“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the most lauded westerns of all time.
Most criticism of the film is directed at its numerous historical inaccuracies, not its artistic merits. The ages of the Earp brothers are changed, for what seems no discernible reason. Characters die in the film who didn’t die until decades later. The chain of events that led up to the shootout near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 is highly fictionalized. In reality, Doc Holliday was a dentist, not a medical doctor. The list goes on and on.
So to enjoy this film, it’s probably best not to watch it with a talkative history junkie.
And if you yourself are a history junkie, try to ignore all the little details and appreciate this film for what it is — one of the great westerns, full of iconic scenes, memorable performances, finely staged action, and little moments that would be copied over and over again in westerns in the decades that followed.
My Darling Clementine is a remake of Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal (1939), which starred Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp. Both films are based on Stuart N. Lake’s book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which was based on interviews with Earp, although most historians suspect that either Lake was embellishing or Earp was.
Again, it really doesn’t matter when it comes to this film. The plot is not the important thing, it’s Ford’s evocation of a frontier town. The rhythms of life, the strong feeling of nighttime, daytime, daybreak — all are perfectly realized. It doesn’t matter that the real Tombstone isn’t anywhere near Monument Valley. Ford shot there because he liked the way it looked.
Day for night shooting can look terribly fake, or just plain terrible, but in this film Ford makes it look beautiful. In one nighttime scene, Wyatt Earp appears on a rooftop, shot in low angle, firing his revolver at a man fleeing on horseback. Behind him is a dark sky full of silvery clouds. The scene clearly wasn’t filmed at night, but it’s still breathtaking.
Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp is one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a western. Protagonists in westerns tend to be stalwart men of few words, and Earp is no exception, but the humanity Fonda is able to express merely through his eyes is remarkable.
Fonda generates absolute authority in every scene. Except, of course, when he’s with the pretty Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). The scene in which he takes her to a Sunday dance at the site where the town’s church will be built is one of the highlights of the film. As Earp walks beside Clementine, the congregation sings “Shall We Gather at the River?” (later to be paid gruesome homage to by Sam Peckinpah when he made The Wild Bunch in 1969). The budding romance between the two is palpable, and is a fine example of Fonda’s wonderful silent acting.
Walter Brennan is also great as Old Man Clanton, the vicious patriarch of a nasty clan. Brennan played a lot of cuddly, blustery sidekicks, but here he’s completely convincing as a cold-eyed villain who tells his boys things like, “When you pull a gun, kill a man.”
I’m less bowled over by Victor Mature’s performance as Doc Holliday. The oily Mature seems to be in a different picture in most of his scenes, as he drinks to escape his past and romances the tragic prostitute Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).
As I said, the liberties Ford takes with history are legion. But as Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) showed, an accurate recitation of the facts doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. And who cares about the actual details of the shootout near the O.K. Corral when we have things in this film like Earp standing perfectly still as a stagecoach pulls in, then running to his left as soon as it kicks up a trail of dust, nearly invisible even to the viewer as he fires several shots and hits his target?
Producer Daryl F. Zanuck notoriously tinkered with this film. He thought Ford’s original version was too long, so he had director Lloyd Bacon shoot some new footage, and then re-edited the film himself. While some of Ford’s lost footage has been unearthed, his original version is lost. Would it have been a better film? Possibly. Is the version we are left with still a great film, and one of the greatest American westerns? Absolutely.