Monday, January 23, 2012

#525. My Darling Clementine (1946) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature

Tag line: "She was everything the West was - young, fiery, exciting!"

Trivia:  Vincent Price was considered for the role of Doc Holliday.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral is, arguably, the single most famous showdown in the history of the American West. So, it stands to reason that John Ford, Hollywood’s most prolific director of western films, would eventually bring it to the silver screen. Shot in beautiful black and white, My Darling Clementine features many of the director’s trademarks: the wide-open spaces of Monument Valley, the frontier folk music, exciting battles, some humor, and engaging high drama. He even manages to toss in a square dance for good measure! 

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James (Don Garner) are driving a herd of cattle through the territory. One night, Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil ride into the nearby town of Tombstone for a shave, leaving James behind to look after things. But when they return, their entire herd is missing, and James is face down in the mud, dead, a bullet in his back. 

Convinced it was the work of the Clantons, a vicious band of cattle rustlers led by Pop Clanton (Walter Brennan), Wyatt accepts the vacant position of sheriff of Tombstone, deputizes his brothers, and vows to stay on the job until he has brought James' killers to justice. 

But the Clantons aren’t Wyatt's only concern; as sheriff, he also has to face off against the drunken Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), a former surgeon with a quick temper who is mighty quick with a sidearm. After a while, Earp realizes there's still good in Holliday, and that he could prove a valuable ally.  

When a trinket that belonged to James leads Wyatt to his brother’s murderers, it kicks off one of the most famous skirmishes in American history: the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral! 

Fonda is decidedly low-key as Wyatt Earp, and much of the film is spent watching him perform the duties of his office. His Earp has a quiet strength about him, a calm determination to keep the peace, which he values above all else. He never backs down from a confrontation, either with the Clantons or Doc Holliday, and even tosses Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), a saloon dancer and Doc Holliday’s girl, into a horse trough when he catches her spying on his poker hand. Yet Fonda’s Earp remains a peaceful man throughout My Darling Clementine, drawing his gun only when circumstances demand it. 

On the other side of the coin is Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday, a risk-taker always ready for a fight. At one time a respected physician , Doc is now content to live out his days playing poker and drinking whiskey. But his past catches up with him when Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) rides into town. Clementine was close to Doc in the old days, and has come to ask him to return home. See, aside from being a gambler and a drunk, Doc also has tuberculosis, and is dying. Not ready to face Clementine, his past, or his illness, Doc jumps on a horse and hightails it out of town. The contrast between Wyatt Earp, who never backs down, and Doc Holliday, who has been running for years, brings a sense of irony to both their tumultuous friendship and the films climactic scene. 

The climax, of course, being the Gunfight at the OK Corral, which happens suddenly, and is over almost as quickly as it started. In fact, there’s a whole lot more sneaking around and getting set than there is actual gun play, and when the bullets start flying, they don’t do so for very long. Ford went to great lengths to ensure his interpretation was historically accurate; in laying out the particulars of the showdown, he relied heavily on a book written by Stuart Lake titled Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, as well as a first-hand account of what transpired, which he heard from Wyatt Earp himself, who the director met in his younger days. 

Ultimately, though, My Darling Clementine isn’t so much a chronicle of this important event in American history as it is the tale of two men thrown together by circumstance. That their story is more interesting than such a legendary gunfight is a credit to both Ford and his talented cast.

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