MoMA
April 5, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln. 1939. USA. Directed by John Ford

Young Mr. Lincoln. 1939. USA. Directed by John Ford

These notes accompany the screenings of Jean Renoir’s </i>The Rules of the Game</a> on April 6, 7, and 8 in Theater 2.</p>

John Ford (1894–1973) is the greatest film director America has ever had (or ever will), and is quite possibly the country’s greatest artist. His usual reaction to such views was that of a snarlingly sarcastic sonofabitch. He was also a man who could be quite cruel, evenly violently so, to people who loved him. Ford, like his predecessor Walt Whitman, was a poet of genius and contradictions.

He was born John Martin Feeney, just down the Maine coast in Cape Elizabeth, the youngest surviving son of a Portland Irish saloonkeeper. A high school football hero (known as “Bull” Feeney) at a school whose auditorium now bears his adopted name, young Jack also showed an unusual affinity for theater and literature. Many years after his much older brother, Francis Ford, left for a successful stint as actor and director in newly established Hollywood, young Jack joined him and began what amounted to a quarter-century apprenticeship making movies, mostly Westerns.

Although Ford won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) and made many fine films in the intervening years (The Iron Horse, his Will Rogers trilogy, and The Prisoner of Shark Island, among others), he really did not fully hit his stride and become “John Ford” until 1939. Sandwiched in between Stagecoach and Drums along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln began Ford’s exploration of American political culture, which culminated a quarter-century later in another masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. One of Ford’s many gifts was his capacity to see simultaneously both his mythologized characters and their human frailty. No other director believed so much in the American myth, or saw so clearly its deficiencies.

Young Mr. Lincoln. 1939. USA. Directed by John Ford

Young Mr. Lincoln. 1939. USA. Directed by John Ford

Henry Fonda was perfect as the young back-country lawyer—just as Walter Huston was in D. W. Griffith’s evocation of the older Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln, 1930, which screened in this series last July). While Griffith had struggled with the demands of the nascent talkies, Ford had absorbed the free-flowing visuals of German Expressionism into his own personal and poetic style, making him the cinema’s most consummate storyteller. When Fonda, at the end of the film, goes to top of the hill to perhaps glimpse the future, it is a simple, almost trite, gesture. Yet in Ford’s hands, because of what has gone before in the film and because we know what Lincoln’s future is to be, it is a moment of spectacular emotional resonance. There would be many such privileged moments in forthcoming Ford films—Jane Darwell burning her memories or Fonda’s farewell to Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath; virtually all of How Green Was My Valley; a galaxy of instances in the John Wayne Westerns—all intrinsically Fordian and inimitable.

Appropriately enough, over the next few weeks Museum audiences will have the opportunity to see the work of a contemporary auteur with his own slant on America’s promise in the exhibition Charles Burnett: The Power to Endure. Burnett is African American, and some of his films (Nightjohn and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property) deal with race relations in the era leading up to the Civil War; others (Selma, Lord, Selma and America Becoming) take a look at more current aspects of the issue; all of the films in the series are worth seeing.