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My Darling Clementine
Remind Me
,My Darling Clementine

My Darling Clementine

Westerns are myths, their definition as a genre contingent entirely on how they play out Biblical/primal moral dilemmas in a lawless frontier where individual men must obey only their conscience and the hand of fate. Good and bad tend toward extremes, and stereotypes have dominated the genre's landscape as they have for no other type of modern narrative. Only traditional musicals were simpler (routinely because they offer no dilemmas at all); westerns have long been the 20th century's school-boy way of simplifying the nation's own troubled history.

And John Ford is the form's Emanuel Leutze, a grand mythmaker and determined simplifier, the perfect artist for the Western in its haziest, least examined, pre-"anti-western" matinee heyday, and easily the most troublesome figure in Hollywood's docket of master auteurs. He is generally a hallowed filmmaker, and worshipful encomiums have landed at his feet for decades, praising his pictorial beauty (which often seems merely that), his sureness of storytelling (often as shapely as a dime novel, and in any case rarely his screenplays to claim), and his mastery of iconography (which requires no mastery). It's an argument still happening; for every vague hosannah I've heard sung for Ford's meaningfulness, I could count a hundred examples of clumsy staging, booze-sodden sentimentality, militaristic fetishism, vaudeville overacting, bar brawl camaraderie, and racist war-mongering. (Among his last projects before he died in 1973 was a pro-intervention documentary for the USIA titled Vietnam! Vietnam!) For Ford, Manifest Destiny was never out of fashion, Native Americans were malignant pests, and women were too often pink-cheeked cartoons.

Conservative bullet head though he might have been, Ford was no hack, and the disarming and expressive visual tacks he took in his best films – The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Long Voyage Home (1940), The Fugitive (1947) and My Darling Clementine (1946)– survive as breathtaking achievements (aided by some of the best and most individualistic cinematographers in the business, including Gregg Toland, Gabriel Figueroa, Arthur Miller and Joseph MacDonald). (It should be said that The Searchers (1956), in every way, belongs on a high shelf all alone, above all of Ford's other work and above any other westerns.) Perhaps not coincidentally, the films mentioned above are also Ford's least silly, least low-brow, and most sympathetic – there might be a book to be written about how Ford's visual style became duller and repetitive as his political sense became more reactionary, especially considering how liberal and proletarian the extraordinarily vivid The Grapes of Wrath is, inside and out.

My Darling Clementine is still cinema's greatest adaptation of the Earp-Clanton-Gunfight-at-the-OK-Corral legend, if only by virtue of the competition. Indeed, accusing Ford of whipping up a single-minded, good-vs.-evil fable out of the story is a dead end, in the light of, say, the elephantine hooey of Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp (1994). As myths go, Ford's film is imbued with a startling gravity and grace, and with the exception of William Wellman's sweat-drenched 1943 version of The Ox-Bow Incident it might be the best western made by anyone up to that time. To be fair, most westerns up to and during WWII were B-movie programmers built for children and starring the likes of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Kermit Maynard and even John Wayne. But Clementine was different – could a western look and feel like this, with these brooding shadows, darkening skies, noir-like silences, gazes that speak fear and vengeance louder than words?

The template of the story was established by writer Stuart N. Lake in the Wyatt Earp biography Frontier Marshal, filmed twice before, in 1934 and 1939. (It's not a book famous for its legitimacy, but then again, not much is known about the Earps – one of the most famous scholarly sources, Glenn Boyer's I Married Wyatt Earp, sold by the University of Arizona Press for 23 years as an annotated memoir, turned out to be a hoax piece of fiction.) Ford, in any case, always embraced the tall tale, and Lake's form fit nicely: the four Earp brothers, after one is killed on a cattle drive outside Tombstone, Arizona, take jobs as the town's marshals and eventually face off, with the help of the local gambler Doc Holliday, against the local clan of criminals, the Clantons, in a shootout in and around the famous corral. Who knows how much is true. It takes Ford not even 20 minutes before Wyatt (a fierce-eyed Henry Fonda) pushes a bossy woman (Linda Darnell), who's both a saloon tramp and half-Indian, into a water trough. But amid Ford's reflexive bully moves and character shortcuts, the film has a distinctive weight to it, as if something epochal and catastrophic was on the verge of happening at any moment. The characters handle the dialogue like they were sticks of dynamite.

Ford was also alive, at least during the 1940s, to the possibilities of his actors. His famous company of rowdy character actors is a mixed bag; today, the likes of the oft-used Victor McLaglen and Barry Fitzgerald seem amusing but blustery and thin, while Ward Bond, here playing Morgan Earp and a veteran of over 25 Ford films, appears to be a much more reflective and thoughtful figure, capable of genuine wit and character. Fonda, at his peak in the 1940s playing angry young men, is magnetic, but look what Ford does with Walter Brennan, a premier character whirlwind used to fast-talking crotchety comic relief. As Pa Clanton, in an untrimmed beard, Brennan was as quiet, understated and wary as a mountain cat, and the startling power of his diminutive presence catches your attention like a magnet. The same can be said for Victor Mature, never anyone's idea of a versatile or expressive actor, who as Holliday strides through the film menacingly, with a truckload of bad history on his back, his eyes half-lidded with a self-hatred to which he can never own up.

My Darling Clementine is a great western, just as are Budd Boetticher's and Sam Peckinpah's, because of exactly what it delivers that westerns normally didn't: a measure of emotional maturity, a sense of dread and cost in regards to violence, a notion of frontier life being difficult and soul-hardening, not breezy and schoolyard fun. Ford didn't believe in this general perspective all the time, apparently (see Fort Apache [1948] or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [1962] for the flip-side), but when he did it made westerns in which a grown man could get lost.

Producer: Samuel G. Engel, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Sam Hellman, Samuel G. Engel, Winston Miller, Stuart N. Lake (book)
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: James Basevi, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Henry Fonda (Wyatt Earp), Linda Darnell (Chihuahua), Victor Mature (Doc Holliday), Cathy Downs (Clementine Carter), Walter Brennan (Old Man Clanton), Tim Holt (Virgil Earp).

by Michael Atkinson