, by a riverside, which dissolves to the same riverside five years later, covered with ice. Moore is dead, and her grave is on the same spot where they had spoken. Fonda speaks to it
and asks her to help him decide his future. He stands a stick up on the grave, holding it with his finger at the top, and tells her that if it falls on her grave, he'll go into the legal profession. It falls for the law, and soon we see Fonda practicing his first case, a dispute between two men.
Fonda listens to both of them, then proposes a compromise. They both refuse that solution, so he threatens them: "Did you fellas ever hear 'bout the time I butted two heads together?" They acquiesce, and it is with great satisfaction that Fonda collects his fee. Following a fair in which Fonda
serves as the pie judge, there is a murder during a fight involving the two sons of an old friend, Brady, and two local roughnecks, of whom the survivor is Bond. Fonda takes on the boys' defense, first by stopping a lynch mob from killing the pair on the spot. He tries to learn from Brady which of
her sons killed the victim, but she can't say. Bond indicates that it was the bigger of the two, though neither is especially larger than the other. The judge tries to convince Fonda that he is too inexperienced for a case of this importance and suggests that he let an established lawyer take on
the defense, namely Milburn Stone, a noted trial lawyer and Fonda's rival for the hand of socialite Weaver. Fonda refuses, and in court he manages to uses the Farmer's Almanac to trap Bond into confessing to the crime himself. Fonda is triumphant, and Stone comes up to him and says he'll never
underestimate him again. Fonda walks away in a rainstorm that just happened to come up that day of shooting, and as he is lost in the rain, the film dissolves to a picture of the statue in the Lincoln Memorial.
Ford was originally reluctant to take on the film. He had just made STAGECOACH and was in a position to pick and choose his work. Two plays had recently been on Broadway on the subject of Lincoln's early years, and Ford felt that the subject had been "worked to death." But when he read the Lamar
Trotti script he changed his mind. Executive Producer Darryl F. Zanuck wanted rising actor Fonda to take on the title role, but Fonda was too much in awe of the character and he turned it down at first. But after talking to Ford, Fonda changed his mind and took the part, turning in a marvelous
performance that simultaneously captures both the awkwardness of the young man and his promise. Unlike most of Ford's films after STAGECOACH, this was very much a studio project, and Ford knew he was going to move on to his next film almost immediately after finishing work on this, leaving control
of the editing to others. Since Ford had already argued with Zanuck over the slow, elegiac pace Ford was taking with the material, the director ensured that the film would be cut the way he wanted by editing in the camera, setting up slow dissolves, and destroying the negatives of all the takes
except the ones he wanted. Throughout the film Zanuck gave Ford a lot of input about how he thought the film should go, mostly suggesting it move faster. The story of the murder in the film was taken from Trotti's own experiences as a reporter in the South. There he had reported on a murder case
in which one of two brothers was accused of killing a man. Their mother refused to tell which of them did it, so both were hanged. A superb motion picture, and one in which Ford's obsession with Americana and the forces and emotions that made this country what it is are plainly in view.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: The early days of Abraham Lincoln get the full treatment in this film by Ford, who simultaneously makes Lincoln both a man and a myth. The film opens with a poem familiar to most: "If Nancy Hanks/came back as a ghost/seeking news/of what she loved most/She… (more)