My Darling Clementine

Dir: John Ford, 1946. Starring: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Ward Bond. Westerns.
My Darling Clementine

It’s sometimes hard to write or discuss what made John Ford one of the greatest cinematic artists. He avoided deeper analysis of his films, refused intellectualizing characters and in interviews, not only dodged questions, but made the interviewer feel like a fool for even trying. He famously stood up at a Director’s Guild of America meeting and only introduced himself as “My name's John Ford. I make Westerns,” underplaying his Oscars and Hollywood status. But decades later, reflecting on his work means seeing the master approach art with the humble nature of a craftsman, creating distinct and immense visions that could be described now as “Fordian.”

And without a single iota of hyperbole or exaggeration, My Darling Clementine isn’t only one of the (many) great films by John Ford, but one of the preeminent masterpieces of art of the post-war era. After the war, Westerns seemed to lose their jingoistic American values and abandon the portraits of brave handsome men and the women they love. Stagecoach, directed by John Ford only seven years earlier, is an ensemble film with clear antagonists, a hero who’s the classic “good bad man” trope and a tremendous amount of fun on top of everything, a film which sees endless enthusiasm and optimism for the growing country. My Darling Clementine is far more complicated, with characters who should be villains proving they have a sense of pride and dignity, and societal problems attached to class and love and complex ideas of civilization. Still, Ford hasn’t reached quite the cynical edge and distrust in the world that The Searchers has, but it certainly has that foreboding sense of darkness after America’s victory overseas.

While herding cattle from the east toward California, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his three brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James, are approached by Old Man Clayton (Walter Brennan) with an offer to buy all their cattle. Wyatt refuses, camps out and makes a brief foray into the nearby town of Tombstone for a shave. After single-handedly getting a violent drunkard arrested, he gets offered a job as town marshal, which he refuses. Upon returning to his camp, he discovers his brother has been cruelly shot from behind and all their cattle stolen. Wyatt then returns to Tombstone and accepts the town marshal job while trying to find out if Old Man Clayton killed his brother. While on duty, he befriends violent drunk and conflicted intellectual Doc Brown and slowly tries to introduce civilization to a town that runs on gambling, violence, prostitution and recklessness.

Cinema, which is a medium mostly tied to images, is filled with overly clever, overly “artistic” framed images created to provoke reaction and emotions out of you, but to John Ford, it’s pure natural instinct. What is just a shot of Wyatt Earp sitting on a porch is framed with all the power and magnificence of German silent cinema. And it’s done so artlessly and effortlessly. The way some of the stately interiors are framed with a lack of movement could almost come out of a late Ozu film. Everything is meticulous without any of the grandiose or pompous attitude of lesser directors.

But the film is ultimately about civilization and us. Wyatt Earp slowly, through modernistic non-aggressive, non-violent methods starts to introduce civility, love and respect in a town once gone rampant. Yes, there’s a showdown in the end, but what good western wouldn’t have one? In the end, it IS a genre film and has all the great images, mood, music and style expected from the Western. But how many other Westerns can also be claimed to work as cathartic meditations on society?

Posted by:
Mark Ayala
Dec 11, 2014 11:05am
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