After spending the Second World War commanding a high-profile film-making unit, legendary director John Ford returned to 20th Century Fox and decided to make a western. Given that Ford hadn’t made a western for over a decade prior to the War, critics were quick to label My Darling Clementine as a step backwards for America’s most gifted director but in truth it was actually the beginning of a stage in Ford’s career where he began to exert more control over his own films. Presented here after a glorious 4K restoration, My Darling Clementine is an absolute classic; a great Western made by one of the great directors.
Grace is not something that is native to this world; it is brought into being by our actions and good intent. My Darling Clementine is a film about bringing grace to the Old West and how it was carried to the town of Tombstone by the actions of one man. That man is Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and the film opens with an idyllic image of the Earp brothers driving cattle across the astonishing beauty of Monument Valley. Ford worked with Henry Fonda on Young Mr. Lincoln before the War and shoots him here in a similar way; framed only by sky and pregnant with goodness. This goodness is put to the test when Earp runs into Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) who offers him chickenfeed for his cattle before sending him in the direction of Tombstone, apparently a real lively place.
Three of the Earp brothers venture into Tombstone in search of a shave, they leave the youngest back at the camp in order to look after the cattle. Once in town, Earp’s shave is interrupted by gunfire as a local drunk has decided to shoot up the place. Wyatt subdues the man with little effort and is immediately offered the job of Marshall but he’s not interested, just as he’s not interested in selling his cattle to Old Man Clanton. Minutes later and the two bad deals combine as the Earp brothers return to the campsite to find their brother dead and their cattle rustled. We all know who is responsible but Wyatt is a man of principle and the only way for him to avenge his brother is by pinning that tin star to his chest.
Ford presents Tombstone as a wild and woolly place: The streets are full of drunks, the inns are full of killers and the whole place is just one cancelled theatrical performance away from a full-scale riot. Even the local dowager turns out to be running a brothel. Earp navigates this landscape with a grace that defines the character; tense situations are diffused, murderers are taken into custody and tricky saloon girls are ceremoniously dumped in horse troughs. There’s a lovely scene late in the film where Fonda leans back in a chair with his feet resting on a beam. Though the angle is terrifying, Fonda bounces from foot to foot without losing balance: Earp doesn’t so much impose order and grace upon the town… it simply seeps out of him.
Fully aware that Earp is a good man mired in the heart of darkness, Ford positions him opposite Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday; a great surgeon who travelled west in search of desert air only to find himself transformed into a terrifying gun-slinger who uses guile and speed to impose order on Tombstone’s fledgling underworld. At first, Earp and Holliday seem to be on a collision course but the revelation that Earp doesn’t carry a gun seems to remind Holliday of the man he used to be and so the pair become friends.
Were a bunch of writers to examine the script of My Darling Clementine, chances are that they would see the protagonist as being Doc Holliday rather than Wyatt Earp. The reason for this is that while Earp enters and departs Tombstone a good man, Holliday is the character who actually changes as a result of the events in this film. Earp’s morality is never really in question but Holliday is trapped between his desire to be a good man and his urge to start knocking back booze and gunning down anyone who looks at him funny. In some ways, Holliday is representative of Tombstone itself as it too faces a choice between remaining in the heart of darkness and becoming a part of civilisation.
Ford explores Holliday’s dilemma by positioning him between two women: On the one hand is Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, a white woman named for a Mexican dog and wearing Mexican clothes despite frequent references to her being some sort of Native American. As in many films of this era, racial otherness combines with moral and sexual otherness to create an image of everything that Holliday is yearning to become. Chihuahua is like the household god of Tombstone; she’s beautiful, treacherous, promiscuous and a ravening Id that is unchecked by anything even approaching a conscience. On the other hand is Cathy Downs’ Clementine, a Boston school teacher who fell in love with the man Holliday used to be and who came out west in order to lure him back to civilisation. Clementine is not exactly successful as her presence shames Holliday into a bender and plans to move to Mexico with Chihuahua by his side. However, Clementine’s journey turns out not to have been wasted as her simple goodness turns out to be a perfect match for that of Wyatt Earp.
Deliberately severed from the battle for the soul of Tombstone is a beautifully conceived and almost dialogue-free love story between Wyatt and Clementine. Right from the very first shot, Ford places them together on screen and just watches as affection blossoms into love. Watch for the scene in which Clementine waits politely for Earp to ask her to dance as Earp fiddles with his hat before marshalling his courage and throwing the blasted thing away. Also lovely is the scene where she is sat next to a hotel door and Earp wanders in whistling ‘O, My Darling Clementine’ before visibly convulsing with embarrassment. Though unfolding in a completely separate narrative thread, the Wyatt/Clementine love story seems to function as a moving commentary on the state of Tombstone. You couldn’t imagine the pair of them courting as drunks shoot up the place but after a few days on the job, Earp has turned Tombstone into a place where couples can stroll and church congregations can dance. There’s a lovely scene where Holliday rides back into town to discover Earp presiding over Sunday lunch in the local hotel. He is visibly taken aback by the change, but he is also distinctly uncomfortable as he knows that Tombstone is no longer the kind of place where gun-slingers get to call the shots.
The final confrontation plays out after Chihuahua happens upon something stolen from the body of the youngest Earp brother and the reformed Doc Holliday joins up with the Earps on the way to the O.K. Corral. The gun-fight looks less like the showdowns of conventional Westerns and more like the street-to-street fighting that Ford would have seen during World War II. It’s a good fifteen minutes before the first shot is fired but by then it’s all over… the goodies have outmanoeuvred the baddies and then it’s just a question of time before grace comes to Tombstone and changes the place forever.
Released under the Arrow Academy label, the theatrical version of the film is accompanied by a 2K edition of the slightly longer and different ‘pre-release cut’ that more closely resembles the version that Ford delivered to his long-time collaborator, the great Daryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. Fascinating for anyone who is interested in the development of Ford’s work, these two versions of the film are also accompanied by a high definition transfer of Frontier Marshall, a 1939 re-telling of the Earp story by Alan Dwan, which was clearly a huge influence on the film discussed above. Also included is a documentary about Ford’s relationship with Monument valley, a video essay about the film and a frankly extraordinary Channel 4 programme from 1988 in which Lindsay Anderson (the man who directed If…) spends an hour going through the film shot by shot discussing themes and techniques.
Every shot a picture and every line a poem, My Darling Clementine is an unimpeachable classic that every serious film fan needs to have seen at least once. Rich in theme and overflowing with humanity, this film is a much-needed reminder of quite how much intelligence a great director can cram into a traditional genre film. Brilliantly acted, brilliantly written, brilliantly paced, brilliantly made.