Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine.
In 1966, John Ford told film critic and fledgling director Peter Bogdanovich that he had known Wyatt Earp back in the early days of Hollywood, when the aging former marshal of Dodge City and Tombstone would visit the sets of the silent Westerns Ford then worked on as a prop boy. “I used to give him a chair and a cup of coffee,” Ford said, “and he told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.”
Ford did know Wyatt Earp, who no doubt told him some version of the infamous gunfight, but history tells us that the shootout, as portrayed in Clementine, was not the way it actually happened. Of course, it doesn’t matter. As the newspaperman told Senator Ransom Stoddard in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
My Darling Clementine is arguably the best Western by the best director of Westerns in the history of motion pictures, and it may very well represent the apex of John Ford’s long and distinguished career. It was made a few years past the mid point of his filmic pilgrimage, 1946: the first full year of peace following World War II, which was undoubtedly the defining event of both the 20th century and of Ford’s life. (He served as head of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime forerunner of the CIA, and he actually shot 16mm footage of—and was wounded at—the Battle of Midway. He also participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.) As filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson observed, Ford's masterful and groundbreaking 1939 Western Stagecoach was prose, very good prose; by comparison, My Darling Clementine was poetry.
John Ford, 1960.
His recurring theme of manifest destiny and the inevitable settling of the American frontier, which he treated as progress in his early years (The Iron Horse, Drums Along the Mohawk), and with bittersweet melancholy later (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn) is in full flower in Clementine. The latter day melancholy begins to reveal itself here, possibly due, in part at least, to his experiences in the most devastating war in human history. Film critic and historian Tag Gallagher, in his excellent book John Ford: The Man and His Films goes so far as to view My Darling Clementine as allegory: "Wyatt Earp (the U.S.) gives up marshaling in Dodge City (World War I), but takes up arms again to combat the Clantons (World War II) to make the world safe."
Henry Fonda (also just back from the war), who had been Ford’s perennial leading man prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, plays a sanguine, almost lethargic Wyatt Earp, a classic Fordian hero, removed from society, quietly confident and basically nonviolent, but nevertheless commanding the utter respect of others, partly because of his reputation, which has preceded him, and its inherent threat of violence. And, typically for a Fordian hero, he is ultimately unable to share in the peace and security that he makes possible for others.
It is perhaps Fonda’s finest performance. He never appeared more cool and comfortable in a role as he does portraying the legendary marshal of Tombstone, laconically and assuredly inhabiting and policing the lawless frontier town. Even when displaying exasperation he possesses something like a controlled grace. Early in the film he is getting a long overdue shave, when it is abruptly interrupted by gunfire. Bullets shatter the windows and mirrors of the tonsorial parlor, yet the main reason Wyatt goes to the trouble of incapacitating the offending party is not for the sake of securing his or anyone else’s safety, but apparently so that he can finish his shave in peace.
Contrasting Wyatt’s commanding calm, Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), another outcast from civilization, is a haunted, tragic figure. The first augury of Ford’s encroaching postwar cynicism is visible in him, which would culminate ten years later in The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards. We learn that Doc was once a surgeon (the real Doc Holliday was a dentist, another negligible historical discrepancy), a valued, functioning member of society, his career presumably cut short by alcoholism, consumption and perhaps other undisclosed ghosts which apparently still haunt him. As a traveling player, “Mr. Shakespeare” Thorndyke (Alan Mowbray), falters during a coerced rendition of Hamlet’s soliloquy, we see in Doc’s eyes a mournful identification with the tragic Shakespearean character as he recites the remaining lines:
But that the dread of something after death
…makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than to fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.
The consumption from which Doc suffers—his internal bleeding—takes on new meaning during his recitation.
Victor Mature and J. Farrell MacDonald
Family, whether extended, military, community or immediate, is all to Ford, and the mother, or mother figure, the provider and nurturer of life, reigns supreme within the Ford movie family. Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Beth Morgan in How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Jorgensen in The Searchers, all hold a special office in the hierarchy of Ford’s universe. The Clanton family, a conspicuously motherless, miscreant tribe—as the Cleggs would be in Wagonmaster—are the antithesis of Ford’s family idyll. They are the embodiment of demented evil, a malignancy that must be expurgated from the landscape of Tombstone in order for the community to survive and move forward. Headed by Pa Clanton (played by the multifaceted Walter Brennan with ominous, understated vitriol), the father of the clan, they steal the Earps’ cattle herd, which has been left under the guard of 18-year-old James Earp. Pa murders James, thus providing the impetus for Wyatt and his two remaining brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt), to stay in Tombstone and assume the roles of marshal and deputies.