Names Is For Tombstone, Baby: John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) – Blu-ray review
Ford’s definitive telling of the Western’s textbook tale achieves its legendary status by scrawling plenty of detail in the margins.
My Darling Clementine
(John Ford, 1946)
John Ford always reckoned that the secret to the success of his version of Wyatt Earp’s gunfight at the OK Corral – the most famous, and most frequently filmed, of Western tales – was that he’d met the man himself. Then again, Earp was not entirely truthful when it came to his legend, by all accounts, so authenticity isn’t really on the agenda in My Darling Clementine. The reason it is so good is that it is pure, distilled movie.
Familiarity with the story gives Ford free reign to explore far beyond the boundaries of the OK Corral. While he hits the plot points with typical assurance – the climactic shoot-out is meticulously staged, while the killing of Virgil Earp, shot in the back, remains shocking even when you know it’s coming – Ford is also exploring ideas of loyalty, professionalism and pride, alongside his perennial concern for the divide between savagery and civilisation.
Accordingly, this is a lyrical, romantic character piece, dominated by the love quadrangle that develops between Earp (Henry Fonda), Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) and the titular Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). The women are both after Doc… but then so too might Wyatt, giving the lingering gazes between the fellas. It’s a bromance as much as a romance.
Love and friendship, it seems, might be the making of Tombstone. When Wyatt arrives, he’s nearly killed while shaving by a drunken, gun-toting Indian; when he leaves, the place is safer, with Clementine newly employed as schoolmarm. Between those two poles is the Fordian myth of progress, and it’s no coincidence that, in between, not only have the Clanton gang been wiped out but a church bell has tolled for the first time.
What give heft to this fairly simplistic symbolism are the characterisations. Earp doesn’t want to be a marshal; he’s a wandering cattleman, avoiding responsibility until it comes knocking… and even then it’s a tainted vocation, given how intertwined it is with vengeance for the murder of his brothers. That’s implicit in Fonda’s performance, so morally upright he’s stiff with repressed anxiety and conflicting emotion. He might look like the epitome of laidback cool, dangling back on his chair watching the world go by, but he’s deeply uncomfortable with his masculinity, refusing to wear a gun and being feminised with perfume by the barber.
Enter Holliday: butchness incarnate, but also a man hiding his Shakespeare-quoting eloquence beneath his womanising and gambling. Mature isn’t in Fonda’s league as an actor, but Holliday’s shifting loyalities are expressed instead through the lighting, which continually works to bring him out of the literal and figurative darkness. Tellingly, the climactic gunfight takes place at sun-up: the perfect time for redemption.
But there is so much going on here, and all of it expressed through the clarity of Ford’s compositions and the complexity of his lighting. It’s love story and film noir as much as it is a Western, and a loving portrait of a pioneer town without needing the exaggerated folksiness that mars other Ford classics like The Searchers. Throughout, Ford is pre-emptively taking the advice he would introduce to cinema in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; he might have known Earp (and he might even have sensed how much of his tale was bunkum) but here he’s more concerned to ‘print the legend.’