Thanks mostly to Oliver Stone, we have seen extensive movie treatments of recent presidents, but curiously, the two most notable feature films about the Great Emancipator were made within a year of each other, and both came in the late 1930s, a time of renewed Lincoln popularity among Depression-era leftists as well as Republicans who hoped to ride his 75-year-old coattails to victory over Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. The 1988 television movie based on the Gore Vidal novel is probably more accurate than either of them, but the two older movies remain engaging—if you're able to penetrate considerable sentimental hooey in each.
One film is well-known and canonical: John Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda, during a streak that saw Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath made in quick succession.
On the other hand, John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois, with Raymond Massey, has been largely forgotten. I had to go to Duke's Lilly Library to find it on VHS—the film is not available on Netflix or at my local video store. While Cromwell's film languishes in videotape oblivion, Young Mr. Lincoln has the full Criterion two-disc treatment.
Seen together, the films show the difficulties of dramatizing, in a single portrayal, such a complex and contradictory figure from history. Fortunately, each film's writers make strong, compelling choices, even as we know they are inadequate.
Ford's film is more svelte, to be sure, and has much to recommend it, but in the other, Massey's performance as Lincoln presents a tortured, depressive soul that is almost entirely absent from Fonda's. Where Young Mr. Lincoln focuses on a single, highly airbrushed incident in his early legal career in Springfield, Ill., Abe Lincoln in Illinois begins with a glimpse of Lincoln as a young dirt farmer—taunted by his illiterate, ne'er-do-well father and encouraged by his kindly, literate stepmother—and puddle-jumps over the next three decades to end with a haunted, historically anointed Lincoln heading off to Washington in 1860, like Jesus trudging to Calvary.
Although Abe Lincoln in Illinois is burdened by lengthy stretches of earnest liberal soapboxing, and a far-too-long first act fixation on Lincoln's (actually mythical) relationship with soon-to-die Ann Rutledge, Robert Sherwood's script and Massey's performance give Lincoln a vulnerable, brooding interior life that is by no means inexorably headed for Mount Rushmore. Instead, we meet a Lincoln whose intelligence, decency and physical vigor inspires confidence in others, who keep insisting that he involve himself in public affairs. This Lincoln fights in the Black Hawk War reluctantly—"it seems to me that the Indians are entitled to their land"—and quits the state legislature in disgust at the dirty business.
By now, we know that Lincoln had at least two episodes of severe, suicidal depression as a young man, and one of them is dramatized in the film, without the armature of a modern clinical diagnosis, when he breaks off his engagement to Mary Todd, an ambitious abolitionist socialite from Kentucky. Although they reconcile, what little bloom their romance had is gone; their union is presented as a dutiful fulfillment of their historic destiny. In playing Mary Todd, Ruth Gordon nearly upsets the film's gentility with her proto-feminist energy and lively eyes; her Mary defies her family's snobbery and commands the charismatic backwoodsman to marriage. Although the film stops short of portraying the full-blown madness that would consume Mary in Washington, Sherwood's script undercuts the triumphant election night of 1860 by focusing instead on a heartbreaking quarrel between Abe and Mary that makes it clear that, henceforth, the marriage will simply be endured. (And, in a throwaway line in the same scene, the film notes the electoral skullduggery that facilitated the Republican victory.)
There is very little of Lincoln's emotional life in Young Mr. Lincoln. In contrast to the lugubriousness presentation in the other film, Ford elides the purported Rutledge romance with a single, brilliant sequence. Mary Todd makes only a perfunctory appearance, too. Instead, we have Lincoln as a tough nut—decent, to be sure—but nobody's fool. He's a hard man in a hardscrabble land—he often makes fools of his fellows, and not always scrupulously. Accordingly, Lincoln threatens two quarreling farmers; after convincing them to settle their dispute, his ears pick up the false sound of a counterfeit coin hitting the table: He plucks the offending coin, bites it and fixes the would-be cheater with a cold stare. Later, in a town fair, he handily wins the town rail-splitting contest, but when stuck on the losing side of a tug-of-war, he finds a way to cheat and win. In one of the film's best scenes, Lincoln defuses a lynching with his superior wit and ability to belittle bullies, all backed up by his undoubted physical prowess. In this film, Lincoln's world is a small and petty one, filled with people of limited intellectual and moral horizons.
In the trial that consumes the majority of the film, Lincoln's unsentimental view of human nature allows him to make counterintuitive choices in seating a jury: After exposing a respectable citizen as a liar, he seats the town drunk because of his honest answers to such questions as "Have you ever told a lie?" and "Have you ever enjoyed watching a hanging?" After taunting a hostile witness, J. Palmer Cass, for "parting his name on the side," Lincoln gets him to admit that the J. stands for "John" and, yes, his friends sometimes call him "Jack." Then, with a perfectly folksy stage pause, Lincoln sticks in his shiv: "How about if I just call you Jack Cass?"
While there's only a smattering of Lincoln's political interests and even less of his emotional frailties, what Young Mr. Lincoln hints at, and the lesser-known film does not, is the young rail-splitter's shrewd, even arrogant, ambition—what his law partner, William Herndon, wrote was his "little engine that knew no rest."
Both films end in rousing fashion with indelible images: Massey's sad-eyed Lincoln recedes from the camera on the back of a train, passively accepting his destiny, while in Ford's film, Fonda walks up over a hill with a storm flashing overhead, an image that dissolves into the granite features of the memorial in Washington.
On the soundtracks of the finales of both films is that song written for the noble abolitionist cause that put Lincoln in office: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/ He was trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."
The song, which has fallen out of favor for public events, was written for John Brown, but in retrospect, Brown was only John the Baptist: Both films use the song to hit the same note of Lincoln's appointment with apotheosis.
Glory, glory hallelujah.