Film Review: My Darling Clementine

'My Darling Clementine constructs a loving hymn to the values of civilization'
Jim Kitses Horizons West p 55

'no version (of the gunfight at the OK Corral) arrives at that quality of truth, albeit a bogus, mythic one, which Ford achieves.'
Philip French Westerns,2005 p96

'the quintessential, most low key, and most affecting version of the story'. The message of duty above vengeance or personal honour is fundamental in Ford's finest work',
Paul Simpson, Rough Guide to Westerns,2006 p97

'The air's so clean and clear, the scent of the desert flowers.' Clementine.
'That's me,- Barber.'Wyatt

My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine, John Ford,1946

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My Darling Clementine, John Ford,1946

John Ford's classic My Darling Clementine was a remake of Allan Dwan's Frontier Marshall, which was filmed only seven years earlier in 1939. Ford ruthlessly pruned the script, ejecting scenes and cutting dialogue - although he did add some lines of his own, to inject some humour - for example the interchange at the head of the page and this one between Wyatt and the bartender:

'Mac, you ever been in love?' Wyatt

'No, I been a bartender all my life' Bartender

This film is firmly rooted in the central myth of the West, that the wilderness was tamed by township communities spreading across the Great Plains thereby continually pushing back the frontier. The myth was given academic credibility by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 and popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt's celebration of Buffalo Bill's Wild West and artists like Frederick Remington.

John Ford added to the myth, using Monument Valley as the large untamed natural backdrop to his fictionalized version of Tombstone. Indians are used in a similar way, to emphasize that Tombstone was on the very edge of civilization. Two Indians sit outside the jailhouse, for example, and shortly after this a pan across Monument Valley takes in two more standing at a corner of the ribbon like road watching a stagecoach. Also symbolic of the settlement of the West are the Conestoga Wagons in the distance. Although in no way central to the plot Indians appear now again to reinforce the frontier nature of Tombstone. When Wyatt has a haircut a number of passers by seen through the Barber's window include mounted Indians, and Indians also appear hanging about outside the saloon and as workers at the stagecoach station. While these Indians are virtually used as props the depiction of 'Indian Charlie' as the drunken stereotype can hardly be justified by the excuse that Earp's treatment of him would have been true to nineteenth century attitudes. Interestingly Indian Charlie was played by Charlie Stevens, a grandson of Geronimo.

Despite Ford's claim to the contrary, 'My Darling Clementine captured the essence of the story without being burdened by...the facts. He turned it into a wonderful tale of good and evil'. (Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, Casey Tefertiller, 1999) Ford claimed authenticity for his version of events at the OK Corral in the time honoured movie tradition. 'We did it exactly the way it had been' (Peter Bogdanovich John Ford, 1967 P 85 ) His contention was supported by the fact that he himself and one of his stock actors Harry Carey had spoken to Wyatt about the incident and retained a sketch that Earp had drawn, which added to the mystique. However even the song was highjacked, for its words referred to the California Gold Rush of 1849 and had nothing whatever to do with Tombstone or the OK Corral. My Darling Clementine corresponds beautifully to Ford's own oft quoted phrase from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 'When legend becomes fact print the legend'. Ford was not actually interested in what happened, he was interested in representing the myth.

My Darling Clementine is 'a poetic consciously mythic retelling of the Wyatt Earp legend.' (Michael Coyne, The Crowded Prairie, 1997, p 34) It possesses 'a quality altogether more elusive and profound' (Lyndsay Anderson, About John Ford 1981, p14) As the film develops Tombstone is turned from being an anarchic uncivilized hotbed of trouble into being a law abiding upstanding community. The key scene depicting this is the inaugural celebration of the Church which has been constructed through the co-operation of the god fearing townsfolk. The successful characters are those who pull together to create the community and its symbols. These people - Earp and Clementine - occupy the moral high ground whose roots are from within the dominant white religious culture. The outsiders are discarded, and overcome - and not just the disreputable Clanton family - but also Chihuahua who is ostracized for her racial origin and for being a 'saloon girl' and Doc Holliday who is morally moribund. Ultimately the film is about the triumph of 'decent' values. Unfortunately this includes Wyatt's racist treatment of Indian Charlie. 'What kind of town is this, anyway, selling liquor to Indians?' he yells, 'Indian, get out of town and stay out'. Often I can't get tolerate films containing racism like this, but this film is not only an exception it is exceptional.

'What is most memorable about My Darling Clementine is.......Ford's relaxed, spacious filming style'. (Searching For John Ford: A Life, Joseph McBride p 431) 'Nearly every exterior shot is framed to include vast expanses of sky' (Scott Eyman, Print the Legend, The Life and Times of John Ford, 1999 p 314).The film is not only a work of art but is a painstakingly detailed exposition of the Western Myth. I have alluded to this in my comments on the almost subliminal inclusion of native American bystanders, a device often imitated in later films, for example in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. 'What Ford did with (My Darling) Clementine was to give human dimension to a myth. Stagecoach, (Lyndsay) Anderson observed, is very good prose, but (My Darling) Clementine was poetry. Bit by bit, film by film, Ford was beginning to create a living tapestry of the great American legend of the West.' (Scott Eyman, Print the Legend, The Life and Times of John Ford, 1999, p 316).

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Chris Smallbone March 2010

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