Our reviews of The Henry Fonda Film Collection (published June 7th, 2013) and My Darling Clementine (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published October 18th, 2014) are also available.
Gentle love in the untamed west
No director loved making Westerns more than John Ford, which is probably why nobody did it better. My Darling Clementine is one of his best—a richly developed, beautifully crafted oater that would go on to become one of the best-loved films of the postwar American cinema. Though the story it tells would be retold many times in the years since its release, it has never been told with the kind of effortless grace and simplicity of Ford's vision, and it's for that reason that Clementine remains the best version of the story there is.
Facts of the Case
The story begins as Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) is driving a herd of cattle from Texas to California with the help of his three brothers: Morgan, Virgil, and James (Ward Bond, Tim Holt, and Don Garner). When the three eldest brothers decide to take a rest one night in the small town of Tombstone, Arizona, they return to find the cattle stolen and James murdered, and in his thirst for justice, Wyatt accepts the position of Tombstone's marshal.
Soon Wyatt and his remaining brothers are assimilated into the town, and they meet up with its diverse group of inhabitants, most notably Doc Holiday (Victor Mature), an ill-tempered gambler dying of tuberculosis, and his earthy, voluptuous girlfriend Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). But just as the Earps find themselves fully incorporated into the workings of Tombstone, their new lifestyle is upset by Wyatt's discovery of irrefutable evidence of the men who murdered his brother. And the destinies of all involved come to a head in the legendary showdown at the O.K. Corral.
On the commentary track recorded for the new Fox Studio Classics release of My Darling Clementine, John Ford biographer Scott Eyman remarks that the character of Wyatt Earp has been the subject of more movies than all American presidents combined. Eyman may or may not be joking, but the fact remains that the story of Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has, over the years, been one of the best loved and most often tread stories in Hollywood, and for good reason. All the elements of great cinema are there—the upstanding hero figure (Earp); the temperamental, tragic sidekick (Doc Holliday); the lawless gang of villains (the Clanton family); and the climactic showdown, which is, by its very nature, one of the classic elements of the western. Different interpretations of the story would change the facts, depending on the requirements of the filmmaker, but the basic elements have always remained the same.
Clementine is probably the finest interpretation of the Earp story, crafted by the hand of one of America's greatest cinematic masters into a deep, meditative western that draws all the elements of the historical account into a singular poetic vision. Ford doesn't concern himself with the facts of the story—he even went so far as to defend his decision to eschew historical fact by claiming (one can imagine, in his usual, blustering manner) that he wasn't making a documentary. Ford was, first and foremost, a storyteller, and so he and screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller instead took the elements of the story that they felt would best translate to the screen, and set about to make the film they wanted to make.
The first thing one notices after viewing My Darling Clementine is just how little time is devoted to the conflict between the Earps and the Clantons. Later interpretations of the story, such as John Sturges' Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, would make the showdown between the families the centerpiece of the film, and would spend most of the time building up to this climactic moment. Here, the Clantons (led by Walter Brennan) are seen briefly in a few early scenes, where it is established that they are the likely murderers of James Earp and the ones who rustled the Earps' cattle. But the family is then largely ignored for the central hour or so of the film, as Ford chooses to focus his attention on Wyatt's assimilation into the daily life of the town of Tombstone. And while the gunfight remains the climactic moment in Ford's version of the story, as a narrative device, it feels more like the tying up of loose ends rather than the driving force of the piece. This is a gamble—Ford is betting that the audience will get so wrapped up in the stories of the individual characters that they'll accept the avoidance of the usual good vs. evil conflict and become more interested in the peripheral stories. But these subplots are handled so effortlessly, and the characters are so richly drawn that the gamble pays off, and we're with him all the way.
Because of his status as the great American Everyman, Henry Fonda was born to play the role of Wyatt Earp, who in later incarnations would be seen more as being the straight, uncomplicated hero to the flashier Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer, in Tombstone, obviously comes to mind). But in Clementine, both characters are given equal weight, and this results in a more balanced film. Fonda imbues Wyatt with a sense of humor and a dark side, as well as his traditional hero stature, and this makes him feel distinctly rounded. Victor Mature's Doc (Ford originally wanted Tyrone Power, but his name was dropped as pre-production began), conversely, isn't quite as flamboyant as the later Kilmer portrayal of the character, but he's still provided with the attributes that make Doc such a complex figure—the tuberculosis, the love of Shakespeare and appreciation of beauty in general, and the bad temper. Both actors understand that it's the relationship between these the characters, not the violence, that are the focus of the story, and they consequently play their parts to the hilt.
The women of the film, I'm afraid, don't fare quite as well. Women have always held an uneasy place in Westerns, with some directors able to utilize them to great effect (e.g. Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West), and others, like Ford, struggling to find a place for them. The title character, played by Cathy Downs, is a colossal bore. She arrives in Tombstone late in the film searching for Doc, who loved her back east but soon fled to Tombstone and forgot her. So she becomes a love interest for Wyatt instead, though one has to wonder just what he sees in her. In actuality, the character of Clementine is meant to symbolize one of the major themes of My Darling Clementine, which is Ford's fascination with the meeting between civilized society (symbolized by Clementine) and the untamed West, symbolized by the film's other female lead, Linda Darnell, as the more uninhibited Chihuahua. Darnell, though a bit amateurish in acting prowess, gets to have a bit more fun with her character, who is more earthy and at home in the Tombstone setting. And though the thematic implications are genuinely and deeply felt throughout the picture, both women feel out of place within the confines of the film's central story. The movie is the men.
The final aspect of the film must be addressed is Ford's eye for landscapes, which is as much in evidence in Clementine as it was in any of his other films, and when considering that this is the man who directed The Searchers and How Green Was my Valley, that's saying something. Here, working with cinematographer Joe MacDonald and shooting in his beloved Monument Valley, Ford creates some of the most striking compositions of his career, highlighting the vastness of the wilderness in relation to the tiny town of Tombstone. Again, Ford is attempting to stress the relationship between nature and civilization, communicated here in a visual sense, so that the theme is interpreted on a number of different levels. It's an example of his storytelling skill combining with his eye for aesthetic beauty, and it's done so masterfully that one can't help but be awed by the emotional effect he achieves.
It's this multi-faceted approach to filmmaking that makes My Darling Clementine a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest western made by the man synonymous with great westerns. Ford's classic retelling of the Wyatt Earp story which, at a running time of only 96 minutes, never overstays its welcome, is so satisfying on so many different levels that it's hard to think of anyone even attempting to top it. That's not a knock against any of later Earp movies—they're all fine in their own right. Other directors have found aspects of the story that have interested them, and chosen to focus on those. But when it comes down to it, Ford's interpretation has been the definitive screen version of the story for almost 60 years, and is likely to remain so for years to come.
As mentioned previously, My Darling Clementine is the latest in Fox's Studio Classics lineup (number 14, to be exact), and it upholds the standard of excellence set by previous titles in the series. The video is presented in the film's original black-and-white full-frame, and looks exceptional, if not entirely flawless. Though the occasional vertical scratch does crop up here and there, accompanied by specs of dirt and debris, it remains a beautiful transfer of a gorgeous film. The audio is presented in both a 2.0 stereo track and the original mono, and both tracks sound crisp and clear, with no background noise present. Spanish and French mono tracks are also available, with subtitles provided in English and Spanish.
And as usual with the Studio Classic series, a number of terrific, informative extras are included, beginning with an audio commentary with Ford biographer Scott Eyman and Wyatt Earp III. The two men were recorded separately and spliced together for the track, and the result is a decidedly one-sided affair. Eyman provides meaningful anecdotes and production history, while Earp only enters the track on rare occasions, with a contribution that adds up to roughly 10 minutes of the film's 96-minute running time. This would be acceptable, but the disc's packaging advertises commentary by Earp only, which is misleading, as it is Eyman, not Earp, that takes up the lion's share of the track. Either way, it's a terrifically informative track, and absolutely worth a listen for fans of Ford or the film.
The next feature is a biggie: an alternate pre-release version of the movie, which is contained on side B of the flipper disc. When producer Darryl F. Zanuck viewed Ford's original rough-cut version of the film, he found himself disappointed, and took it upon himself to re-cut and re-shoot certain scenes in order to tighten the film's pace and make it flow a bit better, and this was the version released into theaters. Later, an alternate version of the film surfaced at UCLA, and, though not exactly the cut of the film that Ford had originally created, it was discovered that this was a work-in-progress version of the film that adhered more closely to Ford's original rough-cut structure. The preview version has now been restored by film preservationist Robert Gitt, and Fox has seen fit to include it on the DVD. Which is the better version? It's difficult to say. In truth, the differences between the two cuts are minimal—a scene extension here, a few extra bits of dialogue there. But I'd have to say that I prefer the Zanuck cut, which is tighter and a bit smoother in its execution. Zanuck himself came from a screenwriting and producing background, and knew his way around a story as well as anyone. Either way, it's a testament to Fox's continuing support of film preservation that they've included the preview version on the disc, and it's great to have the choice between both.
The last feature is a 40-minute restoration comparison in which Gitt details the history of Zanuck's decision to re-cut the film, and pinpoints exactly what was changed. Once again, this is a superb and thoughtful addition to the disc that makes the argument for the Zanuck version, in case anyone viewing the disc believes this to be just another case of studio tinkering with a master's vision. The story is more complicated than that, and the documentary provides the historical context necessary for the viewer to understand why the changes were made.
Anyone interested in Westerns is urged to see My Darling Clementine at their earliest possible convenience, and Fox has once again shown that their commitment to preserving their classic library titles rivals that of just about anyone in the business. You cannot know the history of cinema without acquainting yourself with John Ford, and you cannot know John Ford without acquainting yourself with Clementine. It's that simple.
Not guilty on all counts. Court dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by John Ford Biographer Scott Eyman and Wyatt Earp III
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