A collective text by the Editors of Cahiers du Cinema

"John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln"

Published as "Young Mr. Lincoln, texte collectif" in Cahiers du cinéma (August 1970), no. 223 and translatcd in Screen (Autumn 1972), 13:5-44.
(from: Rosen, 1986: 444ff.)

You may wish to start a first reading by skipping to section 2, since the first section is mainly a methodologically oriented polemic against other prominent critical approaches of the time.


Lincoln is not the product of popular revolution: the banal game of universal suffrage, ignorant of the great historical tasks that must be achieved, has raised him to the top, him, a plebeian, a self-made man who rose from being a stonebreaker to being the Senator for Illinois, a man lacking intellectual brilliance, without any greatness of character, with no exceptional value, becausc he is an average, well-meaning man.—Marx and Engels [1]

At one point in our interview, Mr. Ford was talking about a cut sequence from Young Mr Lincoln, and he described Lincoln as a shabby figure, riding into town on a mule, stopping to gaze at a theater poster. "The poor ape," he said, "wishing he had enough money to see Hamlet." Reading over the edited version of the interview it was one of the few things Ford asked me to change; he said he didn't much like "the idea of calling Mr Lincoln a poor ape."—John Ford [2]

 

Young Mr Lincoln: American film by John Ford. Script: Lamar Trotti. Photography: Bert Glennon. Music: Alfred Newman Art direction: Richard Day, Mark Lee Kirk. Set decorations: Thomas Little. Editor: Walter Thompson. Costume: Royer. Sound assistant: Robert Parrish. Cast: Henry Fonda (Abraham Lincoln), Alice Brady (Abigail Clay), Arleen Whelan (Hannah Clay), Marjorie Weaver (Mary Todd), Eddie Collins (Efe Turner), Pauline Moore (Ann Rutledge), Ward Bond U Palmer Cass), Richard Cromwell (Matt Clay), Donald Meek (lohn Felder), Judith Dickens (Carrie Sue), Eddie Quillan (Adam Clay), Spencer Charters Qudge Herbert A. Bell), Milburn Stone (Stephen A. Douglas), Cliff Clark (Sheriff Billings), Robert Lowery (juror), Charles Tannen (Ninian Edwards), Francis Ford (Sam Boone), Fred Kohler, Jr. (Scrub White), Kay Linaker (Mrs. Edwards), Russel Simpson (Woolridge), Charles Halton (Hawthorne), Clarence Wilson (Dr. Mason), Edwin Maxwell (lohn T. Stuart), Robert Homans (Mr. Clay), Jack Kelly (Matt Clay boy), DickieJones (Adam Clay boy), Harry Tyler (barber), Louis Mason (clerk), Jack Pennick (Big Buck), Steven Randall (juror), Paul Burns, Frank Orth, George Chandler, /445/ Dave Morris, Dorothy Vaughan, Virginia Brissac, Elizabeth Jones. Producer: Kenneth Macgowan. Executive producer: Darryl E Zanuck. Production: Cosmopolitan/Twentieth Century Fox, 1939. Distribution: Associated Cinemas. Length: 101 min.

 

1.

This text inaugurates a series of studies the need for which was indicated in the editorial of issue no. 218. We must now specify the objects and method of this work, and the origin of its necessity which has hitherto been merely affirmed.

1. Object: A certain number of "classic" films, which today are readable (and therefore, anticipating our definition of method we will designate this work as one of reading) insofar as we can distinguish the historicity of their inscription:[3] the relation of these films to the codes (social, cultural. . . ) for which they are a site of intersection, and to other films, themselves held in an intertextual space; therefore, the relation of these films to the ideology which they convey, a particular "phase" which they represent, and to the events (present, past, historical, mythical, fictional) which they aimed to represent.

For convenience we will retain the term "classic" (though obviously in the course of these studies we will have to examine, and perhaps even challenge it, in order finally to construct its theory). The term is convenient in that it roughly designates a cinema which has been described as based on analogical representation and linear narrative ("transparency" and "presence") and is therefore apparently completely held within the "system" which subtends and unifies these concepts. It has obviously been possible to consider the Hollywood cinema as a model of such "classicism" insofar as its reception has been totally dictated by this system—and limited to a kind of nonreading of the films assured by thier apparent nonwriting, which was seen as the very essence of their mastery.

2. Our work will therefore be a reading in the sense of a rescanning of these films. That is, to define it negatively first: (a) it will not be (yet another) commentary. The function of the commentary is to distill an ideally constituted sense presented as the object's ultimate meaning (which however remains elusive indefinitely, given the infinite possibilities of talking about film): a wandering and prolific pseudoreading which misses the reality of the inscription, and substitutes for it a discourse consisting of a simple ideological delineation of what appear(s) to be the main statement(s) of the film at a given moment.

(b) Nor will it be a new interpretation, i.e., the translation of what is supposed to be already in the film into a critical system (metalanguage) where the interpreter has the kind of absolute knowledge of the exegetist blind to the (historical) ideological determination of his practice and his object-pretext, when he is not a hermeneute à la Viridiana slotting things into a preordained structure.

(c) Nor will it is be a dissection of an object conceived of as a closed structure, /446/ the cataloguing of progressively smaller and more "discrete" units; in other words, an inventory of the elements which ignores their predestination for the filmmaker's writing project and, having added a portion of intelligibility to the initial object, claims to deconstruct, then reconstruct that object, without taking any account of the dynamic of the inscription. Not, therefore, a mechanistic structural reading.

(d) Nor finally will it be a demystification in the sense where it is enough to relocate the film within its historical determinations, "reveal" its assumptions, declare its problematic and its aesthetic prejudices and criticize its statement in the name of a mechanically applied materialist knowledge, in order to see its collapse and feel no more needs to be said. This amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater without getting wet. To be more precise, it would be disposing of the film in a moralist way, with an argument which separates the "good" from the "bad," and evading any effective reading of it. (An effective reading can only be such by returning on its own deciphering operation and by integrating its functioning into the text it produces, which is something quite different from brandishing a method—even if it is Marxist-Leninist—and leaving it at that.)

It is worth recalling that the external and mechanistic application of possibly even rigorously constructed concepts has always tried to pass for the exercise of a theoretical practice: and—though this has long been established—that an artistic product cannot be linked to its sociohistorical context according to a linear, expressive, direct causality (unless one falls into a reductionist historical determinism), but that it has a complex, mediated, and decentered relationship with this context, which has to be rigorously specified (which is why it is simplistic to discard "classic" Hollywood cinema on the pretext that since it is part of the capitalist system it can only reflect it). Walter Benjamin has insisted strongly on the necessity to consider literary work (but similarly any art product) _not as a reflection of the relations of production, but as having a place within these relations (obviously he was talking of progressive works, past, present, and to come; but a materialist reading of art products which appear to lack any intentional critical dimension concerning capitalist relations of production must do the same thing. We will return later at greater length to this basic notion of "the author as producer"). In this respect we must once again quote Macherey's theses on literary production (in particular those concerning the Leninist corrections to Trotsky and Plekhanov's simplistic positions on Tolstoy) and Badiou's concerning the autonomy of the aesthetic process and the complex relation historical truth/ideologies/author (as place and not as "internalization")/work.

And that, given this, denouncing ideological assumptions and ideological production, and designating them as falsification and error, has never sufficed to ensure that those who operated the critique themselves produced truth. Nor /447/ what's more has it sufficed to bring out the truth about the very things they are opposing. It is therefore absurd to demand that a film account for what it doesn't say about the positions and the knowledge which form the basis from which it is being questioned; and it is too easy (but of what use?) to "deconstruct" it in the name of this same knowledge (in this case, the science of historical materialism which has to be practiced as an active method and not used as a guarantee). Lest we be accused of dishonesty, let us make it clear that the points made in paragraph (d) refer to the most extreme positions within Cinéthique.

3. At this point we seem to have come up against a contradiction: we are not content to demand that a film justify itself vis-à-vis its context, and at the same time we refuse to look for "depth," to go from the "literal meaning" to some "secret meaning"; we are not content with what it says (what it intends to say). This is only an apparent contradiction. What will be attempted here through a rescansion of these films in a process of active reading, is to make them say what they have to say within what they leave unsaid, to reveal their constituent lacks; these are neither faults in the work (since these films, as Jean-Pierre Oudart has clearly demonstrated—see the preceding issue—are the work of extremely skilled filmmakers) nor a deception on the part of the author (for why should he practice deception?); they are structuring absences, always displaced—an overdetermination which is the only possible basis from which these discourses could be realized, the unsaid included in the said and necessary to its constitution. In short, to use Althusser's expression—"the internal shadows of exclusion."

The films we will be studying do not need filling out, they do not demand a teleological reading, nor do we require them to account for their external shadows (except purely and simply to dismiss them); all that is involved is traversing their statement to locate what sets it in place, to double their writing with an active reading to reveal what is already there, but silent (see the notion of palimpsest in Barthes and Daney), to make them say not only "what this says, but what it doesn't say because it doesn't want to say it" (J. A. Miller, and we would add: what, while intending to leave unsaid, it is nevertheless obliged to say).

4. What is the use of such a work? We would be obliged if the reader didn't envisage this as a "Hollywood revisited." Anyone so tempted is advised to give up the reading with the very next paragraph. To the rest we say: that the structuring absences mentioned above and the establishment of an ersatz [germ. replacement/compensation] which this dictates have some connection with the sexual other scene, and that "other other scene" which is politics; that the double repression—politics and eroticism—which our reading will bring out (a repression which cannot be indicated once and for all and left at that but rather has to be written into the constantly renewed process of its repression) allows the answer to be deduced; and this is an answer whose very question would not have been possible without the two /448/ discourses of overdetermination, the Marxist and the Freudian. This is why we will not choose films for their value as "eternal masterpieces" but rather because the negatory force of their writing provides enough scope for a reading—because they can be rewritten.

 

2. Hollywood in 1938-1939

One ofthe consequences of the 1929 economic crisis was that the major banking groups (Morgan, Rockefeller, DuPont, Hearst, General Motors, etc.) strengthened their grip on the Hollywood firms which were having problems (weakened by the talkies' "new patents war").

As early as 1935, the five Major Companies (Paramount, Warner, MGM, Fox, RKO) and the three Minor (Universal, Columbia, United Artists) were totally controlled by bankers and financiers, often directly linked to one company or another. Big business' grip on Hollywood had already translated itself (aside from economic management and the ideological orientation of the American cinema) into the regrouping of the eight companies in the MPPA (Motion Pictures Producers Association) and the creation of a central system of selfcensorship (the Hays code—the American bank is known to be puritanical: the major shareholder of the Metropolitan in New York, Morgan, exercise a real censorship on its programs).

It was precisely in 1935 that, under the aegis of the Chase National Bank, William Fox's Fox (founded in 19I4) merged with Darryl F. Zanuck's 20th Century Productions, to form 20th Century Fox, where Zanuck became vice-president and took control.

During the same period, and mainly in 1937-1938 the American cinemas suffered from a very serious drop in box-office receipts (this is first attributed to the consequences of the recession, then, with the situation getting worse, to lack of regeneration of Hollywood's stock of stars); the bank's boards, very worried, ordered a maximum reduction in costs of production. This national marketing crisis (in a field in which Hollywood films previously covered their entire costs, foreign sales being mainly a source of profits) was made even worse by the reduced income from foreign sales; this was due to the political situation in Europe, the gradual closure of the German and Italian markets to American films, and the currency blockade set up by these two countries.

 

3. The USA in 1938-1939

In 1932, in the middle of the economic crisis, the Democrat Roosevelt became President, succeeding the Republican Hoover whose policies, both economic (favorable to the trusts, deflationist) and social (leaving local groups and charitable /449/ organizations to deal with unemployment: see Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra) had been incapable of avoiding the crisis and also of suppressing its effects. Roosevelt's policies were the opposite; federal intervention in the whole country's economic and social life, states as private powers (New Deal); establishment of federal intervention and public works agencies, impinging on the rights and areas previously reserved to state legislature and private companies; a controlled economy, social budget, etc.: so many measures which encountered violent opposition from the Republicans and big business. In 1935 they succeeded: the Supreme Court declares Roosevelt's federal economic intervention agencies to be unconstitutional (because they interfere with the rights of the states). But Roosevelt's second victory in 1936 smashed these maneuvers, and the Supreme Court, threatened with reform, ended up by recognizing the New Deal's social policies and (among others) the right to unionize.

At the level of the structures of American society, the crisis and its remedies have caused the strengthening of the federal state and increased its control over the individual states and the Trust's policies: by its "conditional subsidies," its nationwide economic programs, its social regulations, the federal government took control of vast areas which had previously depended only on the authority of the states and on the interests of free enterprise. In 1937, "the dualist" interpretation of the tenth amendment to the Constitution—which forbade any federal intervention in the economic and social policies of the states (their private domain)—was abrogated by the Supreme Court from its judgments. This strengthening of federal power at all levels had the effect of increasing the President's power.

But, as early as 1937, a new economic crisis emerged: economic activity dropped by 37 percent compared to 1929, the number of unemployed was again over 10million in 1938, and despite the refloating of major public works, stayed at 9 million in 1939 (see The Grapes of Wrath). The war (arms industries becoming predominant in the economy) was to help end the new crisis by allowing full employment. . .

Federal centralism, isolationism, economic reorganization (including Hollywood), strengthening of the Democrat-Republican opposition, new threats of internal and international crisis, crisis and restrictions in Hollywood itself; such is the fairly gloomy context of the Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) undertaking

It is no doubt difficult, but necessary, to attempt to estimate the total and respective importance of these factors to the project and the ideological "message" of the film. In Hollywood, more than anywhere else the cinema is not "innocent." Creditor of the capitalist system, subject to its constraints, its crises, its contradictions, the American cinema, the main instrument of the ideological superstructure, is heavily determined at every level of its existence. As a product of the capitalist sytem and of its ideology, its role is in turn to reproduce the one /450/ and thereby to help the survival of the other. Each film, however, is inserted into this circuit according to its specificity, and there has been no analysis if one is content to say that each Hollywood film confirms and spreads the ideology of American capitalism: it is the precise articulations (rarely the same from one film to the next) of the film and of the ideology which must be studied (see I).

 

4. Fox and Zanuck

20th Century Fox (which produced Young Mr Lincoln), because of its links with big business, also supports the Republican Party. From its inception the Republican Party has been the party of the "Great Families." Associated with (and an instrument of) industrial development, it rapidly became the "party of big business" and follows its social and cconomic directives: protectionism to assist industry, anti-unionist struggle, moral reaction, and racism (directed against immigrants and blacks—whom the party had fleetingly championed in Lincoln's time: but it is common knowledge that this was due once again to economic reasons and to pressures from religious groups, groups which fifty years later were to lead a campaign against everything that is "un-American").

ln power from 1928 to 1932 with Hoover as President, the Republican Party is financed by some of Hollywood's masters (Rockefeller, Dupont de Nemours, General Motors, etc). At the elections in 1928 87 percent of the people listed in Who's Who in America supported Hoover. He has put the underwriters of capital at key posts in the administration: the Secretary of the Treasury is none other than Mellon, the richest man in the world (take an example of his policies: he brings down the income tax ceiling from 65 percent in 1919 to 50 percent in 1921, and 26 percent in 1929).

Forced by Roosevelt to make a number of concessions, American big business goes to war against the New Deal as soon as the immediate effects of the depression decrease (for example, the private electricity companies withdraw their advertising—which, in the USA is equivalent to a death sentence—from the newspapers which support Roosevelt and his Tennessee Valley Authority) and they do everything in their power to win the 1940 election.

All this allows us to assume that in 1938-1939, Fox, managed by the (also) Republican Zanuck, participated in its own way in the Republican offensive by producing a film on the legendary character Lincoln. Of all the Republican Presidents, he is not only the most famous, but on the whole the only one capable of attracting mass support, because of his humble origins, his simplicity, his righteousness, his historical role, and the legendary aspects of his career and his death.

This choice is, no doubt, all the less fortuitous on the part of Fox (which—through Zanuck and the contracted producer Kenneth Macgowan—is as usual /451/ responsible for taking the initiative in the project, and not Ford) that during the preceding season, the Democrat Sherwood's play "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" had been a great success on Broadway. With very likely the simultaneous concern to anticipate the adaptations planned in Hollywood of Sherwood's play John Cromwell's film with Raymond Massey came out the same year and, unlike Ford's, was very successful), and to reverse the impact of the play and of Lincoln's myth in favor of the Republicans, Zanuck immediately put Young Mr. Lincoln into production—it would, however, be wrong to exaggerate the film's political determinism which cannot, under any circumstances, be seen, in contrast, for example, to Zanuck's personal productions, The Grapes of Wrath, or Wilson, as promoting the company's line.

Producer Kenneth Macgowan's past is that of a famous theater man. Along with Robert Edmond Jones and Eugene O'Neill, he has been manager of the Provincetown Playhouse; they had had a considerable influence on American theater. A friend of Ford's, whom he met at RKO during the period of The Informer, he moved over to Fox in 1935 (there he produced Four Men and a Prayer among others) and became the man responsible for historical biographies which constitute the core of the company's productions.

Young Mr. Lincoln is far from being one of Fox's most important productions in 1939, but this film was shot in particularly favorable conditions; it is one of the few cases in which the original undertaking was least distorted, at least at the production stage: of thirty films produced by Macgowan in the eight years he spent at Fox (1935-1943) this is one of the only two which were written by only one scriptwriter (Lamar Trotti) (the other being The Return of Frank James, written by S. M. Hellman). Another thing to remark on: these two scripts were written in close collaboration with the directors, who were, therefore, involved at a very early stage instead of being chosen at the last minute, as is the custom even at Fox (the "directors studio"). Ford even says of the script: "We wrote it together" (with L. Trotti), a rare if not exceptional statement coming from him.

Lamar Trotti had already written two comedies on old America for Ford (of the species known as "Americana"), Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend, before specializing in historical films with Fox (such as Drums Along the Mohawk, directed by Ford after Young Mr. Lincoln).

The background to a whole section of the script is the obsession with lynching and legality which is so strong in the thirties' cinema, because of the increase in expeditive justice (lynching), the consequences of gangsterism, the rebirth of terrorist organizations such as the KKK (see Lang's Fury, Mervyn LeRoy's They Won't Forget, Archie Mayo's Black Legion). Trotti, a Southerner (he was born in Atlanta and had been a crime reporter before editing a local Hearst paper), combined one of Lincoln's most famous anecdotes with a memory from his youth. "When Trotti was a reporter in Georgia he had covered the trial of two young men accused of murder at which their mother, the only witness, would /452/ not tell which son had committed the crime. Both were hanged" (Robert G Dickson, "Kenneth Macgowan" in Films in Review, October 1963). In Lincoldns story, a witness stated having seen, in the moonlight, an acquaintance of Lincoln's (Duff Armstrong) participate in a murder. Using an almanac as evidence, Lincoln argued that the night was too dark for the witness to have seen anything and thus obtained Armstrong's acquittal with this plea.

 

5. Ford and Lincoln

Ford had already spent the greater part of his career with Fox: he made thirtyeight movies between 1920 and 1935! Since Zanuck's takeover, he had made four movies in two years, the first in 1936, The Prisoner of Shark Island ("I haven't killed Lincoln"). Thus it was to one of the company's older and more trustworthy directors that the project was entrusted. The same year, again with Zanuck, Ford shot Drums Along the Mohawk (whose ideological orientation is glaringly obvious: the struggle of the pioneers, side by side with Washington and the Whigs against the English in alliance with the Indians) and in 1940 The Grapes of Wrath which paints a very gloomy portrait of the America of 1938-1939. Despite the fact that he calls himself apolitical we know that Ford in any case greatly admires Lincoln as a historical figure and as a person: Ford too claims humble peasant origins—but this closeness with Lincoln as a man is, however, moderated by the fact that Ford is also, if not primarily, Irish and Catholic.

In 1924 already, in The Iron Horse, Lincoln appears as favoring the construction of the intercontinental railway (industry and unification); at the beginning of The Prisoner of Shark Island we see Lincoln requesting "Dixie" from an orchestra after the Civil War (this is the tune which he "already" plays in Young Mr. Lincoln): symbolically, the emphasis is put on Lincoln's unifying, nonvindictive side and his deep Southern sympathies by means of the hymn of the Confederacy; in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) he is evoked by the blacks as their Savior, the antislavery aspect; in How the West Was Won (1962) the strategist is presented; finally in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), a cornered politician turns to a portrait of Lincoln, presented as the model for the resolution of any crisis.

Each of these films thus concentrates on a particular aspect either of Lincoln's synthetic personality or of his complex historical role; he thus appears to be a sort of universal referent which can be activated in all situations. As long as Lincoln appears in Ford's fiction as a myth, a figure of reference, a symbol of America, his intervention is natural, apparently in complete harmony with Ford's morality and ideology; the situation is different in a film like Young Mr. Lincoln where he becomes the protagonist of the fiction. We will see that he can only be inscribed as a Fordian character at the expense of a number of distortions and reciprocal assaults (by him on the course of fiction and by fiction on his historical truth). /453/


6. Ideological Undertaking

What is the subject of Young Mr Lincoln? Ostensibly and textually it is "Lincoln's youth" (on the classic cultural model—"Apprenticeship and Travels"). In fact—through the expedient of a simple chronicle of events presented (through the presence and actualization effect specific to classic cinema) as if they were taking place for the first time under our eyes—it is the reformulation of the historical figure of Lincoln on the level of the myth and the eternal.

This ideological project may appear to be clear and simple—of the edifying and apologetic type. Of course, if one considers its statement alone, extracting it as a separable ideological statement disconnected from the complex network of determinations through which it is realized and inscribed—through which it possibly even criticises itself—then it is easy to operate an illusory deconstruction of the film through a reading of the demystificatory type (see I). Our work, on the contrary, will consist in activating this network in its complexity, where philosophical assumptions (idealism, theologism), political determinations (republicanism, capitalism) and the relatively autonomous aesthetic process (characters, cinematic signifiers, narrative mode) specific to Ford's writing intervene simultaneously. If our work, which will necessarily be held to the linear sequentiality of the discourse, should isolate the orders of determination interlocking in the film, it will always be in the perspective of their relations: it therefore demands a recurrent reading, on all levels.


7. Methodology

Young Mr. Lincoln, like the vast majority of Hollywood films, follows linear and chronological narrative, in which events appear to follow each other according to a certain "natural" sequence and logic. Thus two options were open to us: either, in discussing each of the determining moments, to simultaneously refer to all the scenes involved; or to present each scene in its fictional chronological order and discuss the different determining moments, emphasizing in each case what we believe to be the main determinant (the key signification), and indicating the secondary determinants, which may in turn become the main determinant in other scenes. The first method thus sets up the film as the object of a reading (a text) and then supposedly takes up the totality of its overdetermination networks simultaneously, without taking account of the repressive operation which, in each scene, determines the realization of a key signification; while the second method bases itself on the key signification of each scene, in order to understand the scriptural operation (overdetermination and repression) which has set it up.

The first method has the drawback of turning the film into a text which is readable a priori; the second has the advantage of making the reading itself participate in the film's process of becoming-a-text, and of authorizing such a reading /454/ only by what authorizes it in each successive moment of the film. We have therefore chosen the latter method. The fact that the course of our reading will be modeled on the "cutting" of the film into sequences is absolutely intentional, but the work will involve breaking down the closures of the individual scenes by setting them in action with each other and in each other.


8. The Poem

After the credits (and in the same graphic style: i.e., engraved in marble) there is a poem which consists of a number of questions which "if she were to come back on earth," Lincoln's mother would ask, concerning the destiny of her son.

(a) Let us simply observe for the moment that the figure of the mother is inscribed from the start, and that it is an absent Mother, already dead, a symbolic figure who will only later make her full impact.

(b) The enumeration of questions, on the other hand, programs the development of the film by designating Lincoln's problematic as being that of a choice: the interrogative form of this poem, like a matrix, generates the binary sytem (the necessity to choose between two careers, two pies, two plaintiffs, two defendants, etc.) according to which the fiction is organized (see 14).

(c) In fact, the main function of the poem, which pretends that the questions posed therein haven't yet been answered (whereas they are only the simulation of questions, since they presume the spectator's knowledge of Lincoln's historical character), is to set up the dualist nature of film and to initiate the process of a double reading. By inviting the spectator to ask himself "questions" to which he already has the answers, the poem induces him to look at history—something which, for him, has already happened—as if it were "still to happen." Similarly by on the one hand playing on a fictional structure of the "chronicle" type ("natural" juxtaposition and succession of events, as if they were not dictated by any determinism or directed toward a necessary end), and on the other hand by contriving, in the scenes where a crucial choice must be made by the character, a margin of feigned indecisiveness (as if the game had not already been played, Lincoln had not entered history, and as if he was taking every one of his decisions on the spot, in the present), the film thus effects naturalization of the Lincolnian myth (which already exists as such in the mind of the spectator).

The retroactive action of the spectator's knowledge of the myth on the chronicle of events and the naturalist rewriting of the myth in the divisions of this chronicle thus impose a reading in the future perfect. "What is realized in my story is not the past definite of what once was since it is no more, nor the perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future perfect of what I will have been for what I am in the process of becoming" (Lacan).

A classic ideological operation manifests itself here, normally, through questions asked after the event whose answer, which has already been given, is the very condition for the existence of the question. /457/


9. The Electoral Speech

First scene. A politician dressed in townclothes John T. Stuart, later to become Lincoln's associate in Springfield) addresses a few farmers. He denounces the corrupt politicians who are in power and Andrew Jackson, President of the USA; he then introduces the local candidate whom he is sponsoring: young Lincoln. The first shot, in which we see Lincoln, shows him sitting on a barrel leaning backwards in shirtsleeves, wearing heavy boots (one recognizes the classic casualness of Ford's hero, who has returned and/or is above everything). In the next shot, addressing the audience of farmers, Lincoln in a friendly tone (but not without a hint of nervousness) declares: "My politics are short and sweet like your ladies' dances; I am in favor of a National Bank and for everybody's participation in wealth." His first words are "You all know who I am, plain Abraham Lincoln"—this is meant not only for the spectators in the film, who are anyway absent from the screen, but also to involve the spectator of the movie, brought into the cinematic space; thus this treatment in the future perfect is immediately confirmed (see 8).

This program is that of the Whig party, at that time in opposition. It is in essence the program of nascent American capitalism: protectionism to favor national industrial production, National Bank to favor the circulation of capital in all the states. The first point traditionally has a place in the program of the Republican Party (it is thus easily recognizable to the spectator of 1939); the second calls to mind a point in history: while in power before 1830, the Whigs had created a National Bank (helping industrial development in the North) whose powers Jackson, who succeeded them, attempted to weaken: the defense of this bank was thus one of the demands of the Whigs, who later became Republicans.

(a) The specifically political notations which introduce the film have the obvious function of presenting Lincoln as the candidate (that is, in the future perfect, the President, the champion) of the Republicans.

(b) But the scorn which is immediately shown toward the "corrupt politicians" and the strength in the contrast of Lincoln's program which is simple as "a dance" have the effect of introducing him (and the Republicans in his wake) as the opposition and the remedy to such "politics." Furthermore, we will see later that it is not only his opponents' politics which are "corrupt" but all politics, condemned in the name of morality (the figure of Lincoln will be contrasted with that of his opponent Douglas, with that of the prosecutor, as the defender of Justice versus the politicians, the Uncompromising versus the manipulators).

This disparagement of politics carries and confirms the idealist project of the film (see 4 and 6): moral virtues are worth more than political guile, the Spirit more than the Word (cf. 4, 6, 8). (Likewise, politics appears again, later, as the object of discussion among drunks—quarrel between J.P. Cass and his acolyte—or of socialite collversation: carriage scene between Maty Todd and Douglas). /456/

But what is most significant here is that the points of the electoral program are the only indications of a positive relation between Lincoln and politics, all others being negative (separating Lincoln from the mass of"politicians").

(c) We may be surprised that a film on Lincoln's youth could thus empty out the truly political dimension from the career of the future President. This massive omission is too useful to the film's ideological purpose to be fortuitous. By playing once again on the spectator's knowledge of Lincoln's political and historical role it is possible to establish the idea that these were founded on and validated by a Morality superior to all politics (and could thus be neglected in favor of their Cause) and that Lincoln always draws his prestige and his strength from an intimate relationship with Law, from a (natural and/or divine) knowledge of Good and Evil. Lincoln starts with politics but soon rises to the moral level, divine right, which for an idealist discourse originates and valorizes all politics. Indeed, the first scene of the film already shows Lincoln as a political candidate without providing any information either on what may have brought him to this stage: concealment of origins (both his personal—family—origins and those of his political knowledge, however basic: that is "his education") which establishes the mythical nature of the character; or on the results of this electoral campaign (we know that he was defeated, and that the Republicans' failure resulted in the shelving of the National Bank, among other things): as if they were in fact of no importance in the light of the already evident significance of fate and the myth. Lincoln's character makes all politics appear trivial.

But this very repression of politics, on which the ideological undertaking of the film is based, is itself a direct result of political assumptions (the eternal false idealist debate between morality and politics: Descartes versus Machiavelli); and at the level of its reception by the spectator, this repression is not without consequences of an equally political nature. We know that the ideology of American Capitalism (and the Republican Party which traditionally represents it) is to assert its divine right, to conceptualize it in terms of permanence, naturalism, and even biology (cf. Benjamin Franklin's famous formula: "Remember that money has genital potency and fecundity") and to extol it as a universal Good and Power. The enterprise consisting of the concealment of politics (of social relations in America, of Lincoln's career) under the idealist mask of Morality has the effect of regilding the cause of Capital with the gold of myth, by manifesting the "spirituality" in which American Capitalism believes it finds its origins and sees its eternal justification. The seeds of Lincoln's future were already sown in his youth—the future of America (its eternal values) is already written into Lincoln's moral virtues, which include the Republican Party and Capitalism.

(d) Finally, with the total suppression of Lincoln's political dimension, his main historicopolitical characteristic disappears from the scene of the film: i.e his struggle against the slaver states. Indeed, neither in the initial political sequence nor in the rest of the film is this domnant charactenstic of his history, /457/ of his legend even, indicated, whereas it is mainly to it that Lincoln owes his being inscribed into American history more than any other President (Republican or otherwise).

Strangely enough, only one allusion is made to slavery (this exception has the value of a signal): Lincoln explains to the defendants' family that he had to leave his native state since "with all the slaves coming in, white folks just had a hard time making a living." The fact that this comment emphasizes the economic aspects of the problem at the expense of its moral and humanitarian aspects would appear to contradict the points outlined above (primary of morality over politics) if Lincoln had not spoken these words in a scene (see 19) where he puts himself in the imaginary role of the son of the poor farmer family. He recalls his own origins as a poor white who, like everyone else, suffered from unemployment. The accent is thus put on the economic problem, i.e. the problem of the whites, not the blacks.

The not-said here, this exclusion from the scene of the film of Lincoln's most notable political dimension, can also not be fortuitious (the "omission" would be enormous!), it too must have political signicance.

On the one hand, it was indeed necessary to present Lincoln as the unifier, the harmonizer, and not the divider of America (this is why he likes playing "Dixie": he is a Southerner). On the other hand, we know that the Republican Party, abolitionist by economic opportunism, after the Civil War rapidly reappeared as more or less racist and segregationist. (Already, Lincoln was in favor of a progressive emancipation of the blacks, which would only slowly give them equal rights with the whites). He never concealed the restrictions he asked for concerning the integration of blacks. Considering the political impact that the film could have in the context described above (see 3, 4), it would have been in bad taste on both these accounts to insist on Lincoln's liberating role.

This feature is thus silenced, excluded from the hero's youth, as if it had nor appeared until later, when all the legendary figure's other features are given by the film as present from the outset and are given value by this predestination.

The shelving of this dimension (the Civil War) which is directly responsible for the Lincolnian Legend thus allows a political use of this legend and at the same time, by castrating Lincoln of his historicopolitical dimension, reinforces the idealization of the myth.

But the exclusion of this dominant sign from Lincoln's politics is also possible because all the others are rapidly pushed out (except for the brief positive and negative notations mentioned above, which in any case are in play as indicators— of the general repression of politics, and of stamping of the Republican cause by the seal of the Myth) and because this fact places the film immediately on the purely ideological plane (Lincoln's ahistorical dimension, his symbolic value).

Thus what projects the political meaning of the film is not a directly political discourse: it is a moralizing discourse. History, almost totally reduced to the time scale of the myth with neither past nor future, can thus at best only survive in /458/ the film in the form of a specific repetition: on the teleological model of history as a continuous and linear development of a preexisting seed, of the future contained in the past (anticipation, predestination). Everything is there, all the features and characters of the historical scene are in their place (Mary Todd who will become Lincoln's wife, Douglas whom he will beat at the presidential elections, etc, right up to Lincoln's death: in a scene which Fox cut, before the film was first released, one could see Lincoln stop in front of a theater presenting Hamlet and facing one of the [Booth family] troupe of actors—his future murderer), the problematic of deciding (see 14) and of unifying is already posed . . . The only missing thing is the main historical feature, this being the one on which the myth was first constructed. ~

But such repression is possible (acceptable by the spectator) only inasmuch as the film plays on what is already known about Lincoln, treating it as if it were a factor of nonrecognition and at the limit, a not-known (at least, something that nobody wants to know anymore, which for having been known is all the more easily forgotten): it is the already constituted force of the myth which allows not only its reproduction but also its reorientation. It is the universal knowledge of Lincoln's fate which allows, while restating it, the omission of parts of it. For the problem here is not to build a myth but to negotiate its realization and even more to rid it of its historical roots in order to liberate its universal and eternal meaning. "Told," Lincoln's youth is in fact rewritten by what has to filter through the Lincolnian myth. The film establishes not only Lincoln's total predestination (teleological axis) but also that only that to which he has been shown to be predestined deserves immortality (theological axis). A double operation of addition and subtraction at the end of which the historical axis, having been abolished and mythified, returns cleansed of all impurities and thus recuperable to the service not just of Morality but of the morality reasserted by capitalist ideology. Morality not only rejects politics and surpasses history; it also rewrites them.


10. The Book

Lincoln's electoral speech seems to open up a fiction: electoral campaign, elections. . . A problem is presented, which we have the right to expect to see solved, but which in fact will not be solved. To use the Barthesian formula, we have the elements of a hermeneutic chain: enigma (will he or won't he be elected?) and nonresolution. This chain is abandoned by the use of an abrupt fictional displacement: the arrival of the family of farmers. Lincoln is called away to help them. This family comprises the father, the mother, and two twelve-year-old boys. They want to buy some material from Lincoln, thus informing us of his occupation: he is a shopkeeper. But the family has no money: Lincoln offers them credit, and confronted by the mother's embarrassment, argues that he himself has acquircd his shop on credit. The situation is resolved by the use of /459/ barter: the family owns a barrel full of old books (left behind by the grandfather). Delighted at the mere mention of a book (legendary thirst for reading) Lincoln respectfully takes one out of the barrel: as if by chance, it is Blackstone's Commentaries. He dusts the book, opens it, reads, realizes that it is about Law (he says: "Law"), and is delighted that the book is in good condition (the Law is indestructible).

(a) It's a family (see 19) of pioneers who are passing through that give Lincoln the opportunity of coming in contact with Law: emphasis on the luck-predestination connection as well as on the fact that even without knowing it it is the humble who transmit Law (religiously kept by the family as legacy from the ancestor). On the other hand, we have here a classic Fordian fictional feature (apart from the family as a displaced center): meeting and exchange between two groups whose paths need not have crossed (a new fictional sequence is born from this very meeting; it is first presented as a suspension and simple digressive delay of the main narrative axis, later it constitutes itself as being central, until another sequence arises, functioning in the same mode, Ford's total fiction existing finally only as an articulation of successive digressions).

(b) Lincoln makes a brief but precise speech in praise of credit: "I give you credit"—"I don't like credit" (says the farmer-woman incarnating the dignity of the poor)—"I myself bought my shop on credit": when one is aware of the role played by the extension of credit in the 1929 crisis, this kind of publicity slogan uttered by an American hero (who later, with ever increasing emphasis, will be the Righteous man) tends to appear as a form of exorcism: without credit, the development of capital is impossible; in a period of recession (1935-1940) when unemployment is high and wages have gone down, the maintenance of the level of consumption is the only thing which allows industry to carry on.

(c) The fact that Law is acquired by barter introduces a circuit of debt and repayments which is to run through the film (see 23).

(d) The principal function of this sequence is to introduce a number of constituent elements of the symbolic scene from which the film is to proceed, by varying and activating it (in this sense it is the true expository scene of the fiction, the first scene becoming pretextual and possibly even extratextual): the book and the Law, the Family and the Son, exchange and debt, predestination . . . This setting up of the fictional matrix means putting aside the first sequence (political speech): a simple digression, first believed to be temporary, but then seen to be in fact the first step in the operation of the repression of politics by morality which will continue through the whole film (see 9).


11. Nature, Law, Woman

Third sequence: lying in the grass under a tree, near a river, Lincoln is reading Blackstone's Commentaries. He summarizes its theories in a few sentences: "The right to acquire and hold property. . . the right to life and reputation. . . and /460/