March 28, 2008
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, all well-known names that prove that the real history of the American West is filled with people who had lives as amazing as those characters that fiction has created. In fact, many times the adventures of those famous outlaws and marshals served as the basis for those fictional characters, blurring the line between fact and fiction and making them modern American myths. Wyatt Earp is another of those names, as the stories of his work as marshal of Tombstone, Arizona, transformed him into a legendary lawman. Naturally, cinema would perpetuate the legend as well, so many movies about Earp have been done through the years, two of them done in relatively recent times (1993's "Tombstone" and 1994's "Wyatt Earp"). Still, one of the most interesting versions of the story was "My Darling Clementine", done in 1946 with Henry Fonda as Earp and directed by the master of Westerns, John Ford.
"My Darling Clementine" begins with the four Earp brothers traveling with their cattle to California. While passing near the town of Tombstone, Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan Earp (Ward Bond) go to town while their younger brother James (Don Garner) takes care of their cattle. At Tombstone, Wyatt realizes that law has practically no power in town, so he decides to continue his travel to California and leave Tombstone as fast as possible. Unfortunately, while the elder Earp brothers are on town, James is killed and their cattle stolen. After this tragic event, Wyatt Earp decides to take the position of marshal in order to find the murderers of his brother and return peace to Tombstone. This new position takes Earp to meet Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), along whom he'll form an uneasy alliance, which will become dangerous when Earp meets Clementine (Cathy Downs), a recently arrived woman who shares a past with Holiday.
With a title inspired by the folk song "Oh My Darling, Clementine", the film was written by Samuel G. Engel, Sam Hellman and Winston Miller as a new adaptation of Stuart N. Lake's book "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal" (the previous one was 1939's "Frontier Marshal" by Alan Dwan), which was a highly fictionalized biography of Earp. With that in mind, one should not expect "My Darling Clementine" to be an accurate portrayal of the story, as it is more a tale that uses bits of Earp's life as the background to tell what could be said is a "legendary story". Earp becomes the archetype of the heroic lawman, forced into action by a tragedy that ignites in him the desire of bringing order to a rotten town. In the same sense, Doc Holliday is the gentleman turned outlaw, who may find in Earp a last chance to find redemption from his past sins. The drama that unfolds between the two men with the arrival of Clementine is another element that makes the plot akin to an epic tragedy.
Director John Ford follows this mythologization of Earp's life and the American West in general to continue his redefinition of the Western ("My Darling Clementine" was his return to the genre after the war, being his first Western since 1939's "Stagecoach") as his very own setting for legends. Using the breathtaking cinematography by Joseph MacDonald, Ford conceives a very emotional film, in which almost every shot is there to say something. Not being a dialog heavy film, Ford creates a film that speaks through its silence, somewhat mimicking the stoic, taciturn attitude Ford's Earp has towards life and justice. It is all done in a very poetic way that, like the script, chooses to print the legend over the facts (as Ford would explore later in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). An odd choice, as according to story, director John Ford met the real Wyatt Earp when the old marshal worked as a consultant for Westerns in the early days of Hollywood.
While it is definitely John Ford's hand what elevates this from standard Western action to poetic beauty, credit must also go to the cast, whom all around deliver excellent performances through the film. As Earp, Henry Fonda is remarkable, understanding perfectly that he is not playing the real Earp, but an icon of justice in a lawless town. Fonda's ability to express himself without words comes specially handy for a character that requires to tell more with actions than with words. As Holliday, Mature has a more vocal character, and he certainly makes the most of that as well. And while it's Earp's story, Holliday is really the center of the film (just like he is the center of the town). As Clementine Carter, Cathy Downs is effective, but nothing amazing, and she is easily overshadowed by Linda Darnell, who plays Doc's Mexican girlfriend, Chihuahua. As written above, the rest of the cast ranges from good to excellent, almost always hitting the right notes.
I guess the worst mistake (albeit understandable) one could make is to judge "My Darling Clementine" expecting it to be an accurate biography of Earp and Holliday. It is understandable, as Ford always claimed to have met Earp when he was young, but going from that perspective would make one miss the idea of the film as a legend, not as a fact. In more than one way, "My Darling Clemetine" deals more with the nature of heroism than with the details of Earp's life, as through the film there are a series of events in which the concepts of guilt, morality and specially justice are thrown around. And while a tad subtle, there's even a hint of that complex heroic morality that posterior Westerns would explore: Earp does what he does for the good of the townspeople, even if by doing so he alienates himself from them and feels an outsider from the town's regained happiness. I'd say that this is a film that says more than what it seems at first sight.
While other films provide a better understanding of Earp's life and times, and a more accurate portrayal of the gunfight at O.K. Corral, few (or maybe none) of those would have the dreamlike beauty of "My Darling Clementine", as while those films focus on accuracy, Ford's movie is a movie of emotions and ideas, not of facts. Facts are secondary to the themes explored here, and work only as the setting of the tale. To demand accuracy from this film would be a mistake, as this is not what it provides. If anything, "My Darling Clementine" provides a myth, an icon, a legend. And paraphrasing Ford, this is the Western genre, where when the legend becomes fact, one has to print the legend.
Buy "My Darling Clementine" (1946)