If made today, the writer might have chosen the title Abe Lincoln Begins (the sequel, The Emancipator, would pit Lincoln against Jefferson Davis). As Geoffrey O’Brien notes, Ford’s film is not so much an example of orthodox history as a “parable” (Bertrand Tavernier has compared the film to Plutarch), inspired by anecdotes, rumors and unverifiable remembrances. One is reminded of Erik Erikson’s books on Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi, in which the psychologist dissects a key episode in their young lives and demonstrates how the event brought forth, gave birth to, the heroism within the individual’s character.

A year later, in John Cromwell’s adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” Raymond Massey would be most electrifying when he channels young Lincoln delivering his extraordinary speeches – for that kind of thing, Abe Lincoln in Illinois can’t be topped. Young Mr. Lincoln offers a more mysterious, unknowable person – in the quiet moments in the film, as Lincoln reads, examines nature, thinks, broods and calculates, we feel a yearning to connect with him, a desire to see him triumph.

Fonda’s Lincoln is one more of soul than rhetoric, more cinematic than theatrical, as interesting (fake nose and all – it really doesn’t distract) as Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

Grade: A

Young Mr. Lincoln is currently available as part of the Ford At Fox – The Collection.