John Ford is a definite candidate for greatest American director of all time. He’s the only director to win four Academy Awards, and he was a man of seemingly endless creative energy, directing some 140 films over a 50-year career. He also has the rare distinction of being a filmmaker who almost single-handedly defined an entire genre of film: the Western. Westerns have been around since essentially the beginning of narrative movie-making. Indeed, one of the first big hits in American cinema was The Great Train Robbery, a short that kicked off the endless parade of movie outlaws holding up trains in the Old West. Heck, even the first feature film ever made, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was essentially an Australian Western about the bush outlaw Ned Kelly. But it was Ford who really codified the form, particularly with 1939’s rip-roaring action-melodrama Stagecoach. With My Darling Clementine (1946), however, Ford offered up a different sort of Western. Though the movie is very loosely based on the true story of the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, My Darling Clementine is more a movie about relationships and the inevitable march of modernity than it is about quick draws and outlaw/lawman honor. Modest in scope but emotionally earnest, Clementine is also one of the best-looking Westerns ever made, further elevating the proceedings by applying the atmosphere and compositional daring of Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. (97 min.)
S. – I didn’t know anything plot-wise about this film when we sat down to watch it, only that it was a western and it starred Henry Fonda. The western genre doesn’t especially fill me with excitement but if Henry Fonda is involved consider me a willing audience member. A significant bonus of not having high expectations is all the room it leaves you to be impressed. My Darling Clementine is great! Start to finish it was thoroughly entertaining. In addition to the hard-nosed rascals that typically populate the Wild West Ford gave us some complex leading men that were introduced painted black or white, but delivered a whole lot more to think about with regard to what it takes to be the guy in charge. Compelling characters were coupled with cinematography that was able to bring a moody and bleak edge to Tombstone along with the workaday bustle and broad horizons more familiar in frontier adventures. Many liberties are taken with time and place to create this story, an interesting decision by Ford to use names of real historical figures for characters while frequently not staying true to past events, but as someone with only a passing familiarity with the names Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, I had no problem with the poetic license taken. Although I can imagine the wobbly facts could prove a major distraction for some. Ford’s Tombstone may not resemble any place that ever existed, as it managed to blend a slick, city edge (to some of the night scenes in particular) into this speedbump of a town. Somehow this darkness lent a maturity to the struggle of wills that we were witnessing, a modernity to the clash of good guys versus bad that is the bread and butter of westerns.
J. – I also had no idea that this movie was about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday — I mean, how would you from that awful title? And yeah, it plays extremely fast and loose with its history, but that in no way detracts from My Darling Clementine‘s ability to entertain and really delve into some excellent explorations of character and setting. I’m not sure I’d agree with your assessment of the protagonists initially being presented as standard white hats or black hats. Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday is certainly presented as a clear cut bad guy when first introduced, but I think Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is never solidly in the good guy camp. I mean, he starts out the film being an impatient jerk to the barber and then only reluctantly becomes the marshal. And what is the first thing he does after becoming a lawman — he plays poker at the saloon and throws a woman into a horse trough. So the shades of gray are there at the outset with that character. But your overall point about the main characters demonstrating a complexity that one doesn’t often see in popcorn westerns is right on. Earp has a cool confidence and a canny ability to pick his battles and compromise when it comes to his lawman stance — it is notable that he takes the job as a means for vengeance, but doesn’t immediately unleash himself on the men who he suspects to have killed his brother. And his way of dealing with Doc Holliday is not so much to stand up to the underworld leader of the town but to befriend him. But at the same time he is so out of sorts with women, and the way he polishes himself up but still struggles in front of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) is handled amazingly well by Fonda.
But then, as always, Fonda just nails it in every scene, and he finds a way to make his Wyatt Earp be both menacing and suitable for the church social; a gambler and a drinker but an unfailingly polite one. But more than that, Fonda just knows how to hold himself. Earp is a rather taciturn fellow and Fonda gets a lot of mileage just from his eyes and movements — I think particularly to the way he tips back his chair outside the hotel, a leg perched on a post. He finds a way to be almost schoolboyish but also tough at the same time. Even so, I think Fonda’s work might have been bested by Victor Mature in this film.
S. – Fonda is extraordinary, as he is so often for all he does say and all he doesn’t say. But Victor Mature is magnetic from the moment he is on screen. Seeing them interact together was an absolute delight. From the get go we see Doc Holliday as volatile and dangerous, a combination right at home running a gambling den and very effective at keeping people at a distance. Slowly we are allowed to find out that there is a lot more to this character than there first appears. While his behaviour is as brutal and cold as that of the villainous old man Clanton (an excellent Walter Brennan), Doc’s bravado comes from a very different place. Clanton is trying to protect what he thinks is his, but Holliday has already lost everything, including his self-respect. One of my favourite scenes features a bumbling and boozy travelling actor attempting to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy to the punters in the pub (particularly the Clanton boys). The sequence could easily been out of place in a Western, or played only for some light relief. In Ford’s hands, with the talents of Mature and Fonda to draw on, we get to look at the characters in the bar through a very different lens. The melodramatic words of Hamlet suddenly infused with the sorrow of true exile. The change of pace is disorienting as our bad guy momentarily becomes another person before being jerked back to reality by his hacking cough. Just as telling are the various reactions of those in attendance to the unexpected glimpse of the local hard man. The action returns to more familiar territory for the remainder of the film, but the shadows of Doc’s demons linger.
J. – That’s one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in any movie, and I would say it is utterly unexpected in a Western to hear a performance of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. And you’re dead on that the scene enables the viewer to view the characters through a different lens, particularly Mature’s Doc Holliday. We’ll break that scene down completely in the collection of screen grabs below, but there are some points worth making here. First, the scene starts out as a way to demonstrate the iniquity of the Clantons as they harass the actor. It then becomes a performance by the drunk actor, but the mood swiftly changes to showcase the relationship between the Clantons and Holliday. There are moments, for instance, where the actor is talking but he is out of focus. Instead the focus is on Ike Clanton, who is staring intently at Holliday, almost challenging him. The focus then moves to Holliday alone as he takes up the speech, showcasing his education and erudition, despite his coarse looks and violent demeanor. It layers the character of Holliday wonderfully and in some ways sets him above our ostensible hero Wyatt Earp, as Fonda’s character is clearly less educated and is unsure of what he is witnessing. It’s really powerful stuff and Ford brings it all together perfectly. And it says something that this bit of Shakespeare is in some ways more of a climax than the gun battle that closes the movie. I think it speaks to what we were saying about modernity. Doc Holliday is a cultured man as much as he is a killer, and it is that more elitist side that is pointing the way forward for Tombstone and the West in general. This is a movie in which the big shootout seems somewhat perfunctory and unheroic and the final image is not of a victorious lawman but of a schoolteacher about to take up her new job. But I hadn’t considered the look of the film in these terms until you mentioned the urban look of the movie despite it being set in a small desert outpost. Would you care to expand on that at all, S., because I really loved the look of the movie and would love to discuss it.
S. – I think the urban vibe comes from the inky night shots that are so good at isolating a character with his thoughts. You know there is a whole lot of life going on just behind the walls but for a moment there is that disconnection from the rabble, a space where internal thoughts are not drowned out by the crowd. But also the look of the film reminded me more of the modern world. The standard western environment is not a place I have much interest in experiencing but the rainy streets in the dark looked more like places I might actually go and that helped draw me into the setting. You mention in the opening spiel that westerns frequently explore the encroachment of civilisation on the freedom of the open plains. Frequently in a rather heavy-handed, nostalgic way. Here I felt that Tombstone was more than an awkward and ugly first try at establishing a community, it actually had a draw of its own that made the town and its inhabitants something other than a poor but sometimes necessary alternative to sleeping under the stars. A nighttime destination with a pull of its own. The presence of the learned Doc Holliday and later the attachment of the cultured Clementine support its drawing power. Perhaps this effect may be an unintended consequence of the mid 1940s culture seeping into the aesthetics, but I felt that Tombstone after dark held a greater attraction than just a place for cowboys to shake the dust off their boots, get a shave and find a strong drink.
J. – Yeah, the inky darkness of the film initially made me think “film noir” but only in an abstract sense. It wasn’t until you mentioned the modern urban feel that it really hit home to me. Because this is very much a noir kind of film with its antiheroes, angst, and femme fatales, but it all feels intensely modern despite the clapboard sets. It’s a 20th century kind of brooding that Victor Mature engages in, and more standard western types like the Earps essentially come to realize by the film’s end that they have lost their place in the world as progress marches forward. The same is true of the villainous Clantons, who are victims as much of progress and order as they are of justice and revenge. And I think this even plays into the gunfight at the end of the film. We’ve all seen the gunfights in westerns — the men draw at each other from across the saloon or out on the main drag at high noon. But My Darling Clementine doesn’t go that route. The fight is awkward and the characters jockey for position in the surroundings and use horses and moving wagons as shields and distractions. It feels more like the sort of gun play that you find in urban crime films or war films. All of which suggests the film’s deeper sophistication, a thoughtfulness that you almost don’t notice the first time around because, well, because the movie is so damn entertaining. At the moment I am tempted to say it is the best western I’ve ever seen, but more importantly it has gotten me really excited to see Ford’s later entries on the Sight & Sound list, particularly the #7 ranked The Searchers.
#183 – The Grapes of Wrath (1940), dir. John Ford and also starring Henry Fonda
#78 – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), dir. Sergio Leone and also starring Henry Fonda