Young Mr. Lincoln

My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to get back to blogging regularly. So, here we go with John Ford’s hymn to the moral courage and human decency of the martyred American leader who steered our nation in the direction of justice.

Henry Fonda almost didn’t take the role when Ford lincoln-posteroffered it to him. He held Lincoln in such reverence, he said, that it would have been like “portraying Christ himself on film.” But Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) aims to show the great man before he was great, warts and all. (In fact, between the nose and the wart, it took three hours in make-up to get Fonda looking the part.) Honest Abe was not above cheating in the Fourth of July tug-of-war to help his team win. That self-deprecating humor of his may have disarmed dull-witted Midwesterners, but we in the audience recognize a skillful manipulator when we see one.

Abe was way smarter than the townspeople of Springfield, Illinois—smart enough to know that intelligence scares people. Better to hide your light under a bushel. But make no mistake about it: Abe’s light shines forth for all to see. Even as a young man, Lincoln was guided by his conscience, not by self-interest. When he rescues two brothers falsely-accused of murder from a lynch mob, it’s clear that he is dedicated to a higher purpose.

We seem to lose our heads in times like this. We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves!

Lynchings were all too common in the Jim Crow South. In the 1930s, when John Ford was making this picture, the trials of the “Scottsboro Boys” drew attention to the issue of racial bias in the American legal system. Nine black teenagers were accused in 1931, on flimsy evidence, of raping two white women. The case dragged on for seven years, going all the way up to the Supreme Court, and became known in left-wing circles as “the case of The White People of Alabama vs. The Rest of the World.”  Blues musician Lead Belly even wrote a song about the Scottsboro Boys.

lead-belly

There are clear parallels between the righteous Alabama Judge James Horton, whom newspapers at the time described as looking like “Lincoln without the beard,” and young Lincoln’s defense of the two brothers.

young-mr-lincoln-fonda
Henry Fonda Looking Presidential

 Judge Horton sacrificed his own career to see justice done, setting aside the guilty verdict reached by the all-white jury and calling for a new trial after he became convinced that the chief witness to the alleged crime was lying. It didn’t help. Fonda’s Lincoln has no beard. While his own legal career is at stake, Abe succeeds in catching out the chief witness in the boys’ case in a “crude, cold-blooded lie.” Hollywood being Hollywood, the perpetrator admits to lying and justice prevails.

 

The Searchers

For Chris, Peter, Jim, and Max

Watching my dog forge her way through chest-high (to her) snow in our driveway this morning, I was reminded of the scene in The Searchers where John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, forces his horse down a snowy slope in New Mexico (actually Canada, I believe). searchers snowEthan’s adopted nephew, Martin, follows closely behind with the pack horse. He’s narrating this sequence, and we are soon made to share his horror as the pristine snow gives way to trampled ground and a scene of utter devastation.

The two men have come upon the aftermath of a U.S. calvary raid on a Comanche encampment. Dead horses, dead braves, burning teepees. Among the bodies they find is that of “Look,” a Comanche woman who’d taken a liking to Martin and offered herself to him in exchange for a hat. “What did those soldiers have to go and kill her for, Ethan? She never done nobody any harm.”

In fact, we were given the answer to this question just a few scenes earlier. Ethan goes berserk and starts killing buffalo—more meat than he and Martin need for themselves—knocking the younger man to the ground and stealing his rifle when his own ammunition runs out. “Least they won’t feed any Comanche this winter!” he says savagely.

We understand Ethan’s rage. His brother’s family was slaughtered by the Comanche, one niece raped and murdered, the other taken captive. He has no hope, really, of saving the girl: “They’ll keep her to raise as one of their own until . . . till she’s of an age to . . .”  And yet he and Martin will devote five years of their lives to finding her, sheerly for revenge. Ethan has nothing else to live for but vengeance.

Dealing with “savages” has reduced the Texas pioneers to their most primitive elements.  In the strong sun that bakes this barren landscape dry, only a strong hate like Ethan’s survives. Time and time again, his style of frontier justice wins out over the more civilized morality upheld by the settlers. Ethan’s brother’s family gathers around the dining room table, eating supper off of blue willow china. There he sits among them, tightly coiled, venting his racist fury on poor Martin, the baby he rescued after his (white) parents had been massacred by Indians.

“Hell, I could mistake you for a half-breed,” he says, and seems displeased when Martin confirms that he is an eighth Cherokee. One drop of Indian blood is all it takes to taint a white man, and any white woman of an age to . . .  is as good as dead.

The trailer for The Searchers plays up Wayne’s character’s courage, passion, tenderness, and love. This seems to be trading on Wayne’s reputation from earlier pictures. The decency of the character he played in Stagecoach, or his gentlemanly conduct in Sands of Iwo Jima toward a women forced by circumstances to sell her body after her baby’s father was killed.

searchers final shotI’d say John Ford was trading on Wayne’s reputation to encourage audiences in 1950s America to examine their own racial attitudes. In an often-imitated shot at the end of  the picture, Ethan is framed in a doorway, excluded from the warm domestic scene inside a settler’s home. His style of frontier justice is no longer needed and his values are revealed for the anachronism they are.

Stagecoach

Forget the Apaches. Geronimo and his gang are just noise in this picture. Okay, noise and a few well-aimed arrows. The threat they pose keeps our little party of stagecoach travelers moving right along, I’ll grant you that, but they’re not necessary.

John Wayne is necessary. The moment he appears by the side of the trail to hitch a ride is when the story truly begins.wayne His interest turns the prostitute, Dallas, into a good woman. His recognition of Doc lends the sorry alcoholic a touch of dignity. The two of them come into their own when Lucy Mallory goes into labor.

Maybe the best service Wayne renders is telling the embezzling banker Henry Gatewood off, early on. Gatewood is almost TOO perfect a symbol of everything that’s wrong with America. Just look at how he treats the enlisted man who is called away by his commanding officer:

I can’t get over the impertinence of that young lieutenant. I’ll make it warm for that shake-tail! I’ll report him to Washington – we pay taxes to the government and what do we get? Not even protection from the army! I don’t know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business! Why, they’re even talking now about having *bank* examiners. As if we bankers don’t know how to run our own banks! Why, at home I have a letter from a popinjay official saying they were going to inspect my books. I have a slogan that should be blazoned on every newspaper in this country: America for the Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is something shocking. Over one billion dollars a year! What this country needs is a businessman for president!

Of course, you can’t imagine anyone talking like that nowadays, but if they did, it would be good to have the Duke around to tell ’em off.