The 1939 film opens with the familiar 20th Century-Fox logo. A few years earlier the studio was formed from merging two smaller companies, 20th Century and Fox, with Chase National Bank as the controlling financial resource. In addition to the Hollywood studio the company owned or controlled many movie theatres in the West, and this is where the money was made. The audience was largely rural and small town transplants from the Middle West.

The last shot in the film. Cahiers argues that the entire film leads to this point: the presentation of a mythic and eternal Lincoln that fits a Republican and Big Business agenda to win the 1940 Presidential election and reverse the New Deal.

The first shot of Lincoln comes after he is introduced by a politician as running for the state legislature. He is found reclining in a chair, with his feet up, a significant gesture repeated through the film. His clothing, simple and homespun with sturdy boots, confirms his informality that is presented verbally when he stands and makes a short direct speech. Lincoln reclining and stretching across the frame marks him thinking, reflecting; he stands to deliver a conclusion. There is very little conversation showing development or process or exchange.

The first action shot begins with a covered wagon arriving in New Salem, 1832. The same wagon will appear in the final sequence, with the Clay family leaving after the trial.

A family in a wagon pass Lincoln’s country store, offering to barter a barrel for some cloth. When he hears there are some books in the barrel, he is alert and excited. The incident confirms the commonplace knowledge of Abe being self educated and eager to read and learn. The first book he finds is Blackstone’s Commentaries and in awe he says “Law!” Thus the foundation of his career seems to arrive by predestination.

Lincoln stands in the jail doorway, blocking the battering ram, and demanding, “Listen to me!” He starts in command mode. He then offers to take on any man present in physical battle.

After intimidating the biggest fellow present, Lincoln shifts his rhetorical tactic, imploring the group to, “Look at it from my side…” and humorously arguing that he is just a jackleg lawyer and their interest in seeing the Clay boys hung will surely come about after the trial.

When some in the crowd complain that they are all ready for a lynching, Abe shifts the argument again, making the much more abstract and foundational argument that if everyone took the law into their own hands, pretty soon no one would feel secure.

Finally, Lincoln closes the case by appealing to Scripture: “Blessed are the merciful…” The scene is remarkable in showing Lincoln’s extreme quick-thinking and skill in using his performance and words to turn around an angry mob. Cahiers reads this sequence, in a psychoanalytic take, as demonstrating Lincoln’s “castrating power.” But reading it as a performance, it could be argued that he is showing himself as a talented politician: able to change and redirect people’s thinking, to work effectively between the formal framework of governance and the immediate desires of the citizenry. In short, he is a master of the moment and executor of “the art of the possible.” 

In other words, the film does repress “politics,” if by that we mean presentation of the large issues of public policy, but it does show Lincoln coming into his own as a consummate politician: someone with the skills and principles to gain democratic support for establishing his leadership.  As many observers of the U.S. electoral system have said, Americans tend to vote for the person, not the platform. In Cahiers’ view, the film has contradictions in trying to portray Lincoln as mythic and eternal.  In this counter-reading, the film shows the process of a young man coming into his vocation as a leader.


Young Mr. Lincoln and ideological analysis: a reconsideration
(with many asides)

by Chuck Kleinhans

In 1970 the editors of Cahiers du cinéma published “Young Mr. Lincoln, texte collectif,” an article written by all the editors, which, upon translation into English in Screen (UK) as “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln,” in 1972, became a landmark essay in Anglo-American film theory. The essay was quickly referenced, commented on, and republished repeatedly in film theory anthologies. The commentaries produced a cottage industry of new studies of the 1939 film. My concern here is to mark the place of the original essay and its subsequent discussion. It needs some context for a new generation, some 40 years later. Because the French article became so central to key issues in emerging film studies, today’s reader finds many paths leading through and out of the essay, many tangents that turn out to be useful for grasping the essay in the abstract and in history. And it also lets us think about the historical vicissitudes of film theorizing. Reconsideration today also aptly opens further thought in terms of Spielberg’s Lincoln and the larger project of ideological analysis.

The opening titles and credits are presented as carved in stone: “for the ages.” The last shot in the film is of a monument: the Lincoln Memorial. The opening credits segue into a short poem by Rosemary Benet asking, in the voice of Lincoln’s mother, who died early in his life, asking what became of her son. The audience already knows the answer. Thus Lincoln is framed as “for all time,” but there’s a contradiction because the work of the film must tell an interesting story.

Knowing that different readers will read this in different ways, I’ve decided on a rambling format. Some people who may have read, and taught, the essay many times can just easily skip through to the points which are new and substantial. Others, far less familiar with the essay may want to have a copy of the original essay at hand, view the film again, and read some of the critical commentary. For that purpose I supply a “student’s guide” form of bibliography at the end. For beginners, skimming might be the best way to go for a first excursion. I hope this strategy might open up further discussion and exploration of the Cahiers essay and the critical staging of media theory at the time. Many of today’s media folks, relying on weak summaries and attitude-heavy claims about the period (such as dismissals based on slogans like “Grand Narratives”) have a meager knowledge of what really went on. Visiting the source, or revisiting it with eyes wide open, can be enlightening.

What was at stake?

Early in the essay, the editors make a remarkable claim:

“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 super-structure, is heavily determined at every level of its existence.” [Emphasis added]

If this assertion were written by one author in a casual film review, one might take this as a careless exaggeration. Written by a group of editors, knowing it was their next major theoretical essay and would stand as a key case study to buttress their new political direction, it is astonishing: Hollywood cinema is the main instrument of the ideological superstructure. If this were so, then the newly proclaimed Marxist editors would be the vanguard of intellectuals analyzing capitalist society. Other Marxists might study the economy, other Marxists might be primarily concerned with governmental politics, but Cahiers was dissecting the main instrument of domination in the era of bourgeois capitalism. Few film critics have ever claimed to take up such a weighty responsibility.[1][open endnotes in new window]

In its own time, the film journal’s Young Mr. Lincoln (hereafter, YML) piece resulted in further critique in the Anglophone film-studies world as it became one of the most anthologized, taught, and referenced essays in film theory. In many ways, it set a pattern for a dominant tradition in ideological analysis of Hollywood film. By putting forward the idea of a symptomatic reading of a film, the Cahiers’ approach invited critics and viewers to look at the surface of a film text in the same way a doctor looks at the overt data of a patient in making a diagnosis. The physician considers what are readily observable facts on the outside—temperature, pulse, blood pressure, skin rash, and so forth—to figure out what is going on “inside” the patient. And the art and science of diagnosis depend on making increasingly subtle judgments, refined guesses, and gathering elusive threads into a clear pattern. Similarly, clinical psychology since Freud, especially indebted to the medical model, begins by looking at the open manifestations of hidden disorder. The observable (even when displaced as in dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes, etc.) provides clues to the secretive.

Applied to the aesthetic text of a film, the symptomatic reading finds almost anything within the scope of analysis: formal choices of cinematography and editing, styles of acting, the soundtrack, narrative ellipses and reversals, and so forth. All are clues to a less obvious meaning. And how did one know in advance the hidden underpinning? For Marxists it came down to the nature of capitalist society. And very quickly, various critics saw that the absences could also be used to analyze gender, race, nationality and ethnicity, and many other repressions in image media.

The approach meshed well with some important emerging trends in film and media studies. With increased attention to form and close reading as the field developed within academics, critics were concerned to explain what they observed with much finer detail. The earlier norm had been that writers had limited viewing opportunities to see a particular work, and writing on cinema was dominated by journalistic reviewers.[2] The Cahiers editors remark within their essay about the way that repeated viewings made certain points clear to them.[3] Later in the decade, the building of rental distribution, film libraries, and archives allowed for repeated viewings of films. Before that, critics had to work within the limits of finite theatrical first-runs, the rare retrospective with only one viewing, or the happenstance of the broadcast television late-night-movie ghetto. Then the arrival of videotape in the later 1970s opened a vast access, at least to the most salable classics. Writers had much more ability to compare and contrast films, advancing authorship studies and genre studies in particular. The biggest payoff came in improving close analysis.

But a political impulse for ideological analysis of cinema was always present and often dominant. The development of feminist, gay and lesbian, and race politics and cultural analysis went hand in hand with a more traditional class-based consideration. While the most familiar form of political analysis until the 1970s stressed “image,” “realism,” and interpreting the most surface level of narration, the new mode of critique argued for a more complex and deeper view of film art and communication. Today that richer view extends from the most philosophical media theory to the popular discussion of new films and television, from research on the effects of current social media on shaping individual consciousness to cross-cultural conflicts in global communications.

Some context

Les Cahiers du cinéma [Cinema Notebooks], founded in the early 1950s by an enthusiastic youthful group around critic André Bazin, quickly became the premier film journal in the world, famously promoting the auteur theory, granting creative power to the director working within the constraints of commercial cinema, even the factory-like Hollywood operation.[4] Key Cahiers writers became founding figures in the French New Wave and increased the magazine’s prestige and overseas appeal. Dedicated to taking film seriously, the intellectuals around Cahiers could initially be seen as cineastes fueled by cinephilia and passionately pursuing Bazin’s central question, “What is cinema?” But further intellectual (and political) developments began to change the agenda in the 1960s. Structuralism offered a new way of thinking about aspects of culture even as it further expanded into semiotics. A revival of Brecht, both in the theater and in the translation and publication of his writings, opened up a new space for critiquing long-standing validations of “realism” as a political aesthetic. There was a new interest in film from the Soviet 1920s, and the writings of Dziga Vertov and the Russian Formalists. Combined, these and other factors shifted Cahiers’ central concern to, “How does cinema work?” Attention moved from an aesthetic poetics to a politics of representation and communication.

The Young Mr. Lincoln essay appeared at a key moment of transition for Cahiers and a short time later, for English language film studies. A year earlier, following the tumultuous events of May-June 1968 in France, when a student and worker strike seemed to threaten the French State itself, Cahiers published a turning point essay, “Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism,” by leading editors Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni. It laid out a dramatic leftward political and aesthetic shift for the leading cinema journal of its time. The magazine definitively rejected the cinephilia on which it had been founded and run for the previous 18 years.[5] The editorial declared the publication’s understanding of the political field of film, and it argued for priorities and lines of critique for the magazine’s future. Then the magazine published specific case studies of representative films across a spectrum over several issues and about two years before shifting its orientation again to a “Marxist-Leninist” or “Maoist” direction, which concentrated on films from the People’s Republic of China, on the one hand, and the vanguard period of Godard and Gorin’s “Dziga Vertov Group” films, on the other. A further shift took place in following years, and the publication returned to a broader and less politicized survey as the key staff changed again.[6]

After getting his first law book, Lincoln is seen reading it by the river with his feet up, a pose repeated at key moments of the film. Ann Rutledge observes Lincoln in this riverside communion with Law and Nature before appearing and calling out his name.

The “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” essay declared seven broad political categories of film, briefly sketching in an evaluation of each group. These seven could be clustered into three categories:

  • “classic” films which followed the general dramatic narrative styles and conventions;
  • explicitly political or militant films, clear in theme and intent;
  • and modernist or self-reflexive art films which went beyond consecrated and commercial expectations and were open to political readings.

In the context of the times and the journal’s development, the short descriptions of each category were self-evident to anyone sympathetically following the Cahiers line, and the mention of a few titles provided sufficient contemporary examples.

Outside of France, particularly in the UK and North America, one category was especially intriguing for left film intellectuals. Most notoriously, the authors stressed the somewhat vague but tantalizing idea that some (conventional dramatic narrative, including mainstream Hollywood) films appeared to be conservative, but actually they opened up to a more politically radical statement through displaying contradictory elements or through the particular style of an auteur-director. Months later, the Young Mr. Lincoln essay provided Cahiers’ first detailed case study to demonstrate the abstract notion, and it was eagerly read as, at last, a concrete example of a new radical film criticism.

To make their case, Comolli and Narboni started from the explicitly stated premise that cinema operates totally subordinated to the dominant ideology:

“So, when we set out to make a film, from the very first shot, we are encumbered by the necessity of reproducing things not as they really are but as they appear when refracted through the ideology. This includes every stage in the process of production: subjects, ‘styles,’ forms, meanings, narrative traditions; all underline the general ideological discourse. The film is ideology presenting itself to itself, talking to itself, learning about itself. Once we realize that it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the film-makers first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called ‘depiction of reality.’ If he can do so there is a chance that we will be able to disrupt or possibly even sever the connection between the cinema and its ideological function.”

An aside on ideology

The concept of ideology in Marxism expresses a relation between forms of consciousness and human’s material existence “by referring to a distortion of thought which stems from, and conceals, social contradictions.”[7] One of the most central ideas of Marxism, the term has been defined and understood in different ways in the century and a half since the Communist Manifesto. It is often yoked to another key Marxist concept, contradiction.

Ideology has had a particular urgency in Western Marxism because actual history defied the optimistic 19th century view of an inevitable progress to socialism beginning in the industrial countries. Originally, to many it seemed that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, and economic change would bring about political and cultural change. But rather than international proletarian solidarity, WW1 revealed nationalism dominant. Later, Nazi Germany showed large sections of the population enthusiastic for fascism. Actually, successful socialist revolution started with Russia, the most backward capitalist nation with a huge peasant class and a small working class. After WW2 China produced another example of the same phenomenon, and the wave of anti-colonial national liberation struggles in the 50s and 60s added to the drama.

Trying to account for the failure of a revolutionary working class to rise in the West, Marxists paid increasing attention to the nature of ideology that cemented people into supporting the status quo. An older and more simplistic view of ideology as simply “false ideas” that could be revealed and replaced with “correct” or “scientific” ones by dedicated revolutionary cadres explaining things, seemed increasingly naïve.

Part of the impetus came from new and richer theoretical understanding of Marxism. The publication in the late 1920s of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks revealed the Bolshevik leader, exiled following the failure of the 1905 revolt, coming to a deeper and more nuanced concept of social and political change. In turn, Mao’s milestone essays written after the disastrous Long March contained remarkable passages such as saying that cultural changes in the superstructure could appear before fundamental changes in the economic base. Mao also spoke of organizing for change in fairly practical ways: “Where do correct ideas come from?” he asked, and answered “from social practice,” rather than from abstract theorizing. (A lesson subsequently lost on Western Maoists c. 1970, including Cahiers.)

A range of other left thinkers contributed to the stream of new ideas. A contemporary of Lenin, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s work became better known through translations. His key ideas indicate the bourgeois state not only has control by direct military and police force and the threat of it, but it also has ideological power through institutions such as education and religion. The state could fall back on direct coercion, but most of the time power is exerted through a hegemony of “what is” seemingly “normal.” Other thinkers, such as the Frankfurt School, paid intense attention to the growth and development of modern urban life and mass culture, both in the Central Europe of their origins and the United States of their exile from the Nazi regime.

The concept of contradiction as Cahiers used it in 1970 had come to the fore in several ways. Most obviously, the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser had used the concept along with “overdetermination” in discussing ideology. Earlier, Freud used “overdetermination” to stress the existence of multiple factors influencing any one observable phenomenon. Thus condensation and displacement shaped dreams; there was no simple 1:1 correlation of cause/effect because there were multiple causes each of which was modified in the process. This was also shaped within the increasing influence of psychoanalytic thought in France, especially that of Jacques Lacan.[8]

The Cahiers editors explicitly attributed their understanding of the concept of ideology to Louis Althusser who occupied a special place in the French left of the time. A member of the Communist Party, he brought a more sophisticated, philosophical, reading of Marx to a party that was dominated by trade union and parliamentary concerns and that blurred into a vague left humanism in cultural matters. Althusser was clearly influenced by both Mao and Gramsci, though he did not stress that. But he did emphasize ideology as a central factor of class control, and some of his followers, notably Pierre Macherey, revitalized Marxist consideration of literature by showing, for example, the sophistication of Lenin’s analysis of Tolstoi and stressing the literary production of meaning.

The quality of Althusser’s analysis was not challenged within Cahiers (or for that matter by some of his followers abroad).[9] Left intellectuals coming to the question of ideology from other traditions, particularly German, Italian, and English Marxism, usually had a different perspective ranging from mild reserve/correction to significant revision to outright hostility. And further uneven developments cast the understanding of ideology and Althusser in different ways in various national cultures. While France was undergoing a surge of popular interest in psychoanalysis following the celebrity status of Lacan, in the UK Freudian thought was undergoing its first real introduction in intellectual circles. Meanwhile in the United States, where Freud’s ideas had been widely, popularly (and often simplistically) adopted for the previous 60 years, reception of “French Freud” was bound to be different (and often skeptical). Thus the local intellectual history and cultural terrain helped shape the new emphasis on ideology as part of cultural analysis. But figuring out how ideology worked and shaped individual and class-consciousness was high on the agenda for artists and intellectuals.

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