In a monstrously prolific career spanning over a hundred films across five decades, John Ford produced greater films than Young Mr. Lincoln, but perhaps not a single one that was more perfect or more Fordian: none of the others saw the same combination of the director's fervent love of his country, his cynical humanist view of small-town hypocrisy, his treatment of the Great Man as a reluctant guy just doing the right thing because someone has to, and his passion for the mythology of American history, all playing off of one another in absolute harmony with acutely controlled compositions, camera movements, lighting, and editing, and all of it centered around one of the finest performances ever given by one of Ford's finest leading men, Henry Fonda, in the role that shot him to stardom after a few bit parts in movies here and there, most prominently the male lead in the Bette Davis vehicle Jezebel.

This story of Abraham Lincoln's rise to prominence as a lawyer in the rough Illinois town of Springfield in the 1830s makes its pious, hagiographic intentions towards its subject known almost immediately after it begins: the first shot we see of young Mr. Lincoln is during a rough political campaign in the even rougher New Salem, right after another man has been blustering on righteously about God knows what, in front of an indifferent scattering of viewers. He introduces Lincoln as a great member of the Whig party, and the image cuts from a shot of our friendly blowhard to a shot of a lanky man, stretched out across a chair on the porch, reading a book. He smiles slightly and stands without looking up, then walks down the porch as the camera follows, hesitantly, almost reverentially, afraid perhaps to lead him. The other man steps aside, and Lincoln - for it is of course he, instantly recognisable even if Fonda's make-up seems to consist mostly of Lincoln's haircut (this is the power of a great performance, I ween) - takes up a position in the middle of the porch entry, stumbling a touch as he reaches to lean on the upper beam, making it look like a natural movement. He fumbles with his pockets and looks awkwardly down. "Gentlemen," he begins, and then the scene cuts to a medium shot point straight at his face, from below; the feeling is that the viewer has just settled down to listen close to what he's about to say. "...and fellow citizens," he goes on, and gets awkward again, before continuing with his speech.

John Ford knew from good character introductions, but this is one of his very best: we know instantly, from the hesitant, awed way the camera treats the subject that he is a very special man, yet we know from Fonda's palpable discomfort, and the unflattering light that makes him squint a bit that he's no God on earth, just a simple human being who wants nothing but to be one of the community, an everyday fella. It is more than likely, in fact, that this is precisely the reason that we're meant to find him so awe-inspiring: his man-of-the-earth lack of airs or stuffy refinement. Less than fifteen seconds after we've met Abe Lincoln, we know everything that Ford wants us to think about him, having been primed maybe by growing up with the same stories that Ford grew up with, about Honest Abe, among the simplest and wisest men to ever occupy the White House, a figure of homespun American where Washington or Jefferson is more of an unearthly legend. Lincoln is the famous old president that you could sit with on the river bank, watching the fireflies come out; that is the Lincoln that Ford loves and wants us to love to, and he packs all of that into every gesture of his movie.

Ford's problems - and I'm referring to the man I hold to be the greatest of all American filmmakers, so "problems" should be read in a very relative way - tended in the same direction, year after year and film after film: a notorious love of ethnic stereotype comedy, a slight over-reliance on insert shots (for my taste), and camera movements that serve their own ambition rather than the good of the story. All of these things are absent from Young Mr. Lincoln, while Ford's customary strengths - including his gift for blocking actors and defining space with the edges of the film frame, and suggesting depth of character from the briefest of evidence - are in abundance, making it just about his most strictly disciplined film I can name. If at times that means it lacks the invention of The Informer, the flair of Stagecoach or the operatic scope of later works such as The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, what it has to trump all of them is a confidence of purpose and a unity across all the elements of its creation, a quality that led Sergei Eisenstein to consider it his favorite among Ford's movies (Eisenstein loved him, Orson Welles loved him; it's really just an objective truth that he's an all-time great).

The purpose to which this was all driven was the depiction of mythological Americana, not to give it the imprimatur of fact - Young Mr. Lincoln is as fuzzy and deliberately anti-real as any of his films, I'd even argue - but to allow us to fully breath in the myth in all its glory. Ford loved Lincoln, this is a truth established again and again in his films; he saw in Lincoln a great moment in America's development, not just a man who was a great American. So his Lincoln biopic does not shy away from treating that man as an icon, though he could hardly have been aware of his own iconography in 1837. And this Young Mr. Lincoln is not in the event a celebration of a single one of the man's achievements - the only plot in the movie is a murder case that was invented by screenwriter Lamar Trotti, based upon an event in Lincoln's career from some 20 years later on - but of his character, and what it says about our national character that we elected him, and years later set him up as an example to all as the kind of fair and progressive farmer-philosopher that all Americans should aspire to become.

The closest I can think of is to suggest that Young Mr. Lincoln is something like the Life of the Saint stories that were popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance - not an original observation, I'm afraid, but one that fits better than anything. It is partly an entertainment, partly an instructional, and mostly a fine Romantic narrative about greatness given flesh. There is no doubt that it is hagiography, but it's freakishly effective hagiography. And Ford, I think knowing that he was making the ultimate cinematic representation of his greatest hero, used every last trick he knew and some he didn't, to create a whole-cloth picture of the man that fails in no respect as drama or as cinema, to create a uniquely American parable whose simple patriotism ties it to the time it was made, reeling from a depression and terrified of war, but whose honest emotion and overwhelming affection for the subject leave it absolutely timeless.