Multiple Views of the Past

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Young Mr. Lincoln alluded to Lincoln's future Civil War presidency without presenting Lincoln as a prescient, mythic hero. Trotti and Ford's Lincoln is learning, changing, growing. His mature political principles are yet unknown. Compared with William Seward and Stephen Douglas, much less was known about Lincoln's political commitments prior to 1861. Although his famed debates with Douglas in 1858 made him known as an antislavery but moderate Whig, according to historian William E. Baringer (a contemporary of Trotti, Ford, and Zanuck), it was Lincoln's status as a political dark horse that enabled him to be nominated.55 By leaving Lincoln's political makeup somewhat ambiguous, the filmmakers were able to suggest Lincoln's future political power without turning him into the mythic composite hero.

At one point in the narrative, Trotti and Ford focus specifically on Lincoln's development of moral, legal, and political principles. Lincoln lies by the Sangamon River in New Salem reading from Blackstone's Commentaries: "'The right to acquire and hold property . . . the right to life and reputation . . . and the wrongs are a violation of those rights.' . . . That's all there is to it—right and wrong." This study session by the river references a passage from Herndon's biography that describes Lincoln reading by the river with his feet against a tree trunk.56 Trotti may have imagined Lincoln's thoughts as he studied, but this passage is not simply a folksy fabrication written in the simple binary language of myth. Here is a constructed moment that alludes to matters central to Lincoln history. His great constitutional struggle with the southern states in 1860 was motivated by the South's belief that the Constitution and the tenets of republican liberty sanctioned the protection of private property. Since slaves were defined as property, slavery was therefore protected by the Constitution. Lincoln's summation, "That's all there is to it—right and wrong," functions on several levels. Lincoln may see only right and wrong in reading Blackstone's unwieldy tome, but he will realize in his defense of the Clays that sometimes things can be more ambiguous. He has a better handle on the text of Poor Richard's Almanac. When he realizes the import of the documented moon cycles in this homely book, young Lincoln smiles, knowing that he has won the case. Later in his political life he will understand that right and wrong are not so narrowly defined. Pitted against Lincoln's ending of slavery are the unconstitutional lengths he went to in the Emancipation Proclamation, attacking the concept of private property. But most of all, this short confrontation with Blackstone demonstrates an almost ambivalent attitude toward Lincoln's Civil War policies and values. Again, Young Mr. Lincoln shows Lincoln learning the complexities of law and of history, rather than merely proclaiming his innate liberal principles. This presentation of a historical process is Trotti's own creation; in contrast, Herndon and other biographers depicted only the result of Lincoln's study rather than his struggle to achieve an imperfect understanding of the law.

Lincoln's skill as a mediator is tested early after he comes to Spring-

field as John T. Stuart's law partner. Trotti embeds Lincoln's attempt to reconcile two irate farmers in a larger allusion to the Civil War. Each man has grievances, Lincoln admits. One owes the other money, and the other has beaten up his dilatory debtor. Lincoln ignores the fire-eaters to great comic effect while he reads through their statements of grievance. He tries to settle the dispute mathematically, but when the two are still at odds, he insinuates that he will crack their two skulls together. Historically, the confrontation may be seen as a microcosm for 1930s historians' explanations of the causes of the Civil War—economic troubles, wounded pride, and retaliation. Although Lincoln solves this dilemma in the film through subtle intimidation, he was, of course, historically unable to reconcile the North and the South years later. Lincoln suffers even more anguish as a lawyer when he realizes that it would not be morally right to force Mrs. Clay to choose which of her two sons is guilty of murder. Trotti depicts Lincoln's meetings with his clients, and as the young lawyer's understanding of the law deepens, his more complex future confrontations with war guilt hover over the narrative like uneasy ghosts. In the later stages of writing, Trotti, under the direction of Zanuck, compounded the film's reference to the Civil War by staging a lengthy Independence Day celebration following Lincoln's morning in the law office.57 While Lincoln watches the parade with the rest of the townsfolk, he is conspicuously the first to remove his hat when the veterans from the Revolutionary War pass by. Lincoln's respect for the veterans prefigures his own role as head of the army during the Civil War. This parade, this progression in time, shows the linkage of the Civil War to America's other wars and a poignant difference — Lincoln's soldiers would be fighting their own countrymen.

The filmmakers' creation of the Independence Day celebrations indicates that they were certainly not attempting an unimpeachable document of Lincoln's early life. Ford was particularly indifferent to creating a standard eulogy. Later in the day, Lincoln takes part in a tug-of-war, according to Trotti's revised final script, but in the film, Ford has Lincoln cheat in order to win. He ties his end of the rope to a wagon, slaps the horse's rump, and causes the opposing side to be dragged through a mud puddle. Lincoln is no ideal representative of the law; the tug-of-war scene shows that he is ready to cheat when his side is in danger of losing. Trotti and Ford also create an imperfect lawgiver who knows little courtroom etiquette. Their flawed hero might have been a reaction to historian Paul Angle's research on Lincoln's early legal career, which revealed that he was not the most astute or polished lawyer.58 However, the representation of the young Lincoln was more directly influenced by the humanizing and sometime critical trends in American biography established by Sandburg and Beveridge.

Recent historians' claims that Young Mr. Lincoln is laden with undocumented images, such as those of the Independence Day celebrations, and that the filmmakers' Lincoln is a symbol of the American spirit are valid, but they are deliberate choices that supplement the film's historical elements. This contrast suggests that certain Hollywood filmmakers during the classical era were generating a new approach to American historical cinema. Trotti, Ford, and Zanuck created a sense of history that did not depend on reflecting or transcribing the standard version of the past with the careful arrangement of dates and documents; rather, it attempted to compare the conflicting sources of knowledge about Lincoln's life and image. This does not make Young Mr. Lincoln any less of a history film. During the past ten years, mainstream reformed, modernist historians may have responded with fear to what they perceived to be Young Mr. Lincoln's collapsing of the boundaries between fact and fiction, history and ideology, by designating the film "popular history" or myth. Yet upon its release, contemporary critics hailed Twentieth Century-Fox's Young Mr. Lincoln as a landmark in American historical cinema.59 Terry Ram-saye, the elder statesman of film history, commented in the Motion Picture Herald, "The like of this picture in the nature of its story concept has never before been offered outside the art cinemas."60 According to Ram-saye, Young Mr. Lincoln achieved something unique in historical filmmaking. It did not merely record historical events or document Lincoln's life but assumed the audience's knowledge and moved beyond to a more subtle engagement with the past. Rather than unconsciously reflecting the mixture of myth and history associated with popular history, Young Mr. Lincoln was constructed to contrast the many Lincolns known in both history and myth. In many ways, the filmmakers' approach not only resonates with Basler's study of Lincoln myth and history but also seems to anticipate late-twentieth-century historians' interest in demystifying the discourses of history, memory, and culture.

It is worth returning to the film's final sequence, for here the filmmakers reveal their contrasting understandings of the dichotomy between the human and the monumental, the historic and the mythic Lincoln. On screen, Lincoln has won the trial and walks alone up the road. He walks out of the frame, and Ford's camera remains fixed on the empty, raining landscape for several seconds before a quick dissolve to a close-up of the Lincoln Memorial. The decisive transition from Fonda's Lincoln to a shot of the Lincoln Memorial is a deliberate reminder of the difference between the human, real Lincoln and the icon created in the years after his death. The transition from history to myth is not seamless.

Trotti and Zanuck initially saw things differently. Trotti's ending in the revised final shooting script had Lincoln actually talking to God and being shown the consequences of his future, his marriage, the Civil War, and his assassination.61 Zanuck later eliminated this over-the-top "mystic tag." Although Zanuck was committed to preserving the film's broad historical integrity, he was not as interested in the nuances of Lincoln myth and history. In a January 1939 conference with Trotti regarding the temporary script, Zanuck, worried about its meditative and history-laden pace, complained, "We are inclined to be narrative rather than dramatic for the first part of the story." He later suggested rather desperately that Trotti consult a new book of Lincoln anecdotes to see if there was anything that could be done to enliven the script.62 Months later, having examined the film's rushes, he felt that Ford shared Trotti's alarming tendencies and appealed to the director to brighten the film's mood and speed up the tempo.63 Evidently Young Mr. Lincoln lacked the traditional heroic glamour associated with Twentieth Century-Fox's other Depression-era biopics.

Zanuck's insistence on narrative interest did not compromise his understanding of the complexities of creating a new Lincoln biography. Indeed, the book of anecdotes he recommended, undoubtedly Emanuel Hertz's Lincoln Talks, begins with Lincoln complaining about the repeated inaccuracies of biographers interested only in heroizing their subjects at the expense of historical truth.64 There is some evidence that Zanuck was the one most deeply affected by Lincoln's criticism of biographers. In an early conference on Trotti's script, Zanuck had set forth his initial preference for trumpeting Lincoln's future heroic status in the final shots: "Lincoln rides off. . . . As Lincoln rides along, music swells in volume and faintly superimposed over screen we see the outline of the Lincoln Memorial. The scene of the young Lincoln riding along becomes less distinct—while the Memorial becomes clearer and clearer, finally completely obliterating the other."65 The finished film reveals that Zanuck changed his mind. As the uncredited editor of all of John Ford's productions at Twentieth Century-Fox, the producer did add the evocative "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the opening credits and finale. However, his editing of Young Mr. Lincoln deliberately avoided both Trotti's mythic meeting of deity and hero and his original prescribed natural transformation from living man to mythic icon. Instead, as Ford remembered years later in an interview, his "cutter" had the idea to shift abruptly from the rainy landscape to the statue, opting for a disconcerting contrast.66 Although Zanuck's early stylistic advice suggests that he saw history and myth as naturally blending and even indistinguishable at the film's conclusion, his vision for the possibilities of historical film changed. His final mark on the film separates the real from the monumental Lincoln with a long view of a bleak, rainy landscape that relies on contrast and visual disjuncture.

Although the Abraham Lincoln articulated in Young Mr. Lincoln may be a response to trends in contemporary Lincoln historiography, the relativist exploration of historical alternatives, and the vicissitudes of historiography, the film is neither a historical text nor a simple reflection of historiographic trends. The narrative is not chronological nor, strictly speaking, a documented historical event. It is not constructed as a filmed biography to be judged on its ability to replicate the chronological details of the past. Unlike Lincoln in the White House, Young Mr. Lincoln made no overt claims to be a historically accurate document of Abraham Lincoln's life. It does not give serious exhortations to the camera, it does not use document cutaways, photographic allusions, or biographical sources to bolster its reputation as a historical film and to justify its script. As Ram-saye wrote, "It is the picture's presumption that the spectator really knows all about Lincoln, and to a degree of knowing that it will contribute to the implied dramatic intensity of the phrases so effectively sketched under John Ford's most artful direction."67 Other critics in the Hollywood community, undoubtedly wearied by Robert Sherwood's didactic patriotism echoing from the East Coast, appreciated Young Mr. Lincoln's mature historical outlook and a narrative that showed a youthful, imperfect protagonist. The Hollywood Reporter added it to "filmdom's growing library of historical works," and Film Daily called it living history without the "mustiness or stodginess" attributed to academic history. Publicity releases in trade papers emphasized the film's unique perspective, "portraying little-known incidents in his early career": "Pictures, statues, all of history have shown him as the Great Emancipator! But there was another Lincoln . . . a young man, known to everybody in the backwoods town of Springfield, Ill., a jackleg lawyer whose strength was legend and wit was famous. . . . It is this other Lincoln . . . whose story has never been told . . . that is shown in the 20th Century-Fox picture, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN."68

Young Lincoln, set off between two marble monuments invoking the cumulative real and imagined burden of national memory and the Civil War, is part of American history and myth. With Zanuck's watchful, sometimes apprehensive, but ultimately supportive collaboration, Trotti and Ford juxtaposed complexity with simplicity, the real man with the monumental icon, and history with myth. In the process, they generated a new form of American historical cinema, one that meditated on many Lincoln histories and myths, rather than recording one uncontested human document.

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