Directed by: John Ford
Screenplay by: Samuel G. Engel & Winston Miller from a story by Sam Hellman. Based on the book “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall” by Stuart N. Lake
Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan
Run Time: 1 Hour and 37 minutes
Availability: Currently not streaming anywhere. Only available on DVD.
The O.K. Corral Shootout is probably the most well-known gunfight in American Wild West history. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday’s battle with The Clanton’s has been adapted many times for film and television. “My Darling Clementine,” the 1946 film from well-known Western director John Ford, takes a different approach to this historical event. His quiet, serene and small-scale film doesn’t focus so much on the battle itself but is rather an attempt to humanize these people that have become a part of American popular culture. Modern audiences used to a film like 1993’s “Tombstone,” which deals with the same story, may not be able to appreciate the slow-pace and antiquated feel of the film. Those that can hold those biases aside though will find a nice, character-driven and well-acted film.
Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers Virgil, Morgan and James are traveling across country on their way to California. They end up in the town of Tombstone, Arizona, where they just hope to get a beer and a shave. However when James is murdered, Wyatt becomes the marshall of Tombstone with Virgil and Morgan as his deputies. While in Tombstone Wyatt has to deal with a unique blend of characters including gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), the local cattle wranglers The Clanton Clan led by father Newman (Walter Brennan), Doc Holliday’s girl and local entertainer Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) and the title character herself, Clementine (Cathy Downs), an ex-lover of Doc Holliday’s who shows up in town. It would be ridiculous to call this a spoiler alert, as this is based on true fact, but the film ends with Wyatt, Doc Holliday and a few others taking on the Clanton clan at the O.K. Corral after Wyatt learns it was Newman who killed his brother.
Comparing “Clementine” to “Tombstone” may seem ridiculous, like comparing apples to oranges. However there are two reasons for this. First off, it is the only other film I have seen about the O.K. Corral. Second, this serves as prime example of how two films can deal with the same subject matter but still tell completely different stories. If I were to use a horse analogy, “Tombstone” is like a gallant mustang zipping across the desert. “Clementine” however is like a horse that is just coming into town and trotting along. Whereas “Tombstone” is a much more action-heavy film “Clementine” doesn’t have much action and focusing more on the character development and the relationships between the characters. In fact, the only true action set piece in the film is the shootout at the coral.
I’ll admit, I’m not familiar with the Western genre as well as I should be. I have only seen a handful westerns. When I think of a Western I think of wide, epic shots of the countryside, shootouts, heavy musical scores and tense horse riding scenes. “My Darling Clementine” has none of those, with the exception of possibly the music score. It’s as small scale a Western as you can get and is very much a product of its time, from the cinematography, to the blocky shot composition and even the opening credit sequence. With all the advances in film technology, and even the craft of story telling itself, “Clementine” comes across as a very antiquated film. As a film fan I am able to Clementine in a proper context and appreciate the film for what it is. Needless to say I enjoyed the film. However, others watching the film may just view it as an…antique.
Those that may not be able to get pass the feel of the movie are missing out because “Clementine” is a film that is still worth viewing. Perhaps the film doesn’t impressive from a technical aspect but there is a good story here. Because there isn’t much pizazz in terms of the technicality, Ford is able to focus on what truly matters, the characters and the world. “Clementine” is a film about small moments. If the film seems slow paced it is because Ford isn’t interested in the shootout itself but rather the world surrounding it.
Perhaps the reason Ford could not focus so much on the shootout had to do with the Hays Production Code, a set of censorship guidelines that controlled the film industry from 1930 to 1968 That could certainly explain the difference in tone from this film to “Tombstone.” Whether it was censorship or directorial decision, the strengths of “Clementine” lie in its emphasis on character and the world set up by Ford. I watched the film at 10:00 at night and while the film seemed slow I realized it was because I was trying to compare it to a contemporary Western. You have to put your biases aside while watching “Clementine” otherwise you won’t be able to appreciate it for what it is.
In addition the performances throughout are fantastic. Henry Fonda plays a great Wyatt Earp and brings an element of humanity to this otherwise mythic character. Val Kilmer may have given us the ultimate big screen portrayal of Doc Holliday in “Tombstone” but Victor Mature provides a very strong portrayal as well.
“Clementine” is often viewed as one of the great on-screen westerns. It may not have what a lot of other westerns have in terms of their technicality, but it deserves its reputation because Ford makes the small-scale, character driven western work. No doubt the film will come across as boring and antiquated to a certain audience and that would be understandable. However perhaps in another 50 years people will be saying the exact same thing about “Tombstone.”
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