John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) just ended a one-week run at Film Forum here in New York, presented in a stunning digital restoration, clean and crisp, like the first time anyone had seen it. I’d seen the film only once, many years ago, and wasn’t sure I was going to see it during this run. But my interest was indirectly sparked by a book I’d recently read by Glenn Frankel, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, about the actual story of Cynthia Ann Parker, whose capture by the Comanches inspired the Alan LeMay novel that in turn became the basis of John Ford’s monumental film, The Searchers (1956). The production history of that film is covered in the last half of Frankel’s book. Throughout Ford is seen as a great film director, but also a deeply flawed and rather horrible human being. I finally decided to see My Darling Clementine because now Ford was on my mind and I wanted know if I could get past all that negative personal stuff and just see what he had put on the screen, which is, indeed, really something.
There have been many films depicting Wyatt Earp’s time in Tombstone and the iconic gunfight at the O.K. Corral. My Darling Clementine is probably the most lyrically beautiful of them all, as well as the most historically inaccurate. Though there was a shootout at the O.K. Corral in 1881, and many of the characters existed in real life, including the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Clantons, almost everything else is the film has been entirely made up. The Earps were never working cowboys or cattle owners, though Clementine begins with the brothers – Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Virgil (Tim Holt), Morgan (Ward Bond), and James (Don Garner) – driving a herd of cattle through Arizona on their way to California. They encounter the Clantons, led by Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton in a truly menacing performance, thoroughly mean and malevolent, which comes as a shock if you only know him from The Real McCoys on TV (1957 – 1963) or as Stumpy in Rio Bravo (1959). After repeated offers to buy the Earps’ herd are rebuffed, he tells the them that the town of Tombstone is nearby. Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan ride to Tombstone through heavy rain, leaving younger brother James to keep watch over the cattle. When they return they find the cattle gone and James dead in the mud, shot in the back.
My Darling Clementine reduces the entirety of the Earp’s stay in Tombstone to the single goal of finding the men who murdered their brother. They don’t seem to care much about their rustled herd. I don’t think it’s ever mentioned again. The Clementine of the title is an entirely fictional character, though the Wikipedia entry on the film says she “appears to be an amalgam of Big Nose Kate and Josephine Earp,” both of whom actually existed and appear as characters in more recent film versions of the story.
By all accounts I’ve read, the actual O.K. Corral gunfight lasted only 30 seconds (which was probably long enough if you were in it). Earlier films, including this one and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) have extended the event. I guess if everything in your film has been leading up to this gunfight, you’d want it to last longer than half a minute. More recently, Wyatt Earp (1994) and the superior Tombstone (1993) have kept closer to the historical record, especially where the gunfight is concerned. Let’s compare some of them. (The film studies portion of this post now commences.)
The O.K. Corral gunfight sequence in My Darling Clementine is extraordinary. I just watched it again and was struck by how beautifully it was shot and put together. It’s a masterful episode that reflects Ford’s expansive use of landscape, with white clouds against a sky that seems almost like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. The crisp black & white photography is quite stunning. Music is not used at any time during this sequence, which is unusual, especially for films of the time. The absence of music emphasizes the quiet, almost meditative feeling of these scenes. Earp, Holliday, and the others exit the building where they’ve been preparing for their confrontation with the Clantons. Earp stops, looks around, and almost casually says, “Let’s go.” This reminds of the scene near the end of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) when Pike (William Holden) says, “Let’s go!” somewhat more dramatically before he and the three others who are left of his gang take the walk to their final shootout. In nearly all these films it comes down to four men with guns heading to a shootout. Here’s how John Ford does it:
Note: When you click to play this, a message appears saying “Embedding disabled by Request. Watch on YouTube.” Click on that and the clip plays nicely.
Here’s how director Lawrence Kasden handles the gunfight in his overloaded epic Wyatt Earp (1994). The theatrical release version was 3 hours long, with the extended DVD version 3 1/2 hours. I have no problem with lengthy running times unless the film turns out to be as leaden and unwieldy as this one was. Though Dennis Quaid makes a great Doc Holliday.
Tombstone (1993), directed by George Cosmatos, is a film I can watch repeatedly. It’s incredibly well cast, especially Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday (though I think Dennis Quaid’s Holliday has the slightest edge), and even more especially Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp. Sam Elliott was born to play in Westerns (so were Ben Johnson and Randolph Scott). He never feels less than totally authentic. And the Earps have great moustaches! Tombstone also correctly has Virgil becoming the marshal, not Wyatt, who didn’t want the brothers to become the law in Tombstone, but ends up putting on a deputy’s badge anyway. The O.K. Corral gunfight here is very well done, though a bit longer than 30 seconds. I won’t fault them for that.
French critic Georges Sadoul has called My Darling Clementine “The most classically beautiful Western of the ’40s,” while director Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Ford and interviewed him a number of times, judges it to be “Ford’s most poetic and most personal Western.” I wouldn’t disagree.
There are many iconic shots and moments in the film. Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in the shot at the head of this post is one, his boot resting on the porch column, tilting back in the chair while he quietly watches life go on around him. Earp’s open-air dance with Clementine (Cathy Downs) on the floor of an unfinished church on a quiet Sunday morning is another, the big sky filled with clouds above them.
Probably more than any other moment in the film, this sequence conveys the growth of community and civilization in Tombstone, and by extension, in the West itself. It’s a wonderful scene, with Earp’s shy awkwardness towards Clementine transformed into the gracefulness of their solo dance.
Victor Mature is a strong presence as Doc Holliday, though he seems rather too robust to play the consumptive dentist (a surgeon in this version), but the film makes a point of showing us a number of his debilitating coughing fits in spite of his otherwise healthy, though haunted, appearance (contrast Mature with Dennis Quaid and Val Kilmer’s physically wasted Doc Hollidays in Wyatt Earp  and Tombstone , respectively). Mature is probably more associated with films such as Samson and Delilah (1949) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), and may not have been the greatest actor, but when he’s well-cast, as he was in this film and especially in the great film noir, Kiss of Death (1947), he can make quite an impact. It’s interesting that the focus in the poster at left is on Mature rather than Henry Fonda, ostensibly the hero of the film.
Doc Holliday has always been a more interesting character than Wyatt Earp. He’s a tubercular ex-dentist with a death wish who was a card sharp and a gunman. Many actors have played the role. Jason Robards was excellent as Holliday in The Hour of the Gun (1967), director John Sturges’ follow-up to his Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), which has the distinction of opening with the gunfight. Stacey Keach played the title role in Doc, Frank Perry’s revisionist 1971 film that portrayed Holliday and Earp (Harris Yulin) in particularly grubby, post-Wild Bunch terms. I haven’t seen Doc since it came out, but I don’t remember any good guys. As mentioned earlier, Dennis Quaid and Val Kilmer each put distinctive brands on their Holliday versions.
Jason Robards (upper left), Stacey Keach (upper right), Dennis Quaid (lower left), Val Kilmer (lower right)
My Darling Clementine was based on Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, which turned out to be largely fictional. The book was the basis for the 1939 film Frontier Marshall, with Randolph Scott as Earp and Cesar Romero as Holliday. I’ve not seen this film, but I intend to. I’ve always liked Randolph Scott, and as I mentioned earlier in reference to Sam Elliott, Scott always appears completely as home as a Western character.
John Ford got to know Wyatt Earp, who died in 1929 at the age of 80, when Ford was working as a prop boy in Hollywood. Earp would often visit the set. Ford says that Earp “told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.” Well, maybe not, but it makes a nice story. And as far as all the historical inaccuracies are concerned, at the end of the day they’re not that important. In the universe created in the film, this is how it happened. Taken on its own terms, My Darling Clementine is a great film, one of John Ford’s best. I hadn’t realized that before, but I do now. – Ted Hicks
Supplemental: Some examples of “The Walk.”
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (upper left), Hour of the Gun (upper right), Tombstone (lower left), The Wild Bunch (lower right)