Monday, April 29, 2013

Young Mr. Lincoln

The great emancipator can’t dance.

The titular character of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln is shown to be many things: persuasive speaker, fearsome autodidact, prankster, pie-eater. “Dancer” doesn’t even scrape the bottom of the list. As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Lincoln moves like a bug pinned to a board, his legs kicking out as the life steadily seeps from his body. (“You said you wanted to dance with me in the worst way, and you kept your word,” Mary Todd, his bemused partner, quips.) This being a Ford film, dance—and music, for that matter—are extensions of community, articulating the social bonds otherwise left unspoken. But this Lincoln, mythic figure and gangly dweeb, struggles to understand these ceremonies. Capped off by that stovepipe hat, he towers over everyone so conspicuously he comes across as an alien creature desperately trying to imitate human beings. Even his taste of music runs towards the oddball choice of the Jew’s harp, much to the amusement and/or irritation of all around him.

Ford and crew take great pleasure in complicating a figure who long ago left the world of facts for the more nebulous realms of rumour, apocrypha and Steven Spielberg movies. Against such foes, clumsiness and self-doubt prove to be one of this Lincoln’s most devastating weapons. Rather than the wise old leader, we get the young upstart, learning law from a couple of books off the back of a wagon, defending two men accused of killing a deputy in a legal trial-by-fire (moreso for the lawyer than his clients). But his stumbling dance steps, his goofy affectations and his dry wit—these wipe the dust from the statue. If it were not for such touches, this character could easily become too overpowering a persona. Look at his masterful handling of the lynch mob that has come for the two accused killers in prison. He calms the mob, amuses them, shames them and finally wins them over. “I’m not up here to make any speeches,” he says, and then makes a speech.

Fonda’s face is often as stony as the monument that flashes at the end of the film, but it masks a figure far stranger than the secular saint found in most popular histories. This Lincoln is something of a trickster. Like a shapeshifter, he moves from solemn moralizing on capital punishment at one moment to cheating at tug-of-war in the next. He’s the smartest man in the room, and it would be too easy to dislike him if the same qualities that make him great didn’t also make him so comical. His judgment finds no greater challenge than the choice between peach and apple pie. His diplomacy involves tricking illiterate farmers into settling their disputes out of court (admittedly, some less-than-subtle threats are also needed to close the matter). He deploys his laconic style and self-deprecating humour with all the shrewdness of a master chess player. He’s the ultimate self-made man—and once you’ve made one self, what’s the difficulty in creating a few more?

Actually, “self-made” may be a misleading term. People often cling to the myth of the self-made man as if there were no society buttressing the triumphs of these apparent loners. Ford captures this most succinctly in the curious relationship between Lincoln and the Clay family. Not only do Matt and Adam Clay serve as Lincoln’s first clients, but the family years earlier also gave him the law books that provided the foundation of his legal education. Yet if they recognize each other, neither party shows it. When Lincoln wins freedom for Matt and Adam, there is a sense that they owe him; one could just as easily say he owes them for the revelation of his talents and for the tools that nurtured his legal acumen. The nation does not owe the great leader so much as the great leader owes the nation. The man enters into legend not entirely because of his own merits—although the film certainly holds him in awe—but rather because the country needs its own self-defining legends.

Such contradictions are key to the man. Ford’s Lincoln embodies the American ideal: a simple man from a lowly background, who achieves greatness through a combination of innate ability and hard work, with a bit of luck for good measure. Through the Emancipation Proclamation, he fulfills the egalitarian promise of the United States (well, there’s still a ways to go on that front, but it was a good start, I suppose). Perversely, he is also a walking rebuke to that promise. In myth and history, he has been raised to levels as lofty as any king, a coronation crowned with his own early death. He looms so large he threatens to dwarf all around him. Any child can grow up to be the president, the saying goes, but not any child can be Lincoln.

Beneath the cornball jokes and glimmers of pastoral beauty, the legal duels and high-minded speechifying, there is a clear-eyed depiction of the complex relationship between Lincoln and his public. This may seem surprising coming from John Ford—who has been known to lapse into easy sentiment and misty nostalgia from time to time—but a master myth-maker obviously knows the tricks of the trade. This Lincoln betrays hints of self-satisfaction and egotism; there are moments when he is caught savouring his own storytelling prowess, like a child dipping his finger in the icing when your back is turned. But most of the time, he seems chagrinned by his own authority. When he walks out of the court in his moment of triumph, the wild cheers of the crowd greet him; a crowd, it should be noted, that earlier wielded torches and rope on the jailhouse steps while howling for vengeance. Facing these people, Lincoln’s expression is blank, as if he were uncertain of whether or not to accept this gift. It is perhaps a little difficult to feel at ease with the applause of a lynch mob.

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