It goes without hesitation that John Ford perfected the western genre for all of American cinema especially when films like The Searchers exist, but going more into the great filmmaker’s body of work, we come down to My Darling Clementine which showcases some of the director’s very best capabilities. With My Darling Clementine, what John Ford presents on the screen are the director’s own abilities with moving forward stories and in turn what he leaves behind is one of the most compelling westerns to have been put to the screen. However, when it comes down to Ford’s manners of looking upon the story of what happened on the O. K. Corral (the finest interpretation of the story to have been put on film), a sort of genre-blending wonder comes into play and it soon becomes all the more remarkable.
Some may expect something typical out of a film that documents the gun battle on O. K. Corral but what John Ford creates here is something that does not play with the normal conventions of the story. With John Ford behind the camera, it is clear that he places elements of film-noir into observing what took place on the setting and in turn, it adds more to the beauty that the black-and-white cinematography were already able to capture. Ford’s image of the aptly named town of Tombstone carries many themes that recur throughout film-noir, in which the darkest depths of the towns are flooded with the fuel, to speak most importantly we have the violence and corruption all throughout the town. Ford works around the tension so vividly and in turn it forms an atmosphere all so perfect for My Darling Clementine.
With Ford’s buildup of the character of Wyatt Earp, one can already ask where can we get a better interpretation of the character. Granted we already have the entertaining Tombstoneand the dreadfully overlong Wyatt Earp, but we have never seen the exact same character built up in the same way that Ford chooses to do so in here – it is possibly his most accomplished character piece yet. Ford builds up Wyatt Earp not as a western hero, but a broken man, reminiscent of the protagonist of a classic noir. Ford’s experimentation with blending the atmospheres of both the western and the noir from a unique understanding of their pathos is something of its own kind – and it still has never been repeated in the same way.
Interestingly, My Darling Clementine chooses to explore the themes to which it tackles inside of a much more passive manner especially with how Ford chooses to handle Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Wyatt Earp. Although once in a while the handling is more explicit, what remains intact is how the film just goes about with its picture of the exterior. From Ford’s insights into the sort of world which his characters are occupying, the rather short running time becomes an entire package of ideas that are hinted so cleverly – and always explored. No matter where Ford wishes to tackle, whether it comes from the friendship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday from a mutual interest in the titular Clementine, or the damage from corruption and its impact upon Tombstone, everything about where My Darling Clementine goes is beyond satisfactory – it is simply one of the best American westerns to have ever graced the screen. The lawfulness of such a civilization adds more to the wonders which such a film creates.
Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp also something that stands apart from other portrayals of the character. He embodies one who is not your typical western hero, which is also helpful upon distinguishing a film like My Darling Clementine from many others. He is captivating in this role, which is easily his best ever since Ford’s prior The Grapes of Wrath and Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and prior to two of his most famous roles: 12 Angry Menand Once Upon a Time in the West. There’s so much one can say about Ford’s role I can ramble for hours already. Wyatt Earp has never been broken down to this level before and only John Ford could have gotten such a performance, one that was given out by none other than the always great Henry Fonda.
Ford makes use of the folk song in its title as a means of representing the haunting effect left behind by such a film. The western genre has never been grounded to such a degree where what has been established is a society that could very much be damaged like our own. It’s something that lays within the shadows and seeps through the cracks for the light a sense of civilization. It is the fact that My Darling Clementine is not telling a tale of what happened on the O. K. Corral that makes it the best interpretation of such a story. It is from how John Ford uses it as a backdrop to explore the damaged soul that is carried from Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp where its haunting effect comes, and how the only way for a solution is an act of violence. Ford doesn’t make this into any ordinary retelling of what happened on the O. K. Corral, it’s the downfall of human civilization and the devastating impact that forms it.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox.
Directed by John Ford
Screenplay by Samuel G. Engel, Winston Miller, from Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake
Produced by Samuel G. Engel
Starring Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Cathy Downs
Release Year: 1946
Running Time: 97 minutes