After the trial, Lincoln walks down a courthouse hallway. An eager Mary Todd, who attended the trial with Douglas, comes forward to greet Abe, congratulate him and shake his hand. Douglas offers apologies for underestimating Lincoln, who in turn exchanges a sideways glance with Todd. The eyes tell the story.

In his last encounter with Mary Todd, Lincoln is commanded by an off-screen voice, “Hurry up, Abe! The crowd’s waitin’!” The pair share a significant exchange of glances and smiles (hers quite large, shielded by her bonnet from Stephen Douglas seeing it). Cahiers views her as repressing her desire; this counterpoint sees her as actively expressing her agency within the limits of the time’s class and gender restrictions.

As the prosecutor makes his opening statement, heavy on grand gestures and rhetorical ornamentation, Abe finds a book and stretches casually, theatrically upstaging the state’s attorney. Given the formal setting of a frontier courtroom, the gesture makes clear Lincoln’s calculation of “naturalness.”

In the Independence Day parade, among the few blacks in the film, two younger African American men carry the banner for the Veterans of the War of 1812, who served twenty years earlier. During the war, typically Illinois soldiers were involved in skirmishes with Northwest Territory Indian nations that were supported and supplied by the British from Canada.

At the dance, a doorman carrying Lincoln’s stovepipe hat is one of the few African Americans seen in the film.

Lincoln comes to Ann’s grave, bringing early spring crocus flowers. The river is breaking up and Abe asks his departed love if he should stay in New Salem or go to Springfield to be a lawyer. He lets a stick fall to choose the way, and it falls toward the headstone, toward Springfield, toward the law. Decision made, he remarks he might have pushed the stick in that direction.

While visiting the Clay cabin, when Lincoln asks for a piece of paper on which to make some notes, Sara brings him the fateful Farmer’s Almanac.

The second day of the trial begins with Lincoln asking Cass to be recalled. Smirking, Cass is seen surrounded by his friends, smoking a cigar and taking a big swig from the whiskey jug before going to the witness chair.

Lincoln asks Cass to retell his previous day’s eyewitness testimony, including that he was able to see the crime because of the full moon. Cass affirms that again, and he blows a big smoke ring at the conclusion of his statement.

As Cass is excused and begins to leave, like a stage magician, Lincoln takes the almanac out of his stovepipe hat. Abe begin a further interrogation with the accusation that Cass must have killed Scrub White because the quarter moon had set at the time of the murder as proven by the almanac tables.

During the tar barrel bonfire, in a clearing Matt Clay and Scrub White fight in a fairly distant longshot in dark shadows. The obscure action heightens when Adam Clay sees the knocked-down White pull a gun. The medium shot reveals the start of the action, but the cutting and framing returns to obscuring the action as the brothers pile on the gunman. Abigail Clay arrives on the scene. We hear a shot, but only see her face, not what happened.

Cass arrives after the shot is fired, and bends over White’s body. The scene is lit to show only the most minimal information of who is present, not what is happening. The audience can easily assume that White was killed with his own gun.

Cass rises from his buddy’s body, holding Matt’s knife, and announcing White is dead, stabbed.

Townspeople arrive carrying torches and gather around the fallen body (left) while the family groups together (right). Lincoln is present as an observer of the scene dead center, obscure in the dark, but marked by his dress and hat.

At the murder site, the sheriff asks if anyone saw the crime. Abigail Clay says she did, but when asked which of her boys did it, she replies, “I ain’t sayin’!” This begins her steadfast refusal to choose between the two.


Symptomatic reading

For many readers, the most intriguing section of the “Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism” essay concentrated on identifying “category e” films:

“films which seem at first sight to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner.”

Repeatedly articulating metaphors of gaps, dislocations, cracks, fissures, corrosion, swerving, splitting, and transgressing, the editors present this group of films as having a surface that appears to be intact but that hides an underlying problem.

Thus the method of analysis called for is a symptomatic reading: just as a medical doctor gathers the apparent surface level of information but analyzes it for traces of a hidden, internal condition, the analysis of ideology in film expects to find a meaning below the immediately perceivable level.[10] [open endnotes in new window] Crucially, the key to allowing this kind of reading of a film was that the works of art were assumed to have a “deeper level of imagery,” which allows them to be self-critical, to disrupt the smooth surface of the dominant ideology.

At the time, Cahiers was being challenged on their left by a new publication, Cinéthique, which denied any political or aesthetic value to films that remained within the dominant forms.

Cinéthique believed that cinema could break its ties with the dominant ideology only by situating itself elsewhere in a completely new field….For [Cinéthique]the ideological slant of a film depends on the way in which the reproduction of the world is approached (what matters is escaping the traps of specular vision: it is necessary, therefore, to break the illusion of reality and to display what is really at stake, in terms of work and materials).”[11]

Looking back on this moment, Comolli says,

“[Cinéthique] distinguished themselves by radically rejecting practically the entire cinema. Personally, I have always been concerned with saving the cinema, including the most ideological films. The idea behind ‘Young Mr Lincoln’ was to save Hollywood.”[12]

A cynical reading of this Cahiers maneuver could point out that the self-critical “category e” claim allowed Cahiers to hold firmly to their previous bulwark position of auteur criticism, especially in terms of their own previously established pantheon of directors. Those filmmakers earlier heralded as genius artists, particularly those working in commercial entertainment cinema, and especially Hollywood, could still be validated: this time on political grounds.[13]

More sympathetically, one might see Cahiers as here caught in a moment of transition, and you could note that intellectuals seldom make a complete 180 degree break from the past. Being so heavily invested in a certain canon, and one which they had spent so much energy on building, they couldn’t just discard the past. “Category e” provided a safe haven or a transit point while moving further left. In the abstract, as Marxists trying to do an ideological analysis of cinema, they had moved beyond a naïve auteurism that simply saw the genius artist-director as the origin of a film as a work of art (the auteur position evidenced for example in Andrew Sarris’s 1968 landmark The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1928-1968). But the fact that they actually had studied John Ford (and many others) as just such an author meant that they could still call on “Ford” as a coherent set of artistic tropes in their own subsequent analyses, including YML.

Three “category e” directors are mentioned specifically in “Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism”: Ford, Dryer, Rossellini. Comolli and Narboni explain that they will not denounce these films for their limits, nor claim the films break from ideology itself, but they will show the “process in action,” how these films “criticize themselves.” The ideology

“…is presented by the film. This is the case in many Hollywood films for example, which while being completely integrated in the system and the ideology end up by partially dismantling the system from within. We must find out what makes it possible for a film-maker to corrode the ideology by restating it in the terms of his film…”

The Young Mr. Lincoln analysis became the first working out of this commitment. The essay takes three major approaches to the film. First, it sets out the major theoretical and methodological issues that pertain to the detailed case study. (I’ll return to discuss that section below, after surveying the other two.) Second, briefly it tries to place the film in its own historical moment, in 1939, as a project of the studio and its head, Darryl F. Zanuck, to create a propaganda piece for the Republican Party in the upcoming 1940 Presidential race. Third, it involves a very close reading of the film to reveal its narrative and cinematic contradictions.

Young Mr. Lincoln and historical determination

The first concern, setting out the historical determinants of the film, explains the movie in terms of the upcoming 1940 Presidential electoral contest pitting the incumbent Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, against a (at the time, yet to be determined) Republican.

Cahiers offers the stated goal of YML thus:

What is the subject of Young Mr. Lincoln? Ostensibly and textually it is ‘Lincoln’s youth’ (on the classical 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, it is the reformulation of the historical figure of Lincoln on the level of the myth and eternal.” [emphasis in original]

Why was this film with this reformulation made? The Cahiers writers explain that “American Big Business goes to war against the New Deal.”

“All this allows us to assume that in 1938-39, 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.”

They remark that it was not “fortuitous”… “that during the preceding season, the Democrat Sherwood’s play ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’ had been a great success on Broadway.” Thus anticipating a film version of the stage hit, “to reverse the impact of the play and of Lincoln’s myth in favor of the Republicans,…” Zanuck rushed YML into production.

We can stand back a moment here and ask a few questions.
1. How reasonable is this assumption?
2. Is there any evidence to support the assumption?

Certainly, Cahiers is smart in seeing the film’s end point as being the mythic, eternal Lincoln (represented by the marble statue in the Lincoln Memorial). And certainly the Ford film does erase Lincoln as a politician. Logically, a film validating the most famous Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, would serve the general conservative and pro-business interests in the contest.[14] But many readers saw this part of the analysis as shallow and flawed.[15] The most obvious problem was that Cahiers attributed the instigating motivation to one man, producer Darryl Zanuck, who was undeniably a powerful force but who still operated within the studio system, itself constrained by financial interests. It is often forgotten by many (though not Cahiers in their remarks) that while “Hollywood” was the visible location of the cinema industry, that an equally important part, the financial section, was located in New York banking circles which clearly had ultimate control over decisions.[16] But above all, Cahiers offers no “smoking gun” evidence to back up their claim of Zanuck’s and the studio’s goal. They reference no memo, report of a meeting or conversation, memoir, etc. to support their supposition. The claim rests on shaky ground. Cahiers presumes that knowing class interests and party affiliation allows them to decisively determine intention for both the studio as a corporation and Zanuck as its leader.[17]

Of course, claiming to know intention on the basis of affiliation is the meat and potatoes of partisan political discourse. It endlessly reappears in diverse examples across the entire spectrum of politicians and pundits, from far right to far left. The Tea Party person “knows” what Barack Obama is trying to do, just because Obama is Obama: liar, Socialist, Muslim, Kenyan, etc..[18] So we shouldn’t be surprised to see this trope appearing in politicized film theory. But it’s worth noticing that the exact same determination of intent (and effect) on the basis of party affiliation or political sympathy directed the far right crusade against “subversive” elements in Hollywood in the HUAC era and more broadly in Senator McCarthy’s attacks on government employees.

Further, Cahiers offered no explanation of how or why Zanuck would make an expensive production decision based on political party preference rather than likely financial return. (In fact the film did adequately at the box office, but was not a big hit.) This is especially dubious if you consider that a few months later Zanuck chose to produce The Grapes of Wrath, arguably the most politically progressive studio film of the pre-WW2 era, with Ford directing. If the producer were driving a Republican Party agenda, why would he produce such a socially and politically left-leaning film?[19]

But looking at the Cahiers remarks on history today, what we can see is an undeniably limited but interestingly ambitious attempt at a political economy analysis of Hollywood in the late 1930s. In a sense Cahiers’ instincts were right, but their data pool was limited. Today we have a much richer basis for considering these matters with works such as Tino Balio’s masterful history, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939. And more specific studies allow a better understanding of points Cahiers raise. The French editors note that Hollywood faced drastically declining box office in the middle of the Depression. Catherine Jurca’s recent book Hollywood 1938: Motion Picture’s Greatest Year studies both the dilemma and the favored response (a massive PR campaign to promote film-going). Jurca shows consumer resistance to the dominant mid-1930s film product and the call by reviewers for more serious film.

Certainly Zanuck’s decision to make Young Mr. Lincoln (shot in March-April 1939 and released in June, 16 months before the 1940 Presidential election) meshed with the idea of producing more notable works. In addition, Robert Sherwood’s new play, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, was a Broadway hit in 1938, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was going to be a film. Writer Carl Sandberg’s biography, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939) was about to appear, which revived interest in Sandberg’s earlier best-selling classic, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926). Closer study of Zanuck also suggests more motives than just obtaining a propaganda edge for the 1940 election. In Twentieth Century’s Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood, George F. Custen points out that Zanuck made his mark early on at Warner Brothers by perfecting the hooks of sex and violence in popular films that especially appealed to urban audiences. Ford’s Lincoln biopic moves in a different direction because 90% of Fox’s theaters were in the Far West United States populated largely by migrants from the small town and rural Midwest. YML perfectly matched this demographic which, not incidentally, was the Nebraska-born executive’s (b. 1902 in Wahoo, Nebraska). In an era of vertical integration (studios directly owned many theaters that exhibited their films), Zanuck’s highest priority was not only to be commercially successful, but to be successful above all in the Fox theaters. Depicting Lincoln as a Midwest-grounded young lawyer properly pitched the great man.

Doubtless more could be unraveled about the institutional production situation.[20] And the critiques of Cahiers as over-simplistic are correct. But the impulse moved in the right direction: economics and institutional conditions shaped YML, like all Hollywood films, and they created the base line for individual decisions, be those of producer Zanuck or screenwriter Trotti or director Ford.[21] An adequate accounting has to include multiple determinations that both cancel and reinforce the film’s “meaning.” And in a much broader and more expansive sense, the historical framework of the film’s production would have to account for the economic situation in 1939 (a developing recovery accentuated by the prospect of increasing war preparations), the international situation with imperialist expansion by Japan, Germany, and Italy; and U.S. cultural shifts resulting from labor migration, especially from South to North, Midwest to West, rural to urban.

Cahiers is somewhat deceptive. On the one hand they argue that the film is not a direct, transparent, or literal transformation of its social and historical context. But on the other hand, that starting point must still be considered and is significant. And they weigh the (suspected, not openly known) intentions of one person, Zanuck, as the instigating force. What they want to show then is that the initial impulse gets transformed in the actual work of producing the film: the film has a “complex, mediated and decentered relationship with the context.” That is demonstrated in the scene-by-scene analysis.

Cahiers reading ideology

The main body of the YML essay concentrates on a close, detailed reading of the film in terms of ideology. For Cahiers such a reading is not an “interpretation,” which finds a universal essence at the heart of an artistic work, nor is it a mechanical deconstruction laying out all the parts (in the manner of the common French rhetorical explication de texte). The remarkable and innovative thrust of the analytic method is its emphasis on contradictions the film’s process.

Therefore, the Cahiers editors begin their specific discussion of the film framing it within the problem of Lincoln as a character. In this case he’s not simply a myth or symbol, but a protagonist, who must be distorted to fit the filmmaking. Although the film on the surface seems to be about Lincoln’s youth, its goal is to elevate the historical figure to “the level of myth and the eternal.” We can remember that the film’s last image is of the Lincoln Memorial statue: Lincoln frozen in stone for the ages. To get to that point, the film tries to tell a smooth linear foreshadowing story, but, Cahiers warns, contradictions arise.

What follows in their analytic essay is a scene-by-scene breakdown that repeatedly emphasizes the gap between the most apparent level of narration and deeper, more contradictory, aspects of the unfolding film. In particular these are revealed by “structuring absences,” things that are repressed by the film: particularly politics and sexuality. The idea of a structuring absence—something that signifies although it is not present—is probably the most influential part of the Cahiers approach. The concept opens up analysis to not just mimicking or mirroring what a film says overtly, but to looking for that which it cannot address.[22]

The other major innovation in Cahiers’ working method is its absolute reliance on what they call “active reading.” By this they mean they will proceed not by referring to the film as a memorial experience (where the “meaning” can be summed up in a synchronic whole) or offering an interpretation or explanation of the “meaning.” Rather they want to treat the film as a dynamic process in which the film’s ideology unfolds with a scene-by-scene progression. Their aim was not to present the film as an organic whole for aesthetic appreciation, but to determine the mechanisms by which it conveys ideology.

I will not go through reading the Cahiers essay in great detail, since it deserves to be studied closely and in its entirety, and with the film at hand.[23] But the editors mark out three different key parts of the film which they argue cannot be smoothly integrated: the hero’s destiny, the fictional narration, and the Fordian écriture (writing). From here through the section “Foreshadowing Cass’ guilt,” I will look at some representative examples of Cahiers’ active reading and counterbalance it with my own active reading.


First, the film’s generic aspect: as Cahiers puts it, “the early life of the great man.” They only briefly mention it. But we could look at it more broadly. Of course, this is a familiar narrative pattern, one that appears in many fictional forms as seen in folklore, stories of heroes, children’s books, and so forth. In heroic tales, destiny is often foretold in a prophecy, even before birth. Or in legend, youthful years involve disciplined training under a powerful mentor. In the Romantic Movement, the narrative line appeared as the novel of apprenticeship, or the confessions of the young man. The story of youth also provides a common narrative form for biography, with the historian uncovering details from early in life that seem important in terms of later achievements. This common trope in fiction allows for material and psychological conflicts, overcoming hardship, making a big discovery, and other kinds of character development. While masculine stories usually stress drama leading to action, female versions are familiar as romantic comedies with the young heroine negotiating misunderstandings and social constraints to achieve maturity. Or, as melodrama, she’s presented in a narrative of female suffering.

The key point that Cahiers wants to make here is that in this case, since the film depicts a famous historical figure, the end is already known. And, since they argue the film’s “ideological project [is to present] (Lincoln, a mythical hero representing Law and guarantor of Truth),” he is beyond politics or sexuality (both of which they consider repressed in the film)

There is only one moment in the film showing Lincoln as a politician: at the start with him in New Salem, Illinois, running for office and being introduced by a pompous orator on the front porch of Abe’s country store. From a relaxed position in everyday dress, Lincoln stands, remarks that everyone present already knows him, then informally, plainly, and very briefly lays out his position. Although Lincoln’s historical achievement was political—pursuing and ending the Civil War; ending slavery with a Constitutional amendment (both profoundly political in execution as shown in Spielberg’s film)—there is only a trace reference to politics here.

Cahiers doesn’t really discuss slavery and blacks in the film. And within the film itself, the issue of slavery and the situation of African Americans is also effectively repressed.[24] Blacks appear only a few times in the film and at a glance: two younger men carry the banner for veterans from the War of 1812 in the Independence Day parade, and a liveried driver walks the horses pulling the carriage for the parade’s Columbia.[25] And there are the doorman and punchbowl servers at the dance. Talking with the Clay family late in the film (three women), Lincoln mentions slaves arriving in his birth-state of Kentucky and undercutting the economic situation of white workers, forcing his family to leave for Indiana, a Free state. Narratively, this supplies a background element remarkably late. Its presence is part of Lincoln making a connection, a parallel, to this, his surrogate family, who at the start of the film were themselves travelling West to homestead. The fact that it is told so late indicates that it really isn’t needed for backstory.[26]

For Cahiers, the founding intention of YML, “the reformulation of the historical figure of Lincoln on the level of the myth and the eternal,” is accomplished significantly through staging a “feigned indecisiveness.” Lincoln repeatedly faces situations where he has to choose between opposites, but he doesn’t. The moment or decision is elided, or the solution appears, as if by predestination, a magic answer built into the universe. The first scene, a scrolling poem recounting the questions Lincoln’s deceased mother would have about what became of her son, frames all that follows as an exposition that answers the questions. But the audience already knows what happens to Abe Lincoln. Thus the poem acts to naturalize what follows, to present the depicted events as destiny.

Lincoln is less an active agent than simply a vehicle for moral truth. Cahiers marks various events as leading up to the dramatic trial: Lincoln receives Blackstone’s law book without seeking it; he lets fortune decide if he should stay in Salem or go to Springfield to practice law; he resolves a dispute between two farmers without deciding between them; as a judge in a pie contest, he alternates bites without choosing. And most significantly, in the second half of the film, he defends two men who are both charged with murder without deciding between them. He determines the real culprit by an unanticipated fortunate act. Needing paper to make some notes when interviewing the men’s mother, the family gives him an almanac that turns out to have the explanation of the murder, just as the same family gave him his first law book. And at a key moment in the trial, he pulls the almanac out of his tall hat, just like a magician.

Lincoln as predestined, as restorer of order, is the propaganda goal of the producer, Cahiers argues. But, they then argue this intention is upset by two other aspects of the work: the work of turning the story into a dramatic narrative and the “Fordian code” of the director’s signature style.

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