John Ford: My Darling Clementine

Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.
Spine: #732
Release Date: October 14, 2014
Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

I grew up with Wyatt Earp’s myth. My father was born in 1943, just a bit more than a decade after Earp died and just at the time Earp’s story was spreading in books and film. I grew up watching westerns with him. In the 1990s I was a big fan of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, two films that took on the legend and made it all the more appealing to me. It wasn’t until relatively recently, however, that I finally caught up with John Ford’s take, with Henry Fonda playing Wyatt Earp, in My Darling Clementine (1946). It’s my favorite film version of the legend, and I was very excited when Criterion announced they’d be releasing a restored version, which is out today.

My Darling Clementine

Now, My Darling Clementine is not my favorite film version because it is the most accurate account of Wyatt Earp’s story. Ford and his team admitted they took artistic liberties with the story presented in Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, which was itself a highly fictionalized story about a man who’d spent the last several decades carefully spinning his public image (more on that in the supplements). No, in fact My Darling Clementine is my favorite because it slags off the responsibility to accurately depict its subject in order to explore deeper themes. It’s rather dark, both in the narrative and in the production itself, emphasizing its existential ponderings, drawn out in the character of Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and in Henry Fonda’s almost lackadaisical portrayal (shown in the famous image on the cover above) of Earp attempting to use the law to settle a personal vendetta.

When the film begins, the Earp brothers — Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil, and James — are driving cattle west (the Earps never drove cattle, some shout). On the trail, they run into Old Man Clanton, wonderfully played by Walter Brennan, whose naturally cheerful, good eyes work to his advantage as the caring patriarch who also won’t hesitate to shoot people in the back.

Clementine-1

But Old Man Clanton was already dead by the time the Earps arrived in Tombstone — obviously, we’re going to get nowhere if we get hung up on history, so enough of that. The Earps are planning to simply pass through southern Arizona on their way to California, and Wyatt refuses Clanton’s offer to buy the herd. The Earps will, however, stop and refresh themselves at Tombstone. As evening comes, the youngest Earp, James, stays with the herd while the other three go into Tombstone for rejuvenation. You can see where this is going. Rather quickly, there’s a graveside scene where Wyatt laments that, with just eighteen years, James was never given much of a chance.

Clementine-2

The murder of James and the theft of the Earps’ cattle takes away any reason for the Earps to keep going to California and gives them one big reason to stay in Tombstone: revenge, or, if you prefer, justice. Tombstone being a burgeoning town with little order, it needs a new marshal. Since using the legitimate arm of the law to seek revenge is all the better, Wyatt accepts the position.

Interestingly, and for some this is a sticky point, the revenge/justice plot takes a back seat as Wyatt Earp appears to nonchalantly waits for justice to present itself. In the meantime, he gets to know the tubercular Doc Holliday and with the eponymous Clementine, the woman who has chased a formerly respectable Doc Holliday from Boston.

Clementine-3 Clementine-4

Most of the film’s weight comes from these relationship and from the deliberately belabored passage of time as we all wait for the infamous shoot-out to occur. This is where the film gets into its existential questions.

First, we have that graveside scene (a common enough scene in films of the Old West, but since the film brings up Hamlet I’ll suggest a reference to that play’s famous graveside scene) where Fonda plays Wyatt Earp as someone who cares deeply about his little brother but who also seems to accept what happened without a whole lot of fuss. He may be hiding it, but even if so it’s definitely under a layer of calm acceptance. His biggest concern is that his brother didn’t have much time to live; next is that his father will take the news hard.

Second, a player wanders into town ready to perform Shakespeare. It is uncomfortable for most present, but he ends up getting on a table in the saloon to recite Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. The Clantons, who menace some scenes now and then but mostly stay on the sideline, eventually get bored and tell him to shut up. Doc Holliday, who’s been enthralled, tells the player to go ahead and continue. When the player cannot, fear and discomfort having locked his tongue, Doc Holliday continues the speech for him, bringing to light Holliday’s own struggles with the question of existence and carrying on. Holliday has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time already. It is probably what caused him to run away from Boston and his respectable medical practice and Clementine. He’s both running away from fate and attempting to dive headlong into the darkness.

Meanwhile, Wyatt Earp continues to wait, the revenge plot in the wings. This is another connection to Hamlet, and, while I’ve heard it argued that Fonda’s Earp is similar to Hamlet in that he thinks too much and waits, it actually seems quite different. Fonda’s Earp waits, yes, but not because he is thinking too much. Rather, he sits on his chair, laid-back, knowing that life bubbles and the trouble he’s looking for — the excuse he needs to find justice — will find him.

It’s a unique take on the mythical western hero, coming in 1946 as World War was on most people’s minds. Fonda’s Earp waits because he has accepted, perhaps not happily, not only his lot in life but also the strangeness of life in general that would place someone like him in a position to bring order to a brutal world. He doesn’t want violence, but he doesn’t hesitate when violence seems to be the only response. He’s on a quest for revenge, but he doesn’t want death to the culprit: if he can help it he’d like Old Man Clanton to live and suffer what this life hands out to him.


The new Criterion Collection edition of this film is absolutely filled with fantastic supplemental material.

The 97-minute theatrical release from October 1946, which gets the full 4K restoration treatment and looks fantastic, is accompanied by an audio commentary track by John Ford biographer Joseph McBride. McBride talks about many things the other supplements get into, but one facet he discusses that others do not is Ford’s relationship with Fonda. I found this track interesting, especially when McBride would discuss Ford’s filmmaking style.

The theatrical release is accompanied by an HD transfer of the July 1946 prerelease version of the film, which clocks in at 103-minutes, seven minutes longer than the theatrical release. There’s an interesting story behind this for those (like me) interested in such bits of film history. The disc contains a 41-minute 2004 piece by Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film & Television Archive discussing the differences between the two versions. Apparently, the producer did not like Ford’s version of the film and undertook a relatively extensive re-edit that included cutting thirty minutes and reshooting new material. Gitt talks about the changes, some of the reasons, and for me it was fascinating and enriched the film. The prerelease version is not Ford’s cut — Ford had left production a month before this version was created — rather, it’s kind of an in-between version that contains enough differences to show an even darker, in my opinion, film.

The disc also contains a new interview called Print the Legend with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg, author of Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life. Isenberg talks about the real Wyatt Earp (though surely there are debates even about Isenberg’s claims) in a 14-minute segment that delves into the myths fostered by Earp himself as he attempted to use media (including film) to solidify his version of the past. It’s interesting that today we think of Earp as a famous lawman of the Old West, but in his long life he was in law enforcement for only five years, and never for more than a year at a time. In Tombstone, he wasn’t even the Tombstone Marshal — that was his brother Virgil; Earp was a U.S. Deputy Marshal.

There are two NBC television reports: The David Brinkley Journal from April 15, 1963, takes about eight minutes to talk about the town of Tombstone, and The Today Show from September 26, 1975, takes five and a half minutes to talk about Monument Valley, where this and many Ford films were shot.

A delightful addition is the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of My Darling Clementine from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs in their roles and Richard Conte as Doc Holliday. I love it when Criterion includes these old radio shows on the discs. They’re worth the time as they do show another version with different focus. This one clocking in at just under an hour, though the story’s time is even less since you get the benefit of old radio ads.

Ford Scholar Tad Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films, has a nice visual essay about the film and Ford’s work called Lost and Gone Forever. This is just over eighteen minutes and uses the time well, Gallagher going into Ford’s filmography, especially Young Mr. Lincoln. It’s a great piece that, like others on this disc, I wish were longer.

Last (other than the trailer) but not least, the disc includes Bandit’s Wager, a 1916 silent western short costarring Ford and directed by his brother, Francis Ford. It’s rather comical and slight, but I’m always thrilled to get more of these films whose existence today is a miracle.

The edition also includes an insert featuring an essay by David Jenkins.

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