There is always a distinct challenge in reviewing classic cinema: titles that were widely and enthusiastically feted literally decades before half of us were born. What, after so long, is there for anyone to write or say? The late John Ford is rightfully acknowledged as one of the most talented and influential directors of American cinema, and it was with the western that he made his greatest impact. Of that subset of his long career, it is his 1946 effort My Darling Clementine that is often held up as one of his very best.
Even after more than 75 years, watching the film makes it obvious why it was so acclaimed at the time, and why it’s still highly regarded today. Ford had a wonderful gift for precision and efficiency: never a redundant scene, never a shot wasted. My Darling Clementine is a wonderful feat of storytelling. It has as much an eye on character and romance as it does on shoot-outs and action. It positively beams with warmth and integrity. Earlier westerns had a tendency to run a sharp line between good and bad people – the so-called “white hats and black hats”. By the 1960s, changing styles and innovative filmmakers deliberately muddied the waters with moral quagmires and gritty anti-heroes. Clementine feels firmly in the middle. There is a strong sense of good and bad for certain, but there’s also depth. There is texture. I try to limit how often I describe a film as a masterpiece, specifically so I can apply it to films like this and have it mean something. This is the sort of film for which the medium of film exists.
The film features a superb Henry Fonda as cattle driver turned lawman Wyatt Earp, whose cattle is stolen and brother murdered by the untrustworthy Clanton family – led by patriach Newman Haynes Clanton (Walter Brennan). During his struggle to prosecute his foes, Earp allies with local surgeon “Doc” Holliday (a restive Victor Mature) and romances Clementine (Cathy Downs) – Holliday’s ex-girlfriend.
My Darling Clementine is one of a staggeringly large range of feature films inspired by the so-called ‘gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, popularised in a 1931 biography of Wyatt Earp. The real-life events were nothing as dramatic as how they were portrayed over and over on screen, but soon the incident came to encapsulate the popular myth of “the Old West”. At the time of My Darling Clementine‘s release, Ford bragged that his version of the shoot-out was the authentic one, because he had heard it told first-hand by Earp himself. Earp, of course, was commonly known to exaggerate at best.
‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,’ declares one character in Ford’s later western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It is what gets presented here: wonderful, iconic, and deeply satisfying myth-making. Fonda and Mature are both superb, as is Downs, and Linda Darnell as jealous local sex worker Chihuahua. Joseph McDonald’s cinematography is beautifully composed with a strong visual contrast. When we think of the western – the visuals, the tone, the content – it is with My Darling Clementine that we find it in its purest sense.