"I felt as if I were portraying Christ himself on film." is how Henry Fonda recalled his feelings on playing the eponymous lead in Young Mr. Lincoln. As that quote indicates, the film is somewhat
hagiographic. It focuses on Lincoln's early years as a lawyer, and evolves from a character study of the man as a humble but charming lawyer able to get on everyone's good side (yes, even that lynch mob's!) with a parable or two into a courtroom drama.
Loosely based on a real case, Lincoln must defend two out-of-town brothers when a brawl results in a local man's death. To make matters more dire, the mother of the boys and the dead man's friend are the only two witnesses. If one brother is not convicted, they may both be facing murder charges- that is, if the lynch mob doesn't get to them before the jury can. Making bit appearances are others who become important in Lincoln's life- significantly his early, doomed sweetheart Anne Ruthridge; his future wife Mary Todd; and his rival in both love and politics, Stephen Douglas- but the real focus never strays for more than a moment or two on framing Lincoln as the epitome of the American Sprit. In fact, to aid the image of this mythic man on screen, Henry Fonda wore specially made boots that made him appear taller! With their own visions of America at stake, both director John Ford and producer Darryl F. Zanuck fought for control of the film. Ford even went so far as to destroy unwanted takes to prevent the studio from using them when cutting the film.
In fact though, Young Mr. Lincoln is only one of three films directed by John Ford that were released in 1939- more than any other one director in that year of years for Hollywood! All three- Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk -present a Ford's Americana vision where men are honest, if fallible, and nature is to be respected. This bio-pic of Lincoln is perhaps the most cloying of the three, but Henry Fonda does a lot with what he is given. The dialogue can be a bit hackney-eyed but his physicality of the role is great, and the plot doesn't mind slowing down to show Lincoln in everyday life, which gives viewers a break from the sometimes overwhelming message of the film. Luckily, when Abe isn't waxing poetic about his purpose or the goodness of justice, he has parables to share. Funny and witty, many of these pointed tales are ones actually used by Lincoln.
If you are looking for something to put you in a patriotic mood this President's Day, you could do worse than Henry Fonda taking on this most sacred of historical personages, but be aware it delivers its message with less finesse than the real Young Mr. Lincoln ever would have.