When I think of John Ford, an artist if there ever was one, what I find most fascinating is his gruff persona, which is evidenced in every single image you see of the man and that comes across in most interviews, in contrast to the sensitivity and tenderness infused in his films. That dichotomy is what makes masterpieces of Ford films, particularly his Westerns, which are often personal tales set against cold and lonely, if majestically presented backdrops.
In the case of My Darling Clementine the backdrop is as familiar as his actors and just as important to the story. That is, of course, Monument Valley, which John Ford used as a setting in nine films. Monument Valley was so associated with Ford movies, in fact, that people used to say “if anybody else made a picture there they’d be accused of plagiarism.”
Even more fascinating than the stories depicted in Ford films, however, is how he chose to tell them – methodically allowing a tapestry of images to take precedence and through them bring forth the action and characterization. John Wayne, who enjoyed both a friendship and professional collaboration with the director that spanned five decades, described Ford movie rules in the 1971 documentary, “The American West of John Ford,” rules that include: 1. Don’t pack too many ideas in a scene and 2. Don’t talk too much. Given that every single one of John Ford’s movies serves numerous, visually iconic scenes that are sans dialogue it seems the director stayed true to these rules throughout his career. Perhaps the best example of this is My Darling Clementine, a poetic telling of the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, the movie that caused me to think that watching a Ford movie on a big screen is a religious experience after watching it at the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (TCMFF).
My Darling Clementine is based on Stuart N. Lake’s 1931 fictional biography “Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal,” which had been previously made twice as Frontier Marshal – in 1934 directed by Lewis Seiler starring George O’Brien and again in 1939 starring Randolph Scott and helmed by Allan Dwan. 1957 also saw the release of John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral starring mega stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, but Ford’s treatment of the Wyatt Earp story is not only the best version, but one of the best Westerns Ford ever made. In fact, Peter Fonda who introduced the film along with Keith Carradine at the TCMFF considers Clementine Ford’s greatest Western and said so without hesitation. Given the magnitude of Ford’s other films in the genre that’s a mind-blowing opinion, but one I happen to agree with.
The movie opens as the Earp brothers – Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil and James – are driving cattle to California. Wyatt rides up to a wagon that approaches and meets Old Man Clanton and his oldest boy, Ike. Clanton quickly makes Earp an offer for his cattle, which is immediately refused. But the meeting serves to introduce the Earps to the nearby town of Tombstone where they can freshen up before continuing with their journey west.
Leaving younger brother James to look after the cattle for the night the three older Earps go into Tombstone only to find a lawless place in need of a Marshall. Before long Wyatt Earp makes his presence known and is offered the Marshall position, which he refuses at first, but changes his mind after he and his brothers find the cattle rustled and James murdered.
With his brothers Morgan and Virgil as his deputies, the newly named Marshall seeks to find justice for James in Tombstone and soon meets up and befriends a troubled Doc Holliday. Much of the drama in Clementine comes by way of the Holliday character with whom several of the others have a history. It makes for a compelling story that’s well worth your time, adding nicely to the developing rivalry between Wyatt Earp and the Clantons as the film progresses. In the end Doc joins forces with the Earps against the Clanton gang who by then are responsible for two Earp brother deaths and a wagonload of other crimes. The final battle takes place at the legendary O.K. Corral, which is given the same Ford treatment as the rest of My Darling Clementine, but doesn’t stand as the kind of momentous scene most other westerns would allow it. What matters in My Darling Clementine, what is given meticulous attention is the journey to the O.K. Corral, the film doesn’t feel like a build-up to the greatest battle ever seen. Yet another reason why this Western is a standout.
Much has been written about the historical accuracy of Ford’s depiction of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in My Darling Clementine, mostly due to the fact that John Ford loved telling the story of how it was filmed exactly as the gunfight had taken place as told to him by Wyatt Earp himself. I think it’s been proved to be false that the gunfight actually took place as depicted in Clementine, but it hardly matters. The sequence is shot beautifully and leads to a satisfying end – a downfall for the Clantons.
My Darling Clementine is the fourth of seven films Henry Fonda made with Ford and the actor’s first Western. It’s a hell of a breakthrough in a genre Fonda would excel at. Aside from playing Wyatt Earp in the movie Fonda’s contribution to the piece goes well beyond his performance as his pacing guides that of the entire movie. This is probably best illustrated in the movie’s most famous scene where Earp does the balancing act against the post on the porch, an unscripted moment that goes a long way in showing both the inner workings of the character and the way John Ford approached filmmaking – with artistry and patience.
My favorite tidbit shard by Peter Fonda at TCMFF was that (reportedly) John Ford cut dialogue related to character and theme, because he knew Henry Fonda’s silences were more eloquent than any dialogue. If one considers Ford’s rules as noted above this makes the director’s association with Fonda a match made in heaven. Discussed in Scott Eyman’s Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman is the fact that Ford also liked the way Henry Fonda walked. Both facts – Fonda’s slow, but deliberate gait and his cinema silences are gifts to behold and they are exhibited beautifully throughout My Darling Clementine. So needless to say Henry Fonda is terrific as Wyatt Earp with a memorable cast in support. Victor Mature turns in an affecting performance as Doc Holliday and I enjoy the physical contrast between Fonda and Mature, the lanky, deliberate Earp versus the stocky, volatile Holliday. Despite being miscast, as far as I’m concerned, Linda Darnell also does a fine job as Chihuahua, the woman who’s in love with Doc Holliday and a tragic figure in her own right.
Aside from Fonda and as good as Mature is it’s Walter Brennan who steals almost every Clementine scene he’s in. Reportedly Brennan and John Ford didn’t get along and maybe the actor used the bad blood between them to fuel his depiction of the despicable Old Man Clanton, who’s as cold-hearted and hateful as they come. During the aforementioned documentary Henry Fonda explains how John Ford knew how to get everything there was out of a scene and how to put a period on it. When I heard that I immediately thought of the Brennan scene in My Darling Clementine during which the old man whips his sons for threatening Wyatt Earp with a gun, but not acting on it. Disgusted Clayton marches out of the bar saying, “When ya pull a gun, kill a man.” It’s a chilling scene – the sudden violence by an old man under which strong, grown men cower. It’s a definitive period. Cut. Next scene. And we are left with a bad taste in our mouths.
I should mention Cathy Downs who plays Clementine Carter in a rather stiff manner I’m afraid, but the character is an important one as she comes to Tombstone as Holliday’s ex and adds charming moments during which we note that Wyatt Earp is smitten. Then there are John Ford acting staples Ward Bond and Jane Darwell. Neither of their roles are huge in Clementine, but the scenes in which they appear are gems that enhance the movie. Bond plays Earp brother, Morgan and Darwell plays Tombstone resident Kate Nelson who helps Chihuahua after her surgery. Other actors of note are Tim Holt who plays Virgil Earp, John Ireland is Billy Clanton and Alan Mowbray is Granville Thorndyke, the Shakespearean actor who visits Tombstone and kicks off the Clanton whipping scene I described above. There are more, of course, as Ford films are usually replete with memorable townsfolk so be sure to take a look at the complete Clementine cast and crew list here.
Memorable performances, a pace that both settles and excites expressed by grandiose shots that are each more breathtaking than the last are all part of the John Ford legacy. And all part of what makes My Darling Clementine a grand artistic endeavor from its memorable title sequence on forward. Such artistry deserves an awe-infused treatment such as Criterion has devoted to its release of the 4K restoration of this film. Patience – quiet, steady perseverance; even-tempered care; diligence is how I’d describe the release, which ensures this masterpiece will be enjoyed as originally intended. I’ve had the Criterion Clementine bluray for several months, but only just watched it this week in preparation for The Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues… Speakeasy and Silver Screenings and it quickly moved up My Criterion list as a favorite.
Aside from the gorgeous visuals the Criterion Clementine also offers a host of terrific extra features including:
- New audio commentary featuring John Ford biographer and film historian Joseph McBride
- A new interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp
- A video essay by John Ford scholar Tag Gallagher
- Bandit’s Wager, a 1916 silent western short co-starring Ford and directed by his brother, Francis Ford, featuring new music composed and performed by Donald Sosin
- NBC television reports from 1963 and 1975 about the history of Tombstone and Monument Valley
- And the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Clementine from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs
It is due to both the theater experience I had at TCMFF and thanks to the care given by Criterion that I can attribute the appreciation I now have for My Darling Clementine. In both instances the thought came to mind that Clementine alone serves to quell any disagreement as to whether film constitutes art. Film as art is My Darling Clementine – and like all art it requires patience – quiet, steady perseverance; even-tempered care; diligence – a quality possessed by John Ford, Henry Fonda and their admirers.
Be sure to visit The Criterion Blogathon, which promises an impressive collection of participants commenting on their favorite releases. This is gonna be good!