Year: 1946 Director: John Ford
A short time into this film, I had the initial impression of a standard, almost formulaic Western, though with all the class and charm one might expect from John Ford. It eventually revealed itself as something a bit deeper, though still very much a true Western. It may be Ford’s most charming movie as well.
The film opens with a family of brothers on a cattle drive through Ford’s favored locale of Monument Valley. The youngest brother is tasked with guarding the herd while the others go into a nearby town, but he is shot and the herd is stolen once they leave. The town is Tombstone, Arizona,At the opposite end of the state from Monument Valley the brothers are the Earps, and the obvious suspects are the Clantons, who had eyed the herd jealously and offered to buy it from them on the trail. Here, then, is the setup for the famous shootout at the OK Corral. Given that the the real-life James Earp lived long enough that he could have seen quite a number of John Ford’s movies (though not this one), it’s clear that some of the details are being changed.
Wyatt Earp, played with cool charm by Henry Fonda, is given the lead here. He’s the one who becomes marshal, while the other brothers remain as minor characters, his deputies. A short while later we meet another famous character, Doc Holliday [Victor Mature], here known as a surgeon rather than a dentist. Some of this set-up may be the work of Stuart N. Lake, whose reputedly loose biography of Earp was the basis for the film. Holliday and Wyatt don’t hit it off all that well – Holliday prefers to do as he pleases with the patrons of his saloon, while Wyatt wants him to be held in check by the rule of law, like any other citizen. The title character finally arrives in the form of Clementine Carter, who has traveled all the way from Boston in search of “Dr. John Holliday”, whom she still loves. Doc Holliday doesn’t want her around, while Wyatt seems quite taken by her beauty.
At this point I expected there to be something of a love triangle built up with the two leads and Clem set against the background of the final duel with the Clantons. However for most of the middle of the film little mention is made of James’s fate, and neither does a strong romantic rivalry ensue. The focus stays on the interplay of all the characters and the setting. Wyatt is trying to make the town a peaceful place for the likes of Clementine to live in. Doc Holliday wishes to forget the man that Clementine once knew, the man he no longer is.
The shootout does come in the end, almost abruptly, and is resolved without the moral ambiguities of the historical event. Instead, the participants are motivated almost solely by revenge, even as the battle plays out. While most of the other characters are given Ford’s trademark humanizing touch, the Clantons seem the least developed. Walter Brennan as Ike brings life to his portrayal of the clan patriarch, but these are for the most part simply the villains of the piece.
The shootout is shot remarkably well; it is chaos that actually makes sense, in terms of showing the confusion of those involved. Cuts that don’t show the whole action and figures in shadow and dust make it difficult to know exactly what is going on and yet it all comes together. It gives the feeling of participation, or at least the memory of having been there. It’s a brief scene, but one of the best-shot sequences of its kind in any film.
However, as the title betrays, this is not intended to be just the story of a famous shootout. This seeming mismatch of stories struck me as a bit odd. Most of the changes to the historical shootout do not serve the rest of the plot, so why is it structured as it is? The story of Clementine and the town on its own would seem enough without adding on the OK Corral parts. It did not feel like a misstep, but as something deliberate in structure. On further reflection I thought of a possible explanation.
This movie was completed in 1946, and it marked John Ford’s return to the Western. During World War II he had worked on military training films and wartime rallying cries (including John Wayne in They Were Expendable). My Darling Clementine, made when it was, makes a lot of sense as a war, or at least post-war film. This may be why the motivations for the shootout are only mildly set up by the rest of the film. There is little reason to dwell on any complicated reason why these men might be driven to kill each other; what happens is that they do. These men are changed by their situation, some irrevocably, and there is a definite hope throughout that the future will be calmer and safer.
Those same themes are certainly just as relevant to the transition of the West out of its frontier state. The town is developing its own, modern identity instead of being dominated by one or two forceful figures. So it’s not just a war film set in an earlier period. It is a great movie, a Western that instead of being nostalgic escapism served to encapsulate some of the same experiences and dreams of the audience that first saw it.
Reasons to Watch: A Western that shows a human struggle to simply live in a town trying to civilize. Some incredible scenes, and some really charming moments.
Warnings: Inaccurate history and simplified morality in the shootout, so don’t watch it for that.