John Ford always maintained that his version of the events at the OK Corral was based on conversations that the director had had with Wyatt Earp himself. While Ford probably did know Earp (the old lawman reputedly spent a lot of time on and around the early Hollywood sets in his later years) and likely talked with him about what happened in Tombstone, the story played out in My Darling Clementine (1946) is most assuredly not the truth. Despite Ford’s grandiose claims of authenticity, his film is really a remake of Dwan’s Frontier Marshal. Both movies were based on the Stuart N. Lake book, and both are highly romanticized accounts. The difference is that, where Dwan’s film is a workmanlike effort, Ford’s take has all those little artistic touches that move it onto another level. Of course Ford was known for spinning the most outrageous yarns when it suited him, but the huge historical errors don’t change the fact that his film is still the best version by far of the famous story.
The Earp brothers actually feature in this film unlike the earlier version from Dwan. Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James (Don Garner) stop off outside of Tombstone while on a cattle drive. On the recommendation of Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) they take a trip into town, leaving little brother James to stand watch over the herd. On their return the three older brothers find their cattle have been rustled and James killed. Suspecting the Clantons of perpetrating the crime, Wyatt accepts the position of town marshal. What follows is a picture of the emergence of civilization (most notably represented by the founding of the town’s first church), and the effects it has on the characters.
Wyatt is transformed from a dusty, unshaven trail hand into the coiffed and suit-wearing face of the law and civic respectability. The scene where Wyatt primly escorts Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) along the main street of Tombstone towards the new church, with the strains of ‘Shall we gather at the river’ playing in the background, is deservedly famous and remains one of the most touching and romantic sequences ever put on film. This contrasts sharply with the Clantons, who are shown as a bunch of barely human barbarians. A marvelously sadistic moment takes place when Old Man Clanton savagely horse whips his sons before berating them : “When you pull a gun, kill a man.” The bridge between the two extremes is provided by Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) – a man with a cultured background (at one point quoting from Hamlet to help out a drunken actor) who is consumed with self loathing at the knowledge of what he has become.
Henry Fonda plays Wyatt with nobility and that quiet dignity that he seemed to bring to all his roles. The self-conscious diffidence he shows fits perfectly for a man who has been more accustomed to living rough in the wilds. It’s no bad thing either that Fonda always seemed comfortable in a western setting, able to mount and sit a horse naturally. I wish I could say the same thing for Victor Mature but, however hard I try, I just cannot accept him in western roles. I’ve seen Mature in many other genre films and thought him fine, but when it comes to westerns – no thanks. I know this is just a personal prejudice but, for me, his casting doesn’t work at all*. Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton makes for a wonderful villain, a figure of pure evil who has molded his sons in his own image – especially the leering Billy (John Ireland) and the slow-witted, and vaguely psychotic, Ike (Grant Withers). Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua is something of a caricature of the typical Mexican spitfire, but she does elicit a lot of sympathy as a woman passionately in love with a man who repeatedly spurns her.
Since the bulk of the story takes place in and around Tombstone, Ford makes less use of Monument Valley than he would in other pictures. However, there are a few scenes that feature his favorite location and they look magnificent as always. Much attention is paid to the town, to all the little rituals of frontier life, and the variety of characters who inhabit it. The celebration of community is pure Ford and you get the feeling he enjoyed recreating this much more than he did the action scenes. Having said that, the inevitable shootout at the OK Corral, though wildly inaccurate, is both stylish and excitingly executed.
My Darling Clementine has been available for some time now on DVD from Fox, but has recently been reissued with the addition of Frontier Marshal as an extra. The transfer is exactly the same on the new disc, but that’s not a criticism since there wasn’t much that needed improvement anyway. You get to choose between the final release version of the film and the pre-release cut, and I’m not really sure which I prefer. I feel the edited version is tighter but I also think Ford’s original cut of the farewell scene between Wyatt and Clementine is better. I suppose we should be grateful that we have both versions to compare. Either way, this is a special film and one that does reward repeated viewings.
*EDIT – Sometimes we speak dismissively of hindsight, but sometimes now I look back on pieces I wrote many years ago and see that old adage about the viewers changing but not the movies as gaining in truth all the time. I now feel that I was overcritical of Mature, and quite unfair in my assessment of his performance here, when I first put this up well over a dozen years ago.