John Ford Feature #4 – My Darling Clementine (1946)

ClementineMy Darling Clementine (1946)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Samuel G. Engel, Winston Miller, Sam Hellman, Stuart Anthony, William M. Conselman (based on Wyatt Earp: The Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake)
Starring: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Cathy Downs, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Ward Bond

Finally, the genre that John Ford made himself an icon with.  With World War II behind him, director John Ford could once again set his sights on the genre that made him a legend, the western.  Ford’s romantic account of the goings on in the town of Tombstone and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is widely considered to be one of the greatest westerns of all-time.  My Darling Clementine is the great filmmaker’s first western since 1939, after briefly delving into the world of documentary filmmaking, as well as making award winning dramas such as Best Picture winning How Green Was My Valley.  The film is loosely based on a biography of the great Wyatt Earp, entitled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake.  The book popularized the legend of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Ford’s My Darling Clementine took the ball and ran with it, making the tale as popular as we know it today.  John Ford, who during his silent filmmaking days had met the legendary Wyatt Earp, had been told firsthand about the events during the gunfight.  Ford remembered Earp’s words well, and adapted the story exactly the way that the former marshal of Tombstone had told him.  Even John Wayne, frequent collaborator with John Ford, had been on record saying the he shaped his entire persona on the legendary Earp.  My Darling Clementine stars the great Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, who had previously starred in Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath, as well as Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine Carter, Ward Bond as Morgan Earp, and Tim Holt as Virgil Earp.  While My Darling Clementine was somehow ignored by the awards circuit after its release, the film became an immediate hit.  It is now widely known to be one of the greatest westerns of all-time, and one of Ford’s best films – something hard to achieve in such a prolific career full of terrific films.

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My Darling Clementine tells the story of the Earp Brothers, Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Virgil (Tim Holt), Morgan (Ward Bond), and James (Don Garner) as they and their cattle head to California.  After learning of nearby town Tombstone, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan head for the so-called “lawless” town and leave James alone to tend the cattle.  The brothers learn that Tombstone is without a marshal, and as a result has fallen into chaos because of outlaws and hooligans.  After a drunk man begins opening fire at innocent townspeople, Wyatt confronts him and boots him out of the town.  The town is quick to offer the position of marshall to the brave Earp brother, who has no interest in the position and has his sights set on Calfornia.  When the brothers return to where they left James, they find their younger brother murdered and their cattle stolen.  The Earps return to Tombstone, where Wyatt takes the position of marshal in order to avenge the death of James and track down his killers.  Along the way, Wyatt and his brothers meet the infamous Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), who would go on to become a good friend to the Earp brothers, as well as eventual deputy marshal.  Eventually, a young woman named Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) arrives in Tombstone from Boston.  Clementine has traveled to Tombstone for Doc Holliday, who is gravely ill and trying to push the young woman out of his life.  Eventually, Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday meet the Clanton gang (Walter Brennan, Grant Withers, and John Ireland), who soon become the primary suspects in the murder of young James.  Will marshall Wyatt Earp and his deputies get justice for young James Earp’s death, or will the lawless town of Tombstone get the better of them?  Find out in John Ford’s spectacular My Darling Clementine.

I’m incredibly happy to report that My Darling Clementine marks the first masterpiece of December’s John Ford marathon feature.  I had previously seen Ford’s Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and How Green is My Valley, and I would absolutely rank this film with the best of them.  My Darling Clementine is an incredibly fun and well-paced adventure into the lawless town of Tombstone, which is a terrific setting that has been revisited time and time again in film and television.  In its strongest moments, the film is heartbreaking and riddled with tension, and yet somehow manages to still be a funny film with a terrific sense of adventure.  Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is easily one of my favorite western protagonists, seamlessly transforming from the handsome blue-eyed Fonda into the vengeful, law-abiding Earp.  From the moment Wyatt Earp learns of the murder of his brother, he’s dead set on justice for those responsible, no matter what it takes.  Fonda’s chemistry with both Victor Mature and Cathy Downs is terrific, and helps further the sense of camaraderie between the cast of characters.  Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday is terrific as well, coming off a great deal more subtle than Val Kilmer’s notorious performance in 1993’s Tombstone.  The sickly Holliday doesn’t quite know what he wants at any moment during the film, nor does he seem to believe in himself, and Mature’s performance perfectly captures his divisive personality and attitude.  The photography and direction perfectly catch the beauty of the Old West, using Ford’s trademark shadowy imagery, coupled with daytime scenes that perfectly capture the hot, dry temperature of Tombstone and the surrounding locations.  One of my favorite scenes came when Wyatt Earp and his deputies encounter a Shakespearean actor at the town saloon, perfectly capturing the film’s unique sense of absurd humor.  It’s a damn shame that My Darling Clementine didn’t pick up any major awards at the time, because I truly believe Ford and his film could have given William Wyler and his Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives a run for their money.

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John Ford’s post-war effort My Darling Clementine is an understated, incredibly well-acted and well-paced masterpiece.  The film clocks in at 103 minutes or so, and yet still feels too brief.  It’s definitely something that I could have watched unfold over more than two hours.  Ford’s movie is both devastating and triumphant in its greatest moments, and I truly believe it to be one of the great westerns of all-time.  If you’re at all interested in the films of John Ford of those of the western genre, I can guarantee you won’t be let down by this film.  My Darling Clementine gets my highest recommendation.

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