My Darling Clementine: John Ford romanticizes Wyatt Earp’s heroism to the point of myth in one of the greatest Westerns ever made

My Darling Clementine(1946), directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, is one of the greatest Westerns ever made. It’s a highly romanticized take on Wyatt Earp’s heroism at Tombstone.

“The conquest and settlement of the West has been a stupendous feat of our race for the century that has just closed. It is a record of men who greatly dared and greatly did; a record of wanderings wider and more dangerous than those of the Vikings; a record of endless feats of arms, of victory after victory in the ceaseless strife wages against wild man and wild nature. The winning of the West was the great feat in the history of our race.”

Theodore Roosevelt on the conquest of American West

No filmmaker embraced Teddy Roosevelt’s grandiloquence, regarding the conquest of the American West, more fervently than John Ford. Ford is a supreme American film artist, maybe even the greatest film artist ever lived; his greatness only increased by the fact that he is a popular (or even a populist) artist, who despised elitism and designed his films for a mass audience; an astounding combination of an artist and an entertainer, who will be the aspirational model of every director to work in the Hollywood studio system. And he was prolific; in a career spanning more than 50 years, he would make more than 100 films, which would net him six Oscars (more than any director in history), four for Best Director on The InformerThe Grapes of WrathHow Green was My Valley, and The Quiet Man, and two more for his wartime documentaries. Though he may not have invented the movie genre of “Western” – The one pure and indigenous American movie genre that ever was – he was certainly its greatest champion: transforming a B movie genre lacking prestige into a respectable art form. Though America’s view on the conquest of west will radically change from Roosevelt’s views in later years: what was once considered the civilized west will come to be looked upon as uncivilized; the treatment of Native Americans as akin to genocide, and the heroes born from the period as corrupt and murderous; and Ford himself would go into dark places of the “Civilizing the West” in films like The Searchers and Cheyenne Autumn; the Western in popular imagination will always remain as what was defined in John Ford’s Westerns from the classical period: a clear representation of America’s manifest destiny in a world perfectly delineated as good and evil. Starting with Stagecoach(1939), which not only upgraded Western into ‘A’ list genre, but also introduced the ultimate American cinematic icon, John Wayne, Ford has strived to use the genre to build up the mythology of the American West more as an allegory of the building of the American nation itself. As visualized in Ford’s Westerns, American nation was not born in 1776, or even in 1865. but somewhere to to the end of the Nineteenth century, when the American West was fully conquered and civilized. The basic theme in all Ford Westerns is the arrival of civilization into the western wilderness; and they told stories of the men who become the catalyst for this transformation, even if they themselves may not become part of the new world that they have created, and would choose to wander out into new frontiers after their work is done. According to Ford, Family, religion and Law & order are the three pillars of the civilized society, and his films are dedicated to the detailing of these elements through the depiction of elaborate rituals of family and religion, and it is none more brilliantly detailed than in My Darling Clementine(1946): Ford’s first Western since Stagecoach, and his return from WWII.

A total mess as a historical document, but an endearing evocation of the mythology of the American West, and above all an extraordinary piece of American classical filmmaking, My Darling Clementine (1946) is not only one of the greatest Westerns ever made, but it is also one of the greatest movies ever made, Period. Inspired by the exploits of frontier Marshall Wyatt Earp in the city of Tombstone, Ford builds an elaborate mythology about the settling of the West, which may depart radically from history -nearly all of the events in the film are pure fabrications, or fictionalizations of the actual events; There was the Clanton clan, the Cowboy gang (of which they were part), a gunfight at the OK Corral, the four Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. That’s about as close as it gets to facts – but epitomizes the Western at its finest and John Ford at his best. Ford concentrates on “printing the legend” as opposed to the “Facts” and Clementine could be considered the thesis to the antithesis of his last great masterpiece, The Man who shot Liberty Valance(1962), in which Ford debunked a lot of the myths he himself helped to perpetuate about the West in movies like My Darling Clementine. Wyatt Earp’s exploits became famous after the publication of Stuart Lake’s novel, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall, in 1931. This novel, which extensively fictionalizes Earp’s life has been the basis of a host of movies, including “Frontier Marshal” (1939), “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), “Tombstone” (1993) and “Wyatt Earp” (1994). The story of Wyatt Earp’s encounter with Clantons in Tombstone has been  detailed with slight variations in all the above films. As detailed in My Darling Clementine, the story evolves like this:

“Driving cattle to California with his brothers Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt), and youngest James (Don Garner), Wyatt Earp takes reprieve from the trail with the elder two for a shave in the nearby town of Tombstone. After retuning from town, the Earp brothers find James killed, shot in the back, and their cattle rustled. Wyatt takes the town Marshal job the mayor offered, and makes Morgan and Virgil his deputies, and vows to find and punish the killers of his brother. There is every reason to believe the crime was committed by Old Man Clanton(Walter Brennan) and his “boys”, but Earp wants to take revenge legally. In the town, Wyatt has frequent run-ins with the hotheaded Doc Holliday(Victor Mature), who controls all the gambling. Soon enough, Earp discovers evidence (a trinket stolen from James’ dead body) pointing to Doc’s involvement in James’ murder, but on further investigation, it is revealed that Billy Clanton is the culprit. Wyatt directs his brother Virgil to pursue him. The chase leads to the Clanton homestead, where Billy dies of his gunshot wounds. Old Man Clanton then shoots Virgil in the back in cold blood, and then challenges the Earps to a gunfight. Doc, who is dying of tuberculosis, decides to join the Earps, walking alongside Wyatt and Morgan to the corral at sunup. A gunfight ensues in which the Clantons and Doc Holliday are killed.”

As a Western, My Darling Clementine has it all: the dumpy saloon with the honky-tonk piano player and free-roaming prostitutes, “Injuns,” cattle rustlers and thieves, stagecoaches and horses, ornery villains, and, most of all the scenery of Monument Valley, Utah, which more than establishes this as a typical John Ford Western rather than a truthful historical epic about Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The real Tombstone was actually located some 500 miles from the Monument valley, and its terrain is very different from the valley. Ford fell in love with the valley after he shot Stagecoach there, and since then it has become his favorite amphitheater to unveil his romantic fantasies about the creation of the West. The set of Tombstone was erected at an enormous cost of $250 thousand in the valley, which is part of the Navajo nation’s reservation. So the question is, why tell the Wyatt Earp story in such a fictitious way in such a fictitious time and place? (the film is set in 1882, while the the OK Corral Gunfight took place in 1881), why not develop a totally fictional story that would serve Ford’s interests?. For one, Ford did want to take away the Wyatt Earp references, seeing how far the film strayed from history, but the powerful studio chief, Daryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox, pressurized him to go along with it. Secondly, the story does contain the elements that strongly resonate with Ford: Family and the establishment of law & Order, and how these two are related. The elimination of the outlaw, clantons, serves the dual purpose of taking care of “family business” (meaning avenging the death of family members) as well as the enforcement of Law in a lawless land. The moral divide in the film is very clear: Wyatt Earp is the good, noble guy representing the forces of civilization; the clantons are the evil guys representing the lawlessness of the west, and Doc Holliday is somewhere in their middle: someone who is essentially a good guy: an aristocrat and a doctor, who got corrupted after he came in touch with the wild, lawlessness of the west. For the establishment of the civilized society Wyatt Earp must triumph the forces of evil (Clantons). He needs (and gets) Doc’s help in this, but as part of his redemption, Doc has to die too.

My Darling Clementine is a strange title for a retelling of the Wyatt Earp story, much less a Western; sounds more suited for a love story or a rom-com. This “feminine” title immediately differentiates this film from other Westerns; this is a gentle, good-hearted western; even though there are gunfights, it is kept to a minimum. A lot of deaths takes place off-camera. The bloodless, simplistic and highly idealistic nature of this film made Ford call this a “Western for children.” Another major difference is that, though Doc Holliday is always a secondary character in the legends surrounding Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the OK Corral, his character holds the key to this film. As depicted in the film, Holliday sways between two kinds of women: The Eastern, fair and respectable Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) – from whom the film gets its title, and the wild dark-eyed dancing girl ‘Apache’ Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), showing his divided emotional state. Clementine is a total fictitious character created for the movie (maybe loosely based on Josephine Marcus, Wyatt Earp’s common law wife till his death) and Wyatt Earp is shown falling in love with her. Clementine comes West looking for her lover, Holliday, who abruptly (and without any reason) abandoned her in Boston and moved west; she has been looking for him since and has finally tracked him down in Tombstone. The moment Earp sets eyes on her getting off the stagecoach, he is smitten. Her civilized, sophisticated appearance has him in thrall, and the shy, awkward man that he is , he struggles to keep his affections to himself, knowing fully well that she belongs to Doc. But Doc is in no mood to receive her, and gives her an ultimatum to leave Tombstone at the earliest. When she demurs, Holliday takes off for Tucson, leaving behind Clementine, as well as the jealous, tempestuous Chihuahua, whom he had promised to marry. This proves to be the moment when a quite romance blossoms between Wyatt and Clementine. The entire second act, which looks like a mini movie, separate from the main body of the Western, is given over to their courtship. And as the title suggests, the most important thing in the film is not the Gunfight at the OK Corral but Clementine, whose arrival in Wyatt’s life represents the arrival of romance and civilization.

The full second act of the film is one of the greatest set of sequences that Ford has ever designed for a film. It showcases the blossoming of Wyatt-Clementine romance in the backdrop of “religion” arriving in Tombstone. This fusing of romance and religion is again one of Ford’s trademarks. The second act begins with Wyatt getting a fancy haircut from the barber, he is decked up in new clothes and the barber sprays honeysuckle all over him- the barber knows that Wyatt has begun to court Clementine and the perfume is expressly for that. Wyatt feels awkward in the haircut and those clothes as he slowly walks out of the parlor; in that princely Henry Fonda walk, which makes it feel that he is walking in slow motion. He then starts looking into the glass panes of the passing windows, checking his image; this is a man who is now slowly becoming sure of himself, as both Lawman and a lover. And then, the most famous scene in the film occurs, which was totally improvised by Ford on the spot: Fonda’s Wyatt sits out on the porch in his chair, leaning on the back two legs in a balancing act, alternating his feet on the post in a seated ballet. He’s thinking of Clementine, and Fonda shows Wyatt’s happiness with what appears to be a meaningless, yet intriguingly relaxed and enjoyable moment. Soon after this, Clementine joins him; she is waiting for the stage that will take her back east. Wyatt tells her that as its a Sunday, the stage doesn’t leave until noon; so why not she join him for the church service; the townsfolk are having a dedication ceremony of the the first church of Tombstone. Clementine doesn’t say yes or no, instead she just stands close to him talking about how much she loves this town and she loves “the scent of the desert flowers.” “That’s me,” interrupts Earp. “Barber.”; meaning that’s me you are smelling not the desert flowers. Equating Wyatt to a desert flower seems rather appropriate here. Ford’s staging and Fonda’s performance make this one of he most romantic moments in movies.

This is followed by Wyatt and Clementine slowly walking out to the new church, which is still under construction. Ford loved to shoot Fonda walking, and My Darling Clementine is filled with long, paced shots where Earp ambles along the expanse of a bar, or down the town’s sidewalk, each step very gentle, self-conscious, elegant and assured. It is specifically visible in this scene where Ford sets up a lengthy tracking shot showing Fonda and Dows walking through the streets to the church. They walk in stately procession down the covered boardwalk, while Ford’s favorite hymn plays: “Shall We Gather at the River?”. For a further Fordian touch, we have “Ford stock company” actor Russell Simpson as John Simpson dedicating the church in his (and Ford’s) inimitable style of mixing humor in the most serene moment:

Now, folks! I hereby declare the first church of Tombstone… which ain’t got no name yet, or no preacher either… officially dedicated! Now I don’t pretend to be no preacher! But I’ve read the Good Book from cover to cover and back again! And I nary found one word agin’ dancin’! So we’ll commence by havin’ a dad-blasted good dance!

When the fiddler strikes up, everybody starts dancing, Wyatt watches the dance for some time from a distance, and then awkwardly takes his hat off and throws it away. He very shyly asks Clementine for a dance; she obliges and removes her overdress and gives it to him, which he puts it on his arm; looking very clumsy, but enthusiastic and joyful, Wyatt dance a reel with clementine, much to the surprise of his brothers. This entire church sequence with the dance that combines Wyatt’s romantic courtship with the arrival of “god” in this wild west country is one of the greatest set pieces in cinema , which works on so many levels and sums up Ford’s cinematic vision vis-à-vis the Western. But the second act is not finished yet, it gets a grand finale with a spectacular action sequence, in which Wyatt, on horseback, chases down Doc, who’s riding shotgun on a wagon on its way to Tucson. Wyatt suspects Doc of killing James, after he retrieves one of James’ trinkets from Chihuahua, which she claims Doc has given her. The superb chase sequence ends with Wyatt disarming Doc and taking him back to Tombstone for interrogation.

The relationship between Doc and Wyatt is another interesting aspect of this film; though Victor Mature looks too beefy for someone suffering from Tuberculosis, he perfectly embodies Doc’s angst. Doc is filled with indecision and self-loathing, and it is one of the reasons why he abandons Clementine. His character is perfectly brought out in a brilliant scene, which also showcases the relationship that exists between John Ford’s cinema and Shakespeare: A British actor (Alan Mowbray) has come to town to put on a play, and when he doesn’t show up at the theater, Wyatt and Doc find him in the saloon, on top of a table, being tormented by the Clantons. The actor begins Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, but is too drunk and frightened to continue. Doc, from memory, completes the speech, and he could be speaking of himself: “ … but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will … .” The final act of the film mainly concerns Doc’s transformation; as he get back to being a surgeon from a gambler to save Chihuahua’s life; she was shot by Billy Clanton, Though Doc manages to successfully operate on her, she dies eventually, This loss pushes Doc to join the Earps in the final gunfight.

What about the gunfight itself?, which is the biggest set piece in any film dealing with Wyatt Earp. Ford, who has crafted some of the greatest action scenes in movie history – think of the climax scenes in Stagecoach, Fort Apache and The Searchers – goes into a very different zone here; the climactic gunfight is dreamy and surreal , as opposed to gritty and violent. He takes a long time to build it up, and then plays it out in the background of dust kicked up by a passing stagecoach, which hides much of the killing that’s taking place. He’s never been a director to show explicit scenes of violence, but even by his standards, this is very tame and gentle. The film ends with Wyatt and brother Morgan leaving the town of Tombstone. Clementine has decided to stay and has chosen to become a schoolmarm. The final shot of the film is typical Ford, and if you have not seen a single frame of this film and only seen this ending, you’ll know that this a John ford film; Like in a lot of Ford films, we have the woman, clementine, standing at the dividing line of civilization and the wilderness looking out at her man, Wyatt, riding away into the wilderness. As for Wyatt, his work is finished, and his participation is no longer necessary. Civilization could now grow unimpeded; He has ensured that, but the laconic loner would have no place in there. Like Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, he rides back into the wilderness from which he came from, looking for more frontiers to conquer and civilize.

Like all John Ford films, this one too is visually stunning. Despite being shot in Black & White, the film has a luster and luminosity that even color films don’t have. The magnificent and marvelous cinematography, which provides a nice sense of period and amazing depth, is by Joe MacDonald. This great film also contains a superb musical score by Cyril Mockridge. The film was a relatively big budget film, with Fox investing close to $2 million in its production. It is particularly apparent in the costuming and lavish production design. This was the final film Ford would make for Fox; he was annoyed that Fox chief Zanuck cut out about 30 minutes from the directors cut of this film; Zanuck also had some scenes added without Ford’s participation to the finished film – like Wyatt’s long monologue at James’ grave – which critically violate Wyatt’s characterization; as envisaged by Ford, Wyatt is a laconic man, who has trouble articulating his emotions. Despite all this, My Darling Clementine remains a towering cinematic achievement. John Ford, who in his youth had known the real Wyatt Earp, claimed the way the OK Corral gunfight was staged in this film was the way it was explained to him by Earp himself, with a few exceptions. Of course, the Gunfight in the film is nothing like how it really happened. Ford was later asked by a film historian why he changed the historical details of the famous gunfight if, as he claimed, the real Wyatt Earp had told him all about it on a movie set back in the 1920s. “Did you like the film?” Ford asked, to which the scholar replied it was one of his favorites. “What more do you want?” Ford snapped. That sums up Ford’s cinematic philosophy- never let facts interfere with a good story, or rather a great movie.

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