Monday, January 17, 2011

John Ford Prints the Legend: My Darling Clementine

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.

The women of My Darling Clementine serve as combinations, to varying degrees, of nurturer, angel, and lover, and perhaps even as allegorical representations of the progression of civilization versus the freedom of the untamed West. The latter—wild, headstrong Chihuahua (Linda Darnell)—is a willing nurturer and lover to Doc, whose interest in her only goes as far as is convenient for him. Clementine Carter, who arrives well into the film as a civilizing angel from the East, considers it her duty to rescue Doc from himself and bring him back to Boston. (A mixed blessing at best, as Boston is Ford’s eternal bastion of civilization at its worst, invariably inhabited by bigoted grotesques—though Miss Carter has been spared this dubious characterization.)

Both women are ostensibly rivals for Doc’s attention, but he takes neither one too seriously, seeming to know that his demons are unconquerable and that an ill fate awaits him, from which he can’t be saved. His thoughtless neglect of Chihuahua results in her becoming romantically involved with one of the Clanton boys (John Ireland), which in turn leads to her death (a symbolic step towards the death of the Old West?). Clementine, on the other hand, receives a great deal of attention from Wyatt, signifying hope for peace and growth in Tombstone, and the possibility of it becoming a place where kids like James can grow up and live safe,” as Wyatt says while reflecting alongside the grave of his slain youngest brother.

Ford’s use of comedy, sometimes criticized for its broadness (but of which he was nevertheless proud), is sparing and deft in Clementine. It is gentler and more restrained than his typical comedic fare, as in humorous references to the aroma of eau de toilette, which the enthusiastic proprietor of the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor has applied to the freshly shaven and coiffed Wyatt: “I love your town in the morning, Marshal,” says Clementine as she and Wyatt step out onto the front porch of the hotel; she then inhales, “the scent of the desert flower . . .” “That’s me,” corrects Wyatt, adding explanatorily, “Barber.”  There’s also the justly praised “bit of business” of Wyatt doing his seated “dance” on the front porch, as he somewhat passive aggressively ignores the shrewish admonishments of Chihuahua. This casual, and according to Fonda spontaneous, creation of Ford’s succinctly captures the essence of the relationship between the two characters.

Many of the reassuringly familiar faces of Ford’s legendary “stock company” are faithfully present in My Darling Clementine, as was nearly always the case, with a few variations and transitions, over the years. Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Mae Marsh, J. Farrell MacDonald and the ever-present, ever-endearing Francis Ford, John’s older brother and former mentor (and a veteran of Hollywood from its infancy), all add their warm, familial qualities, counterbalancing the darker aspects of the film.

Ford’s innately masterful sense of composition and lighting, a hallmark throughout his career, is at its height in Clementine. The striking sequence of eloquently composed silent shots revealing James’ death and the disappearance of the cattle herd; the sweeping, dramatically lit diagonal of the bar in the saloon as Wyatt walks to the door after Chihuahua’s operation; the expressionistic shadows that constantly envelop the doomed Holliday’s face; the somber, monumental tableau of Wyatt and Morgan standing over the dead body of their brother in the street at night. The breathtaking simplicity of these and many other images in Clementine is more likely to be recalled later, or become apparent upon repeated viewings, thanks to Ford’s celebrated “invisible” direction. Though understated, they profoundly enhance our journey nonetheless.

The centerpiece of Clementine, as in many Ford films, is a dance. Its prelude unfolds in a reserved, courtly fashion as Wyatt and Clementine meet in the lobby of the hotel and begin a stately walk toward the framework of the unfinished “first church of Tombstone,” the sound of a tolling church bell and the strains of one of Ford’s favorite hymns, “Shall We Gather at the River” growing louder as the couple approaches the assembled congregation. Like many great moments in great films, the beauty of several elements melding flawlessly to create this sequence defies verbal description.

The church, to Ford, helps legitimize the existence of a community, serving not only as a house of worship, but also as a place where the people can come together in fellowship, providing a foundation for the community’s future existence. The citizens of Tombstone are duly proud of their work in progress. “Regular church!” declares the deacon after someone has implied that the proceedings therein might take on the form of a less than formal “camp meeting.”

As the dance begins, several measured cuts occur in concert with the tempo of the now festive onscreen music, methodically escalating a sense of something akin to reserved jubilation, building shot upon shot of swirling couples and spirited musicians. After ponderous moments of observing the merriment while standing attentively at the side of his would-be beau, a nervous and uncharacteristically self-conscious Wyatt—who hasn’t been close to a woman in weeks of driving cattle, let alone such a refined and proper woman as Miss Carter—finally summons up enough nerve to ask her to oblige him with a turn around the dance floor/church. She accepts, and as they step onto the plank floor the deacon stops the music, creating a sudden moment of slight tension, which heightens the feeling of soaring release that follows his request that everyone “make room for our new marshal—and his lady fair.” The music recommences, Wyatt and Clementine begin to dance, and the camera gracefully, yet unassumingly, follows them as they move across and around the floor, the crowd obligingly having made room for the new couple.

This sequence—Wyatt and Clementine’s promenade, and the dance that ensues on the physical foundation of the church—renders a transcendent moment in the Ford canon. It is the symbolic establishment of a real and lasting community, which, until the arrival of Wyatt and Clementine, and all that they stand for, had no spiritual foundation.

Nevertheless, the community’s survival, and its promise of a burgeoning civilization, is tenuous unless the virulent Clantons can be dispatched. This is ultimately fulfilled at a great cost of life in the climactic gunfight at the O.K. Corral (itself a wonder of understatement as it unfolds without any soundtrack music—an utter anomaly in the 1940s), completing Tombstone’s redemption.

Wyatt, as is virtually preordained for a Fordian hero, cannot become a part of that which he has saved, or reap the benefits of his labors. After tenderly imparting to Clementine that he must return home to break the news to his father of the deaths of his brothers, he rides off into Monument Valley and myth.

© Jon Oye 1996, 2011


  1. A lovely and thoughtful account of it, Jon--and the movie is one of my own favorites of Ford.

    I read this after you called attention to it at Peter Bogdanovich's blog. It looks like it's one of the first things you wrote here. Hope you see this note.

  2. Thank you, Blake. I originally wrote it for a now-defunct Ford website in the mid-1990's.

  3. Beautifully written. I agree with you re: Fonda's finest performance. He is SO good here. It's been a while since I've seen this one – time to see it again!

  4. Thanks so much. Clementine is always rewarding to revisit - enjoy.

  5. I can't believe I haven't seen this one yet. What a compelling review. So well expressed. I'll have to finally get to it!

  6. Wonderful post. I'm not a huge Western fan, but this one has been on my to-see list for a while. If anyone could convert me the genre, it's going to be Fonda!

  7. Well, there are Westerns and there are John Ford Westerns. John Ford's best Westerns transcend the genre.
    Thanks, Leah and girlsdofilm. I hope you both enjoy the film.