Blog Directory CineVerse: Print the legend

Print the legend

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Do filmmakers have a responsibility to follow the facts and maintain historical accuracy when tackling a biopic about a major public or political figure, or can they take dramatic license to tell an entertaining tale--even if it's a "tall" one that seriously stretches the truth? These are questions that arise after watching a film like John Ford's highly acclaimed and venerated "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939), which spins a fun and gripping yarn but could put off some viewers expecting veracity and a dramatization of well-known events. Here's a roundup of our talking points last evening after discussing this movie with our CineVerse members:


  • It doesn’t aim for exact historical accuracy. The trial sequence is only loosely based on a real court case Lincoln defended and won, and many other scenes and situations are pure hokum or speculation. 
  • Being freed of trying to do justice to the “Great Emancipator’s” real story, the filmmakers are free to explore mythmaking, play up Americana, and turn Lincoln into a too-good-to-be-true folk hero. 
    • According to DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson: “It doesn't have to deal with the man's legacy or any of the big chapters in his career. It instead looks at what could be called the future president's formative years.” 
  • The film lacks a strong central narrative, instead consisting primarily of three different acts: the man’s humble young beginnings when he was courting Anne Rutledge; his period of growing into a leadership role following Anne’s death; and the trial of two innocent men, with the latter serving as the most focused plot. 
  • Fonda seems, like Daniel Day Lewis in contemporary times, like he was made for the part, and he appears to step into Lincoln’s shoes effortlessly by not being pressured to be perfect and instead imbuing the part with subtlety and restraining any temptations to chew the scenery. 
    • Some have said his performance evokes the folksy mannerisms, speech and personality of Will Rogers, a 1930s humorist who also starred in a handful of Ford films. 
  • This is the product of an extraordinary collection of talents, including master director John Ford, the perfectly cast Fonda, producer Darryl F. Zanuck, screenwriter Lamar Trotti, and composer Alfred Newman. 
    • Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey O’Brien wrote: “It is a masterpiece of concision in which every element in every shot, every ratio, every movement, every shift of viewpoint seems dense with significance, yet it breathes an air of casual improvisation. While its surfaces paint, with relaxed humor and effortless nostalgic charm, an imaginary antebellum America, it sustains an underlying note of somber apprehension, all the more powerful for being held in check… The film radiates a youthful joy, while at the same time insistently implying that the hero’s destiny—the moment when the weight of history becomes unavoidable—will necessarily mean the loss of all joy.” 
  • The power of myth and abiding by the principle of “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” as espoused in a later Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 
  • The impact of simple but effective words and the ability to speak to people in language they understand. Put another way, words actually speak louder than actions, when they’re delivered by a great orator and man of the people like Lincoln. 
  • Helping our fellow man and looking out for the little people is everyone’s duty. 
  • Fate and destiny: consider that Lincoln trusts in the randomness of a branch falling to determine which path to follow; knowing how he will become a great leader and president, this tall-tale moment feels like it’s been preordained. 
  • Never forget where you came from. Lincoln supposedly remained humble and appreciative of his roots, his stomping grounds, and the common folk who influenced him, and he used his down-home small town charm and native skills—like rail splitting—to win friends and influence people. 
  • Great men and women are often driven to greatness by loss and toil. Lincoln grew up poor, had to work hard, and suffered great heartache when his first love died. 
  • Rivalry and competition: this film plays up the rivalry between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas 
  • Three other Lincoln biopics: Abraham Lincoln (1930), starring Walter Huston; Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), starring Raymond Massey, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), starring Daniel Day Lewis 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, another film featuring a great courtroom drama at its heart and which also has its heroic protagonist defuse a lynching situation with skillful rhetoric. 
  • The Devil and Daniel Webster, another great tall tale kind of movie featuring a venerated politician/lawyer in the title character and a memorable trial. 
  • Stagecoach 
  • Drums Along the Mohawk 
  • The Grapes of Wrath 
  • How Green Was My Valley 
  • My Darling Clementine 
  • Fort Apache 
  • She Wore a Yellow Ribbon 
  • Rio Grande 
  • The Quiet Man 
  • Mister Roberts 
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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