John Ford started out as a prop man for an older brother at Universal, and later became directly influenced by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Having paid his dues and working his way up the production chain, Ford went on to earn the respect of great directors like Orson Welles, who once said the three greatest directors were “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford”. But was Ford that great? With most of his praised work taking place during the 1930′s and 40′s, My Darling Clementine was completed during his prime and provides a glimpse into the value of his work.
- Director: John Ford
- Writer: Sam Hellman, Winston Miller, Samuel G. Engel
- Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Cathy Downs, Linda Darnell
My Darling Clementine begins with Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers headed towards California on a cattle drive. They stumble upon two members of the Clanton family, who offer them money for their cattle and encourage them to stop in the nearby town of Tombstone. Soon after, one of their brothers is dead and their cattle stolen. Bent on seeking revenge, Wyatt becomes the town Marshall. Meanwhile, Doc Holiday (Victor Mature) is a hindrance to the Earp brothers, though they eventually grow to understand each other. As suspicions rise with the Clanton family, a showdown at the OK Corral is unavoidable.
Those who didn’t grow up on westerns are likely to have first seen Wyatt Earp in 1993′s Tombstone or 1994′s Wyatt Earp, but John Ford first took a stab at filming this story in 1946 after Stuart Lake’s novel was published that same year. While Ford takes some liberties in his account, the novel itself was reportedly already lacking in historical accuracy. Nevertheless, we end up with a film shot in a classical Hollywood style, and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald deserves mention for framing and lighting a film with great attention to the communal life of a small town and the expansive desert that surrounds it. Ford’s directing picks up on so many subtle cues and reactions that moments of tension create a strong sense of impending conflict. Much of Ford’s eye for detail I believe stemmed from his days as a successful documentary filmmaker.
Ford’s directing is also largely responsible for capturing the conflicting nature of the interaction between Wyatt and Doc, which is casual but also characterized by threatening undertones. When Wyatt first meets Doc Holiday — despite their casual conversation at the local bar — the sense of vulnerability that must have existed in the West is effectively conveyed. Fonda makes for a convincing Wyatt, playing him with his typical “subdued but strong” style, evoking a convincing sense of civility. But despite effective performances, I think my knock on this film relates to the love story. While I do think the Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) character serves as an important motivator for Doc Holiday to start his life anew, the romance is not that compelling and seems mostly set up as a future cause for conflict when Clementine (Cathy Downs) comes looking for him. Despite the fact that Wyatt becomes somewhat captured by her beauty and pedigree, the romantic complexities that ensue add only a negligible amount of intrigue to what should otherwise be a clear-cut quest for justice.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
John Ford might be the director I most hear referred to as one of the “greatest” directors ever. But I find myself without an easily compelling reason for why that label has been applied to him to such a degree. There are many reasons I’ve heard, among them is the fact that he did more than any other to document the passages of American history, as Ebert’s review states. I think My Darling Clementine is held up as “great” mostly because it dares to do something that other films in that genre don’t do. In other Westerns, it’s mostly about the last gunfight. As Ebert reminds us, Ford’s film is more about everyday things–haircuts, romance, friendship, poker and illness. I disagree with the review for claiming that Clementine is the most important thing to happen to Marshal Earp during the story. In fact, I don’t even think it’s the second most important. I contend that the death of each of his brothers would top the list of events that most impact his life. While an unconventional approach is a welcomed characteristic in a film of any genre, it is not enough by itself to propel a movie into greatness. The relationship between Wyatt and Doc and Doc’s mysterious back-story are the strongest points of the film. However, I get the sense that the film is lauded for simple scenes such as the dance at the church, which is said to be symbolic of the arrival of civilization.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like My Darling Clementine? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Grey Zone
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on John Ford’s My Darling Clementine this week, he now has 327 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.