In his film Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford creates a version of the American hero that is, for the most part, detached from the rest of the world. Ford loves the idea of community but how can you have a genuine hero in a place and a film that revolves around community? Henry Fonda’s Abe Lincoln is this kind of hero. There are visual clues that Ford uses to demonstrate that the only kind of hero that a community can use is one that isn’t part of the community. These clues come from the framing and the use of fences in those frames. Through these ideas Ford makes a clear case for the lonely and distinct hero.
We’ll start with the framing of Abe throughout the film. Right through the film Lincoln is visually separated from other people by Ford’s use of “hero shots”, the juxtaposition of one shots and two-plus shots, and other miscellaneous framing devices. Let’s first look at the hero shot. Generally, a hero shot is a one shot from a low (as in below the torso) perspective looking up towards the character within the shot. The character will take up most of the frame and will therefore be very imposing and intimidating. John Ford uses this kind of shot on Lincoln during several key scenes to drive home the fact that Lincoln is worthy of the hero title. Our second shot of Lincoln comes in the form of a hero shot. He’s giving a speech on a porch in his small hometown. He’s not particularly imposing at this point but he does carry himself well and his speech, which is all given in the duration of this shot with the reactions saved for after his speech is over, is a good one. However, at this point Lincoln hasn’t become who he will be and is not as important or well developed yet. As such the hero shot is not very dramatic. It’s almost indistinguishable from what a normal mid shot would look like, save for the fact that we see a bit the wall above the door behind him which wouldn’t be visible in a normal mid shot.
The next hero shot of Lincoln comes at what may be the most important moment in the entire film, if not his life. It is during the celebrations at his new town and Lincoln is the sole judge of the pie contest. We get a camera angle that is probably from the audience’s perspective and, since Lincoln is on an elevated platform to perform his sacred duties, we see a much more dramatic version of the hero shot as he struggles to decide between the two obviously delicious pies. But don’t let a little jesting fool you, this shot really is important to developing the themes of the film through the hero shot. Abe has previously recognized that the law and deciding what’s right and what’s wrong is an important concept to him and this pie eating contest gives him the opportunity to exercise that concept in a relatively unimportant venue. At this point Lincoln is building his career as a lawyer and the ability to distinguish right from wrong is a valuable tool in his belt as we see later in the film. It’s this discriminating characteristic that both separates Lincoln and turns him into the hero that the community needs. And the pies are tasty.
The next three hero shots go a long way to distinguish Lincoln as a moral and just hero which is important for Ford to do so that the audience sympathies are firmly in his camp. They all accomplish a similar goal and I’ll therefore group them together and talk about them as a whole, for the most part. The first is at the jailhouse as Lincoln reigns in the mob that wants to lynch the two suspected murderers (who just happen to be Lincoln’s first clients), the second comes after he proves his clients’ innocence and the final is the last shot of the movie as Lincoln stands on a hill during a thunderstorm. This last one isn’t a typical hero shot and is actually more of a wide shot but as he is on a hill and super tall, I think it works for what I’m talking about here. These three shots are used to firmly establish Lincoln as an undeniable hero. First he turns the mob of people away from the jailhouse in order to get the two boys a fair trial. The moral high ground here is definitely Lincoln’s. Again, the shot is likely from the perspective of his audience, a theme which runs through these hero shots. The next one, as he leaves the courthouse to wild applause, is a similar situation and accomplishes similar things. Now he has a legitimacy from finding the real killer and proving his two clients innocent and the hero title is definitely deserved. The last shot of him on the hill sets Lincoln up as the national hero that everybody knows from history books and who pays the ultimate sacrifice for bringing his community together.
Now that I’ve established that Lincoln is clearly a hero, I’d like to point out how he is defined as separate from the community through the framing and set up of the shots throughout the film. Ford consistently frames Lincoln in one shot while almost every other shot has multiple people in them. This constant visual separation sets Lincoln apart from the community he is trying to build and defend. Let’s look at some specific examples.
The first example is also from the mob scene where Lincoln diffuses the crowd’s overreaction to the murder. He is framed throughout the scene in one shots either from the side or straight on (including the hero shot mentioned above). The rest of the town is framed together to emphasize how they are of a unified mind. They all think the same thing and are therefore visually equated within the scene by being shown in two-plus shots. Lincoln, who isn’t a part of this mob and knows that their point of view is incorrect, is shown separately from them to emphasize his severance from the community. Here Lincoln recognizes that the town requires him to stand and make a difference but he also knows that he can’t do it and still be a part of the community. This dichotomy is what Ford is trying to express throughout the movie and in this scene.
Similarly, Lincoln is shown as separate from a community in the trial scene, though this time it isn’t the community as a whole that he is separate from but the judicial system. As the prosecutor begins his opening arguments Lincoln goes over to a bookshelf and begins to read one of the law books on display there. He is shown in a one shot here, too, while the rest of the trial happens in another shot that contains the judge and jury and prosecutor and everybody else. Lincoln is again established as an outsider that will eventually save the legitimacy of the court and the two innocent men’s lives. The court works as it is supposed to where both sides get a chance to argue innocence and guilt which is then finally decided by the jury, but Lincoln undermines the rules that are set up when he feels that they are irrelevant. This separation from the normal and accepted rules for the greater good is again echoed in the visual separation shown in the framing of him apart from the courtroom and with the law books that he will use when they fit him and ignore when they don’t. This dedication to the ideals of the law but not the sometimes unnecessary practices is another example of Lincoln being the necessarily separate hero.
The way Lincoln is framed when he is shown in shots with other people is also a key to understanding how his character operates within the film. He is often shown to be separate from the others even in shots that show him interacting with them. Lincoln is usually shown to be either above or below the rest of the characters in the shot. When he is below them he is trying to be humble to people that are better than him, either in terms of class or moral stature. When he is above them he is trying to bend them to his own goal, that of bringing the community together. Lincoln was physically imposing but it is surprising how little Ford chooses to capitalize on his height. This, of course, means that when he does decide to emphasize Lincoln’s height he does so for a reason.
Lincoln is shown in the bottom of the frame in three key scenes. The first comes when he goes to the 4th of July celebration and sits with the big wigs of the town. He feels uncomfortable here and decides to sit on the platform instead of in the chairs that the high class people are sitting in. He is a tiny figure in the bottom left of the frame when compared to these “better” people. Here Lincoln recognizes that he’s not a part of this community and is separated visually because of that. Later he pulls a similar stunt but for an entirely different purpose. Here he is meeting with the mother of his two clients at her house out in the country. This is the type of house he grew up in, and he tells them that he’s more comfortable there than in the rest of the town. He still, however, sits down on the porch floor instead of in a chair like the mother. He really respects the family he represents and is therefore humbled that they would let him be their representation in the court case. His humble nature compels him to position himself below the mother and therefore low in the frame. He is again the smaller character within the frame, a hard thing to pull off with a person like Lincoln. Finally, in the court case itself he is shown over and over again in the bottom of the frame. At the beginning it seems to be because he’s out of his league. He stretches out as we have seen him do throughout the movie and puts his feet up on the table so he takes up the entirety of the bottom of the frame. He seems unimpressed by the whole proceeding, or perhaps nervous about his first big court case. He isn’t conducting himself in the way that the prosecutor and the rest of the people in the trial are, with the pomp and ceremony that is normally associated with such an occasion. But later we see him again sitting on a kind of platform: the steps up to the jury box area. Here he’s below the jury, the witness, the prosecutor, and pretty much everybody else in the frame and courtroom. But he’s in charge here. He’s playing a role in order to fool the room so that his revelation will surprise them. When he does finally pounce he stands up and becomes the tall, impressive figure we expect from Lincoln.
In fact, it is later in this scene that he is shown above the rest of the community in the frame. It doesn’t happen often so when it does it makes an impact. The most important scene where he is above the rest of the characters in the frame comes when he questions Jack Cass, the supposed eye witness to the murder. He knows something is fishy with Cass’s story and because of this he is framed to be taller than Cass. Lincoln hovers over him and makes him admit to the murder and conspiracy to implicate the two boys instead of him. Here Lincoln is in charge and has the moral high ground, so he is in the top of the frame. He’s powerful now, and he knows it. This difference in framing is only exacerbated when Cass gets off the stand to run out of the court room. He’s even smaller in comparison to Lincoln now that he knows he is busted. One other example comes much earlier in the film, right after his first speech on the porch. He is offered some books as a form of payment and when he first opens the barrel of them he is below all of the characters around him in the frame. Once he realizes that they’re law books he steps forward to practically fill the same frame. He’s taller than everybody else at this point and it is all because he has found his true passion in life: law. I’ve already discussed how the idea of right and wrong shaped Lincoln’s future and this scene is the impetus for that change. When he discovers the law he fills the frame and becomes larger than everybody else, indicating how important an event it is. He is now going to be an educated man, a lawyer, which automatically distinguishes him from the rest of the community who seem to be generally uneducated.
Fences are not normally a large part of the framing of a film, but in this case they play an important role in showing the separation between Lincoln and the rest of the community. I’ll walk you through the way Ford uses fences to cut Lincoln off in the remaining part of this essay beginning now.
From the first there is almost always a fence of some sort within the frame of this film. This alone should be evidence enough that fences are important, but I’ll elaborate a bit more to better explain why they are important. The first critical fence comes when Lincoln and his first love Ann meet at the river side where Lincoln is reading one of his law books. They begin to walk along the river and as they do there is a fence running along the bottom of the frame. It’s presence in the foreground and the river’s presence in the background creates a path that the two characters walk down. The nature of this path means that there is no way to go but forwards. When the finally stop walking there seems to be a break in the fence. This allows Lincoln and Ann to be on seemingly equal footing. And their characters would seem to match this equality. They both love each other and want only the best. However, the camera then cuts to a wider shot and we see that Ann had moved to the other side of the fence at the beginning of the conversation. The fence hadn’t disappeared, it just got lower for a bit. When the camera shows that they were separated by the fence for the end of the conversation the audience realizes that something isn’t quite right. There is, of course, a reason that they were separated by the fence. Ann is convinced that nobody – even Lincoln – can love her. She is also dead by the next scene. Lincoln goes to visit her grave (predictably separated from the rest of nature by a fence) and there he decides to become a lawyer. Ann is the impetus for the rest of the film but even she is separated from him by a fence.
Jumping forwards a bit and over a couple of minor fence scenes, the next important fence surrounds the clearing where the murder takes place. Not only does the fence fail at containing the violence (the mob later rushes out of a hole in the fence proving its worthlessness in its actual duties) but it also allows Lincoln to observe the entire happening. When the community comes to the clearing they all enter through a hole in the fence. Lincoln goes up to the fence but decides to stay back. He leans on the fence and watches what happens as the community turns into a mob. The fence allows for impartiality by way of separation. It is likely that if Lincoln had entered the clearing like everybody else did he, too, would have been wrapped up in the excitement of a hanging and joined the mob. Instead he watches from a distance and sees how foolishly the community acts. This visual representation of separation in the form of a fence allows Lincoln to fulfill one of the key components of law: objectivity. In these shots Lincoln is not only separated by distance but also by the fence on which he leans.
Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife, isn’t much of a character within this film, but she does play an important role in a scene involving one of the most creative fences on film. Lincoln is invited to a high class party and as he enters there is a big John Ford dance scene going on. When we first see him the camera angle comes from within the big dance area facing the hallway where Lincoln enters and talks to some old guys. The dance is still going on and at this point the dancers are all linked arm in arm and skipping around the circumference of the room. As they dance by the camera their bodies and clasped hands form an unbroken fence between the camera and Lincoln who stands in the background. This living fence blocks a clear view of the hero. The camera takes a side here, and it is the side of the rich. It’s within the walls of the dance hall where all the rich guys dance and intermingle. The rich even create a fence within the already extravagant walls to keep out the less desirable elements, which Lincoln clearly thinks he is a part of. He is hesitant to enter the formal area and dance with Mary Todd. In the end she practically forces him into dancing with her, and Lincoln isn’t the greatest of dancers. He seems out of place, which makes his separation at the beginning of this scene by the dancing fence all the more important. It establishes that Lincoln isn’t a part of this crowd. Earlier we saw that he wasn’t a part of the community at large, either, so he’s effectively an outsider to everybody. Yet when he saves the day he is welcomed into the masses as a hero. He epitomizes that separate hero and no more is this in evidence than in the courtroom scene.
Again we return to the scenes that take place within the courtroom. Here there are several fences to separate Lincoln from everybody else. The first separates him from the rest of the community by keeping them in the back of the room and him and the prosecutor and other people actually involved in the trial in the front. There is a small fence (which some would call a railing) that can be seen in nearly every courtroom scene in film and real life separating the community and the trail participants. This isn’t a super important fence until the end of the trial scene when Cass, the true murderer, tries to escape Lincoln’s questioning by leaving through a small door in the fence. When he moves to the other side of the fence the community begins to close in on him, and the mob that he wanted to incite earlier is turned against him. Still, Lincoln is separated from him and the rest of them by the fence. He’s proven Cass’s guilt and now he’ll let him get what’s coming to him, but Lincoln won’t have any part in it. After not trusting himself and almost losing the trial he seems happy to have gotten his clients off. He still doesn’t need or perhaps he isn’t able to join the community at large. He’s the hero they needed but he doesn’t really need them, nor do they particularly care about him. Still, his part is performed and now the community is whole again.
But we aren’t finished with those darn fences yet. As he says goodbye to the family he saved they leave along a road lined with a fence. He, too, leaves by way of this road. When he reaches the top of the hill there is a fence on his side. The fences seem to have been guiding him all along, from the river scene with Anne to the final scene on the hill the fences have done more than just separate Lincoln from the rest of the community. They are like the law, unwaveringly steady. They are used to impose order and boundaries on the world, much like the law is used to impose order and boundaries on people and the community. They are a tool used to make clear delineations, a vital part of any life, but especially crucial to Lincoln, a man who must necessarily be separate from others in order to help them. The fences and framing of Young Mr. Lincoln clearly show that Abe must be severed to some degree from those that he wants to save. He is successful but at the price of being integrated into a community. It’s a theme that runs through John Ford’s films and is perhaps most important in the story of Abe Lincoln’s early career.