John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” is one of the most famous Hollywood films of the 1950s and is considered to be a classic of the Western genre. The film tells the heavily fictionalized story of Wyattt Earp, a real historical figure whom Ford met and who, for him, represented the ideal virtue and power of the American West. The film follows Earp as he becomes Marshall of the town of Tombstone and proceeds to instil law and order through a combination of courage and personal integrity. Aside from being a character study, however, the film also provides insight into the ideology of the Western and into cinema’s fascination with morality and with America’s own vision of its role in the world. As such, the film is both a compelling character study and a historically crucial snapshot of particular moment in American history. It is from both of these positions that one must be consider the film if one is to be able to understand its significance.
According to Stanley Corkin (2000), Western films often utilize the idea of the frontier order to make a crucial ideological point. Most importantly, they employ the frontier as a space in which boundaries between law and barbarism can be seen to blur and in which the audience is able to see characters at their most vulnerable, and therefore is able to see their true make-up and integrity. As such, he writes that it is often possible to see the content of a Western in “allegorical terms, frequently justifying the culturally dominant activities of a given moment by directly or indirectly locating as part of a quintessential American legacy” (p. 70). The capacity to understand the allegorical content of a Western relies the capacity for the plot of the individual film to enable characters to manifest “their essential equalities of character” and in which “those who succeed do so because they made of better stuff than others” and “those who fail do so as a result of their weakness” (p. 70). As such, Westerns should be seen as being by nature concerned with the ideology of law and order and as manifesting this concern by focusing directly on ideas of virtue and of morality which are presented in a stripped down, melodramatic manner. It is precisely this which one can understand as constituting Ford’s narrative and directorial technique in “My Darling Clementine.”
The first key scene of the film occurs as Earp is drawn to Tombstone in order to rest for the night and travels there with one his brothers, leaving another in charge of cattle that they three of them are transporting across country. Earp’s first act in the town, after having visited a barber and appeared confused by seemingly decadent technology is to protect the individuals of the town from a drunken individual known as “Indian Joe” who has begun firing guns wildly inside the town Saloon. Ford shoots this scene expertly, and entirely from the outside of the Saloon, while the towns folk watch in fear as Earp takes it upon himself to climb in through an upstairs window and disarm Indian Joe, effectively restoring order within the town that he has just entered. The use of wide shots, and the fact that the action of the scene primarily takes place off camera, generates both a sense of humour and tension, as well as drawing attention to the influence that Earp has on the towns folk who, prior to him assuming the role of Marshall, are shown to be confused and lacking in courage. This sense of Earp’s essential nobility continues throughout the film as he seeks to locate the individuals who have killed his brother, an event which takes place during his sojourn in Tombstone, and to bring them to justice.
Richard Huton (2003) notes that the actual historical figure of Wyatt Earp can be seen to have had large influence on Ford personally, and to have motivate the director to make a film that would idealize a particular vision of the American West. He writes that ““to Ford, Earp was a frontier figure who believed in building civilization despite the many factors that could subvert the progress of a civil community and culture” (p. 203). The central focus of the film does involve generating a sense of the progression civilization and of the way in which this occurs as a direct of the inherent nobility of Earp’s character, however it is not the case that Ford’s work is simply a didactic exercise in ideology. Rather, he continually presents real, dynamic ambiguity within world of the film and shows how potentially dangerous characters and threats to civilization may redeem themselves given the correct opportunity.
Arguably the most memorable scene in the film involves such a moment of redemption. The scene involves a character known as Doc Holiday. Holiday is introduced early in the film as a potential antagonist to Earp. He is revered gun-fighter and is clearly disrespectful to the majority of the authority figures whom he encounters. Indeed, in the first scene in which the two meet, Holiday attempts to taunt Earp into challenging him to a gun fight, safe in the knowledge that he would almost certainly win and kill the Marshall. Despite this unpredictable nature, however, Holiday redeems himself as he performs surgery on a former lover after she is struck by an arbitrary gun shot. Ford creates a genuine sense of intimacy and care in the scene, and uses extensive close up shots of both the faces of the doctor and the patient in order to demonstrate this. The scene is touching not simply because of the intimacy between the two characters but because it represents a moment of genuine redemption for both of them; something accentuated by the fact that it takes place in the Saloon which had previously been portrayed as frenetic, dangerous and fast moving place in which law can easily tip over into violence and disorder. In the scene, Ford shows a mastery of space and of the portrayal of character and does this by using significantly different camera work than he employs at any other moment in the film. When this is considered alongside the final scene of the film, which portrays the notorious gunfight at the Ok Corral, it clear that in “My Darling Clementine,” Ford demonstrates an emotional range which few other directors can match.
In conclusion, therefore, “My Darling Clementine” is both a thrilling film and an exemplary Western. It’s concerns are the near universal problems of the relationship between civilization and law and it can be taken to provide almost a complete snap-shot of one particular moment in the history of American ideology. Alongside this, however, the film also provides genuine excitement and demonstrates Ford’s capacity to handle both action and scenes of emotional intimacy. Most memorable, however, is the film’s capacity to portray Ford’s own concerns with frontier ideology and with the historical figure of Earp, while still making use of genuinely emotionally complex and inherently flawed individuals. It is this presentation of moral ambiguity, together with the potential for its redemption in acts of courage and integrity, that make “My Darling Clementine” a great work of cinema, as well as a fascinating historical artefact.
- Corkin, Stanley. (2000). “Cowboys and Free Markets: Post-world War II Westerns and U.S. Hegemony”. Cinema Journal 39 (3). [University of Texas Press, Society for Cinema & Media Studies]: 66–91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225534.
- Hutson, Richard. “John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946)”. Representations. 84 (1). University of California Press: 200–212. 2003. doi:10.1525/rep.2003.84.1.200.