Adhering to the vow taken at the grave of his beloved Ann Rutledge, Illinois backwoodsman Abraham Lincoln becomes a lawyer and, in 1837, forges his reputation by defending Abigail Clays sons, Matt and Adam, against a false murder charge.
Having just completed Stagecoach, his first film with John Wayne, director John Ford discarded notions of a remake of Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion to embark on his first collaboration with his other favourite actor, Henry Fonda. Whereas Wayne would come to portray Ford's earthy action men, Fonda would reflect his sense of liberal decency - although both tended to play idealists who were intent on civilising America.
Lincoln's early career had already been chronicled in the sound era by D.W. Griffith in Abraham Lincoln and John Cromwell in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, with Walter Huston and Raymond Massey respectively bringing a more imposing presence to the role than Fonda could hope to emulate. Yet, his Honest Abe is a confident, almost patronising character who makes little effort to suppress the air of superiority he exhibits towards neighbours and adversaries alike. Moreover, he's not averse to duping them or exploiting their weaknesses and demonstrates an equal determination to succeed whether he's splitting rails, competing in a tug-of-war or arguing the law. Yet, while Lincoln wears his roots like a badge of honour that others are all the poorer for not possessing, he's sufficiently worldly to accept his fee from the widow who had come to represent a surrogate mother. In revising Howard Estabrook's 1935 treatment, screenwriter Lamar Trotti added details from a trial that he had witnessed as a young journalist and sought to avoid a hagiographical depiction. Yet, Ford doesn't stray too far from popular preconceptions. Indeed, he uses the poem `Mary Hanks' as an excuse for trading in myth rather than fact and, thus, created a new Lincoln legend that pertained for many years. Fonda's Abe is, therefore, a blend of human being and historical agent, who allows Ford frequently to anticipate the traits and events that would contribute to his greatness. However, Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck drew the line at the inclusion of a scene in which a young John Wilkes Booth encounters a top-hatted Abe riding his mule on leaving the theatre where he's playing Hamlet.
A rose-tinted look at American history, certainly, but still a very entertaining one.