Conventional wisdom is the Western changed forever sometime in the late ‘60s, dividing the genre into two eras: Classic and Revisionist. The outsider perspective of Italians like Sergio Leone made its violence into something as likely to be horrific as heroic. The clean-cut heroes were replaced with desperate, lonely men who hardly deserved the name. The genre began examining the myths it once took for granted in the wake of the failure of American expansionism in Vietnam. And just as the worldview that created the old Westerns could never be regained, the genre became less interested in the Wild West era than its last days.
But as I watch more classic Westerns, it becomes apparent that the best of them are almost indistinguishable from the revisionist films. And there’s nowhere that’s truer than John Ford, the man who defined the first phase of the genre’s existence, and what may be his greatest Western (if nothing else, I’ve got Ebert on my side), My Darling Clementine.
Make no mistake — Ford believed, and believed religiously, in the myth of American “civilization.” But he wasn’t willing to take it for granted, and Clementine’s retelling of the shootout at the O.K. Corral isn’t just an iteration of that myth, it’s a subtly eloquent argument for it. That’s one of its greatest features and its greatest flaws, but we’ll get to that.
What’s really striking about My Darling Clementine is its position as quite possibly the darkest movie Ford ever made, not just thematically but visually too. It’s like he saw the contemporary rise of noir and thought, I can do better than that with one hand tied behind my back. He had every right to, too — cinematographer Gregg Toland pioneered the tricks he’d use on Citizen Kane, and that every noir filmmaker in turn would use from then on, for Ford’s Long Voyage Home.
I already mentioned when I wrote about Yojimbo how much this movie’s imagery haunted me (and obviously Kurosawa too), but it’s worth repeating. Those shadowy, cloistered boardwalks of Tombstone, more like a construction site than a functioning town, or maybe the skeleton of one, make for one of the most evocative settings the genre ever gave us. I’ve often thought Westerns looked odd in black and white, where you can’t see the blue of the big sky or the red rocks of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. Then again, the classics don’t look quite right in color either — the technology of the era was great for bright primary shades, not so much for the neutral browns of the wilderness and its tanned riders, which come out looking a sickly magenta — so maybe I’m just hard to please.
Either way, Ford knew how to use both media to his advantage, and it’s impossible to imagine Clementine in color. You can’t afford to clutter up those dark shadows with any color but inky black.
Other Westerns have been made about towns that “ain’t safe for decent folk” because of the gunmen lurking in every corner, but Clementine makes you believe it. Anything could be hiding in that darkness. And it adds to the sense that Tombstone is unfinished, like a canvas an artist slathered in black before they finish adding in all the details. Doorways seem to open into the void.
Ford and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald aren’t afraid to sacrifice clarity to mood. In the scene of Doc Holliday trying to save his lover Chihuahua from a bullet wound, Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp is so heavily shadowed his face disappears, and so does Walter Brennan as Pa Clanton when he issues his fatal challenge to meet at the O.K. Corral.
Fortunately, the rest of the movie lets us see those faces, because that’s just as important to its emotional power. Holliday gets several minutes of screen time before we learn he’s slowly dying of tuberculosis, but you may suspect it already based on Victor Mature’s basset-hound face. Wyatt Earp’s afflictions are less physical, and he rarely puts them into words, but you can see them just the same in his own dark, lined eyes. This is the rare Western where every character seems constantly on the edge of tears. But it still is a Western, so they never do, at least not the men, who can only express their grief in violence.
Except for Shane, no other classic Western can match Clementine’s deep and pervasive sadness. It’s significant the movie takes its name from a minor character, because she represents more than she can directly contribute to the plot. Doc abandoned her in Boston when he learned he was dying, and he can’t bear to be around her, in no small part because she reminds him of everything he’s lost. Clementine could just as easily be named after Wyatt’s brother James, whose corpse the Earps find in the aftermath of the cattle robbery that sets the plot moving, and who Fonda gives a lonely eulogy in a scene that begins to reveal just how devastating the film will be: “I wrote to Pa and Cory Sue. They’re gonna be all busted up over it. Cory Sue’s young, but Pa. I guess he’ll never get over it.”
And yet Clementine isn’t a straightforward revenge film. As much as the sense of loss weighs over the film, it seems to forget about James’ murder until near the end. It’s as if Earp is less concerned with avenging his brother than turning Tombstone into a place where no one else will ever lose a loved one again. As a result, the pain feels more real than it would otherwise. Grief doesn’t turn real people into stoic badasses. It turns inward and eats them away, and even if they’re as stoic as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, they can’t quite keep it below the surface.
Badassery is a low priority here anyway. One of Doc Holliday’s biggest moments isn’t a scene of violent ownage, but reciting poetry, saying with Shakespeare’s words what he’s unwilling to in his own. In a more traditional Western, he might get called a nancy boy and get the butt end of a pistol. Even more so, the frail Fonda, Western veteran though he is, is an unconventional choice to play the larger-than-life Wyatt Earp. He introduces himself to Doc Holliday by revealing he doesn’t carry a gun. He wears perfume, even if it’s because the barber ambushes him with it. Far from the he-man ladies’ man of most Westerns, he’s as socially awkward as a solitary plains-rider might really be and stumbles over his flirtation with Clementine.
Roger Ebert notes Ford’s decision to cast Fonda over his other favorite, and Fonda’s polar opposite, John Wayne. Ebert concludes, and I’m not about to argue with him, that everything that makes Fonda an unconventional Western hero makes him better for the role than Wayne ever could have been. He represents the softness of civilization instead of the hardness of the untamed West.
Ford would return to that idea with Wayne himself in two of his most celebrated movies, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Even when the Wayne archetype is essential to the civilizing of the West, he’s only building a world that has no place for him. As for Earp, it’s essential that he doesn’t want to be a lawman. He’s already proven he can — the people of Tombstone discuss his time as Sheriff of Dodge City in the hushed tones of legend — but now he just wants to settle down and raise cattle. And if he has to remake Tombstone to make that possible, he will, and then hang up his gun forever.
Someone in our Facebook group once said they can’t watch Westerns because of their role in glamorizing a historical genocide. I responded that’s no more true for most Westerns than any movie that takes place anywhere genocide has taken place, which means, sadly, everywhere. The dominance of the Cowboys vs. Indians narrative has been vastly overstated and/or corrected once it came time to set down the canon of classic Westerns. Most of them take place after the massacres have ended and deal with them only obliquely.
But My Darling Clementine makes me wonder. The idea of “civilizing” or “taming” the West is already suspect, but Ford frames it as a conflict between white outlaws and white lawmen. Indians appear mostly as extras, silently watching from underneath their blankets or saddling horses.
But there’s a moment of shockingly barefaced racism when Earp enters Tombstone that suggests everything else is just a mask for it. Wyatt only wants to stay in town long enough for a shave, but the barber doesn’t even make the first cut before “a drunk Indian” starts shooting in the bar across the street. Earp gets a beautiful moment of offscreen ownage dropping in on Indian Charlie from upstairs, his face still covered in shaving cream — like all effective propaganda for a bad cause, Clementine is at its best when it’s at its worst — then literally kicks him in the ass and tells him to go back to the reservation. “What kind of town is this?” he asks “Selling whiskey to Indians?” After that, it’s impossible to ignore the subtext. Taming the town, like taming the West, is inseparably intertangled with exterminating its original owners.
Clementine doesn’t just justify the crimes of the past. Despite his mild-mannered persona, Wyatt Earp’s methods for cleaning up Tombstone amount to a reign of terror that looks an awful lot like everything wrong with policing in the present. In one horrifying scene, he introduces himself to Chihuahua by hitting her in the face and throwing her in a horse trough. Even in the scene where he shows off to Doc that he doesn’t carry a pistol, Wyatt still rules by the threat of violence when he lets Doc know the man who slid a pistol down the bar is his brother. It’s a credit to Fonda’s performance that he can still make Wyatt such a soft, likable presence in spite of all the violence he’s responsible for. Or maybe to his discredit since it trains viewers to see much less heroic lawmen in the same light.
After all, My Darling Clementine’s impact couldn’t be so terrible if it wasn’t also great. Another way Ford may have influenced Kurosawa is his approach to the cast. He draws on his famous “stock company” even for the most minor roles — Jane Darwell, who Ford directed to an Oscar in The Grapes of Wrath gets just a couple lines. He makes sure every face, from Wyatt Earp to his brothers to the swollen-nosed extra who leads the angry mob at the theater, is interesting. Their individuality gives the violence a weight most Westerns do without. Every death is a tragedy here, even the ones we don’t see. When Doc flatly announces Chihuhua’s dead after his seemingly miraculous cure, it cuts a foot deep.
And of course, you can’t talk about any movie with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and not mention the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Ford seems to have known the pressure he was under to do such a legendary moment justice, because he gives it his all. Our cultural image of Old Hollywood is so dominated by overbearing scores it’s easy to forget how well so many directors of Ford’s generation knew how to use silence. That makes the showdown truly eerie, ratcheting up the tension until the quiet is broken by gunfire. Ford films the showdown not as a glorious act of guns-blazing showmanship, but as a battle scene, the two factions crawling in the dirt and shadows to ambush each other. It’s a masterpiece within a masterpiece, and few other Westerns from any era can stand beside it.