[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Classical Hollywood didn’t need a reason to make a film on Abraham Lincoln, a national icon revered across the political spectrum. By the time John Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) for Twentieth Century Fox, dozens of movies were already produced about him. Ford’s own brother, Francis, had played Lincoln seven times on screen. But Young Mr. Lincoln, featuring Henry Fonda in the titular role, isn’t a prestigious biopic about the 16th American president. It’s the story of Abraham the inexperienced lawyer trying to find his footing in small-town Illinois.

There’s a dual perspective at work in Lamar Trotter’s script. On one hand, for the film’s 20th century audience, Abraham Lincoln is already part of the collective consciousness as one of the greatest political figures of all time. The film plays on this awareness by hinting at foreordained nature of young Abraham’s destiny. Abe decides to become a lawyer by the toss of a stick at the grave of his first sweetheart Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore). He frequently stares at the ice-laden Sangamon river in the distance, as though heeding the call of a higher power. In the film’s final moments, he advances as a silhouette into the sunset. As he exits the frame, he walks into an approaching storm, the wind and the lightning suggesting the political tumult that awaits America in the coming decades.

On the other hand, Young Mr. Lincoln assures that it’s simply the story of a callow lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1830s. To this end, it minimizes the figure of Lincoln and instead presents him as an everyman unaware of what lies in wait. We see him judging a cooking contest, alternately chomping on an apple and a peach pie. He splits a piece of wood in record time. He plays ridiculous tunes on a Jew’s harp. At the first pangs of romance, he tosses a rock into the river. He has an awkward dance session at a ball with his wife-to-be, Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). Before his first trial, he polishes his shoes and cuts his own hair. The Lincoln of Ford’s film is not the solemn orator of history books, but an entertainer with a self-deprecatory sense of humour. This minimization, in fact, only adds to the legend-building project of the film.

The film contrasts Lincoln’s straightforward persona with the pompous airs of those around him. In the first scene of the film, Lincoln’s co-legislator in New Salem delivers a harangue in which he promises to chase out corrupt elements from politics like “dogs from a meat house”. His speech, full of sound and fury, is followed by Lincoln’s. His head lowered and hands in the pocket, Abe delivers a short and heartfelt speech in sinking intonations, suggesting an honest language very different from the painted words of his peers. Similarly, the words of the prosecutor (Donald Meek) at his first trial, leaning on Biblical references and thunderous exhortations, is followed by Abe’s jovial argumentation, which is evidently on the level.

At the same time, the film subtly reinforces Lincoln’s essential integrity and rectitude. In his first address to the people, Abe is framed tightly, centred, head-on, and from a low angle. Sunlight seeping through gaps between wooden planks forms a vertical, striated pattern in the background to evoke a notion of uprightness. Abe interacts plainly with plain folks of the New Salem village. He trusts them to pay for their purchase later. He doffs his hat when pioneers of the 1776 revolution pass by in a parade. Ford’s Lincoln is the son of the soil, a herculean figure as adept at working an axe as debating in a courtroom. Throughout, Abe is associated with nature, the trees and the river, his understanding of law deriving from the intuitive understanding of right and wrong.

Like various figures representing the law in John Ford’s westerns, Abraham of Young Mr. Lincoln is a man of the book intervening in a society that believes in mob justice. When two young men from a neighbouring village are accused of murdering a local ruffian, the whole town tries to barge into the prison to capture the men and lynch them. To stop them, Abe poses himself between the crowd and the prison. He wields his imposing physique as his first weapon, forcefully pushing back the barging pole with his foot. He assures the crazed men he’s not there to make a speech, but he slowly segues into a monologue in which he appeals to the good will of individuals over the wisdom of the mob. A while earlier, when the prisoner’s mother Mrs. Clay (Alice Brady, in her last screen role) asks Abe who he is to help them, he says, “I’m your lawyer, ma’am”.

This double signification of Abe as a greenhorn as well as a master rhetorician also manifests in the figure of Henry Fonda, who excelled at conveying good-to-the-bone innocence without making it seem boyish. His blank stares often serve as a clean slate on which viewers project their own emotions. Fonda is self-effacing in several sequences of the film. For most part of the final trial scene, his Abe is merely a dark silhouette seen from behind. He sits on the floor, refers to books at the corner of the courtroom, and stands at the judge’s desk with his head buried in his hands. It is not until he wins the case, when the familiar figure in a top hat walks transfixed towards cheering, off-screen crowds, that his character assumes a mythical aura, that his Abe finally becomes Lincoln.

Henry Fonda was a tall man, 187 centimetres in height, six less than the real Lincoln. Few directors understood as well as Ford that he was a great actor of the legs. The filmmaker accentuates Abraham’s clumsiness by focusing on Fonda’s long legs, which seem even longer the way he wears his trousers up over his navel. When we first see Fonda, he’s on a chair, with his legs crossed over a barrel. This horizontal position—made iconic in Fonda’s later collaboration with Ford, My Darling Clementine (1946)—will appear several times in the film, most strikingly in the final courtroom scene. When Abe is reading a book in the woods, his head rests on a log and his legs are posed against a tree. He then sits up, leans against the tree and works the log with his left leg. He scratches his right shin as he mulls over the words of the law. When Ann shows up shortly on the other side of a fence, he approaches her and hops over the high rail with an ungainly leap. Ford captures the actor in many such unflattering poses, making the legendary stateman feel more human, one among the people.

John Ford’s film exhibit great pictorial beauty and the director had the uncanny knack of finding the most powerful yet unobtrusive camera angles and movements. More crucially, he had the ability to infuse his stories—none of which he wrote himself—with an eternal, transcendental quality. A sense of the supernatural marks his death-touched Lincoln. A poem by Rosemary Benet describing the maternal yearnings of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, opens the film. The spectres of his mother, his sister Sarah and his beloved Ann loom large over Abraham, who can’t but see them reincarnated in Mrs. Clay and her daughters. As he leans at Ann’s grave, whose demise is conveyed via a heart-breaking ellipse, the Sangamon river flows by in the background. This too shall pass.


[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

In a meeting of the members of the Screen Directors Guild in 1950, one filmmaker introduced himself thus: “My name is John Ford. I make Westerns.” This extreme understatement, coming from a director who had already won three Academy Awards, also aptly describes Ford’s modest, pragmatic filmmaking style. Despite making over a hundred films in a variety of genres, John Ford is most remembered as the maker of Western pictures, especially ones starring John Wayne.

Made in 1939, Stagecoach was not just Ford’s first talking Western, but also his first prominent collaboration with Wayne and his first film shot in the Monument Valley, an iconic location in Southwest America that will feature regularly in the director’s future work. In fact, the film begins with shots of the Monument Valley in which a group of cavalrymen ride towards the camera. They inform the commander at their outpost that Geronimo, a notorious Apache figure intent on burning white settler ranches, is on the loose. Meanwhile, a public stagecoach carrying nine people makes its way to Lordsburg through Apache territory.

            The literary quality of this simple premise—a group of people move from point A to B under great risk—is reinforced by the trope-like characters. The nine people aboard the stagecoach are all broadly outlined: the bumbling driver Buck (Andy Devine), the marshal Curley (George Bancroft) who has the authority to call the shots, the perpetually-drunk doctor Boone (Thomas Mitchell) who has hidden profundities, the timid whisky salesman Peacock (Donald Meek) who struggles in vain to protect his liquor from the doc, Dallas (Claire Trevor) the hooker with the heart of gold, Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) the wife of an army officer who is dismayed by the idea of traveling with Dallas, the suave gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) who has unclear designs involving Mrs. Mallory, and the scheming banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) who has embezzled a large sum of money from miners. They are joined en route by a sharpshooter Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has broken out of jail seeking to avenge his murdered brother.

            As with any story of people confined in a space, Stagecoach depicts the changing group dynamics, shifting allegiances and the formation of a chain of command among the passengers. In their own way, the nine represent a microcosm of America, their eventual cooperation demonstrating that it takes all kinds to make a world. In one early scene, the upper-class Hatfield, Gatewood and Mrs. Mallory are shocked at having to share table with the likes of Dallas, who was thrown out by the respectable people of her town for her loose morals. The morally upright Ringo, on the other hand, constantly accords her equal respect and stands in for Ford, for whom the shared dinner is a vital sign of the community.

            Stagecoach is set somewhere in the aftermath of the American Civil War. A former soldier in the Union army, the doctor is a man with forward-looking ideals. His ideas run up against Hatfield the gambler, a true-blue Southerner and a major in the Confederate army still hurting from the loss of the war. He even tries to kill Mrs. Mallory to save her honour when he suspects the Apache will lay their hands on her.

But Stagecoach is a film reacting to its own times as well. Ford was not a committed progressive, but he is responding here to the socialist spirit of the New Deal in the air. This is most apparent in the character of the banker, a figure looked down upon in the thirties as one of the factors behind the Great Depression. Gatewood is a libertarian railing against government intrusion into business and auditing of banks. “What’s good for the banks is good for the country”, he declares. While all the other characters have redeeming qualities about them, Gatewood, with his interminable whining and hypocrisy, never appeals to our sympathy.

            The film is adapted from a short story by Ernest Haycox, but there’s something European, particularly French, about its suspicion of mainstream society. It might have to do with the fact that Stagecoach traces its lineage partly to Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Boule de Suif”. Ford’s cinema isn’t particularly known for its affection for outsider figures, but Stagecoach exhibits a deep affinity for outcasts and deadbeats, conventionally unsuccessful characters who are “victims of social prejudice”. Perhaps Ford the Catholic saw in Dallas the fallen woman, Ringo the orphan, Boone the drunk and Peacock the unmanly a kingdom of the meek. In contrast, the Law and Order League, the group of society women that kicks Dallas and the doctor out of the town, is presented as a bunch of busybodies scandalized at the smallest gesture of nonconformity. When Dallas and Ringo drive away from the town at the end, the doc cries out, “saved from the blessings of civilization”.

            The critique of an exclusionary community is conveyed primarily through the character of Dallas, who is the heart of the narrative. All through the film, Ford emphasizes her pain of not belonging and her gratefulness at those treating her with dignity. Everyone, except the banker, eventually comes to respect her, yet she can’t become a part of them. Towards the end, when the group reaches its destination, Mrs. Mallory and company are taken indoors by the townsfolk, Dallas left standing at the doorstep. A contemplative moment finds her alone gathering her belongings from the coach. It’s a direct predecessor to the last shot of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) where it’s John Wayne standing alone at the entrance, incapable of taking part in the community.  

            Although Claire Trevor as Dallas gets top billing in the credits, history has deemed Stagecoach a John Wayne vehicle, and the actor has a veritable star-making turn as Ringo. He is introduced with an emphatic combination of zoom and track shots, the brief defocusing of the camera adding to the dreamlike texture of this introduction. But Ford mostly photographs Wayne in long shots underscoring his then-lanky frame. Ford’s characteristic low-level indoor camera positioning and use of architectural elements of the west produces a strong sense of space. With a large part of the film set inside the limited confines of the coach, Ford chains together closeups in tight shot-reverse shot configurations, creating intimate connections or oppositions between characters.

            These close-grained conversation scenes are set against two grandiose action set-pieces. In the first, the stagecoach is pursued by a team of armed Apaches. Filmed in extremely wide shots, the scene is thrilling in its action choreography, with stunt doubles getting in and out of the moving vehicle, jumping on and off horses running at top speed. There’s a shot from the wheel of the speeding wagon that has become a staple in chase sequences ever since.

Even more impressive is the final showdown, in which Ringo takes down his brother’s three killers. Firstly, the lead-up to the sequence is a masterful tonal mix that intertwines an episode of anguished romance between Ringo and Dallas and a tense, wordless passage of the villains waiting at the saloon, punctuated by a muffled piano melody. The shootout itself is nothing short of mythical. Unfolding in the deserted main street of the town and lit by harsh side lights that produce tall shadows, the actual shooting is suggested by the gunshots Dallas hears. The villain trudges back into the saloon, now full of anxious faces, and collapses, signaling Ringo’s triumph. It’s a striking example of high stylization in the genre that is a precursor to the baroque formalism of the Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s.   


[Originally published at Firstpost]