My Darling Clementine, 1946. Directed by John Ford. Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, Linda Darnell, Cathy Downs, Ward Bond, Tim Holt.

Synopsis: Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Vergil, Morgan, and James are drivng cattle to California near the the lawless town of Tombstone, Arizona. On the way, they run into Old Man Clanton and his boys, who offer to take the cattle off their hands. The Earps refuse. They set up camp for the night and the older Earps go into town, leaving James to mind the cattle. In town, Wyatt runs affoul of a drunk indian, who he dispatches with a conk on the head. "What kind of town is this?" he asks, even though he knows as well as the audience. On returning to their camp, the Earps find James murdered and their cattle gone. Wyatt rides back into town and takes up the badge that had been offered to him earlier. The town had previously been run by tubercular gambler/gunfighter Doc Holiday, who is immediately at odds with Earp. In an early showdown, Earp can't draw a gun on the belligerent Holiday because he hasn't got one, but his brothers, who have the drop on Holiday do. Holiday is self-destructive, taken up with a prostitute named Chihuahua, and drinking himself into oblivion. He already knows his own diagnosis. Earp cleans up Tombstone. Before he arrived, it was lawless and barbarian. Afterwards, it is civilized. Civilization is incarnated in Clementine, the girl Doc left behind in the east who comes to look for him. Doc is beyond her help now, but she strikes up a brief romance with Earp. Her presence sets off Chihuahua, who displays a trinket taken from James Earp and says that Holiday gave it to her. In the ensuing interrogation, it becomes clear that the Clanton's are behind the murder and things come to a head in the gunfight at the OK Corrall...

John Ford's America: More than any other filmmaker, John Ford had a vision of America that suffused all of his movies. The history of the West is a microcosm of the evolution of civilization--a civilization incarnated in the ideals of American values of law, justice, and fairness. In Ford's Westerns, people are always building something. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in My Darling Clementine, Ford's easiest, most entertaining movie. The progression from chaos to order is subtle, here, under the civilizing influence of Henry Fonda's Earp. The turning point, when the change has come, is at the church-building scene where Earp dances with Clementine. Before this, she tells him that she loves the smell of the desert flowers. Earp replies: "That's me. Barber." It is interesting that Ford chose Fonda instead of John Wayne to play Earp, since Ford later used Wayne as the lawless western hero in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. The flip side of Fonda's civilized American here is Doc Holiday, a self-destroying, lawless man of the west. He has great vigor and character, but in the context of the movie, and literally, he is dying out. He NEEDS to die out in order for civilization to flourish. Holiday knows this, but is still loath to shuffle off this mortal coil. But even he capitulates in the end. Clementine is even more symbolic of civilization. She becomes the town's schoolmarm at the end of the film. Tombstone is safe for her now.

The Epic Landscape: like most of Ford's Westerns, My Darling Clementine was filmed in the Monument Valley. It's desert vistas, as photographed in magnificent black and white by Joe MacDonald, are vast and eyepleasing. They are the incarnation of the Western landscape. Ford populates his landscape with archetypal figures and invents what we think of as "The West" right in front of our eyes. My Darling Clementine is a surprisingly lyrical movie. It is certainly a pleasure to look at it.

Performances: Henry Fonda is wonderfully self-assured as Wyatt Earp. He has the steely eyes of a veteran gunfighter, but he has compassion, too, and knows when a gun won't solve anything. His self-effacing scene where everyone smells the cologne the barber has spritzed him with could not have been performed by John Wayne. Its an amazing turn. Victor Mature is less impressive as Doc Holiday. Mature was a limited actor and Ford knew it. Mature's Holiday is given little to play but rage and disillusionment by Ford, wisely limiting Mature's screen time. That said, the scene where Holiday is drawn into a reverie about his own mortality by Shakespeare's "To be or not to be" soliloquy is remarkably underplayed. The movie is stolen, however, by Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton, one of the movies most vicious villains. Brennan plays him as a domineering patriarch who carries a whip to enforce his will on his sons and who bares his teeth in a feral snarl at anyone who gets in his way. It's a remarkable turn. One of the great performances.

Ford was the greatest maker of Westerns in Hollywood and My Darling Clementine is thought by many to be his finest achievement. No small feat in a career that also includes Stagecoach, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and The Searchers, not to mention non-Western movies like How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Quiet Man. Ford was the only director to whom both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock deferred as "The Master." Watching this amazingly satisfying film, it's easy to see why....


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