Directed by John Ford
Written by Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller
After a rather lengthy hiatus from my Westerns marathon, thanks in large part to a busy summer that found my wife and I going through the ever stressful buying and selling experience, I have found my way back onto the trail and will hopefully provide multiple updates in the coming weeks and months to round out the year. Moving can be an exciting experience, especially as we move from a condo to our very own place. There is something very rewarding to “taming” our new house. It is 100 years old and needs constant upkeep and update, but its rough edges often give it charm, telling the story of its history. It’s not unlike a good western in that way, as we add our personal style to make it our home. John Ford’s westerns especially feel this way: lived in.
The story of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) is certainly well worn (and will continue to be) in westerns films. Now the question will become, who did it best? Between the talents of director John Ford and star Henry Fonda, it will be hard to top My Darling Clementine. And while the historical accuracy may leave something to be desired, Ford tells a hell of a tale here. After Earp’s kid brother is murdered after staying behind with the herd of cattle as the other Earp brothers (Ward Bond, Tim Holt) venture into Tombstone, Earp takes the job as lawman in the wild frontier town. He befriends Doc Holliday, whose girl from the past, Clementine (Cathy Downs), appears and brings added drama to Holliday’s newfound life in the west. Soon Earp discovers the men behind the death of his brother, leading to the infamous shootout at the OK Corral with the Clanton’s, led by their old man (Walter Huston).
It felt so nice to come back to the marathon with such a great movie. I was anticipating it since I started, and it just worked out that my break coincided with lining this up as my comeback. John Ford’s work is just so clearly above his contemporaries in most every way. Seeing Ford at the top of his game is a treat, as is seeing Fonda at the top of his game. So despite the lofty expectations I had going into this film, it mostly met them and in some cases exceeded them. There is plenty to like here. I think it all starts with Fonda in the lead role. He has impressed previously in this marathon (The Ox-Bow Incident, Jesse James), but his performance here as Wayatt Earp very well could be his best in an accomplished career. He has a subtlety within his quiet performance which speaks volumes not just about the character’s motives, but also his emotions. Fonda paints Earp as a flawed, but just and noble man.
Complimenting Fonda’s awesome performance is Ford’s narrative sensibilities, which among them, also include a visual flair. Immediately when we get the introduction between Earp and Clanton, there is a sense of accomplished filmmaking with the atmosphere and visual landscape which are created. The way characters are framed, the way the production is designed, the way the light comes in through the window just right, these are all little things which add to the sum of the film. It would be naive to say no other director had such a visual eye at this point in cinema, but after watching so many westerns, it feels like Ford certainly takes the most care. For instance, each time the upstairs hallway in the Mansion House is shot, there is a beam of light coming in through the window which creates such an awesome shot with use of shadow and light. This is by design. I can just imagine other filmmakers finding any old hallway with any old light and calling it good enough. It hearkens back to Stagecoach, and the hallway shot featuring John Wayne and Claire Trevor. My Darling Clementine is nearly perfectly choreographed.
Beyond the performances and cinematography, however, is one hell of a story, which serves as the heart of the film. This is not style over substance, regardless of the amount of style. Spending time with Wyatt Earp and company in Tombstone, we get a unique look into the settling of the west. Many of these people have come west to find a new life, Doc Holliday among them, which has created a community of lawlessness, a lack of civilization. But in Earp’s Tombstone, we get the joy of raising a church and spending time in worship, we get an accomplished actor getting his chance to recite Shakespeare so lovingly. It’s more in these little moments that we see the true potential of the west, not in the moments of menace that Tombstone has become known for. The climactic shootout at the OK Corral is what everyone remembers from the story of Wyatt Earp, but John Ford has set out to highlight something else entirely, and he does so masterfully.