“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, says the newspaperman in John Ford’s 1962 THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. The facts surrounding the famous O.K. Corral shootout are given a legendary backstory by screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. It may be historically inaccurate, but Ford’s painterly eye (aided by DP Joe MacDonald) elevate this low-key Western to high art. Every frame is a portrait, a Frederic Remington or N.C. Wyeth brought to life in glorious black-and-white.
In Ford’s version of the tale, Wyatt Earp and his brothers are driving cattle to California. Wyatt meets up on the trail with Old Man Clanton, who offers to buy the herd. Wyatt turns him down, but Clanton doesn’t give up easily. Wyatt and brothers Morgan and Virgil go into the “wide open town” of Tombstone for an evening of relaxation, while baby brother James stays to tend the herd. When the Earp brothers return in a rainstorm, they find their cattle gone, and brother James lying dead. Returning to Tombstone, former marshal Wyatt takes the lawman job there, with the notion to find James’ killers. He has a hunch the Clanton clan was involved, but can’t prove it.
Doc Holiday returns to town to find there’s a new marshal. Doc’s an ex-surgeon turned outlaw and gunfighter, and both men are familiar with the other’s reputation. A test of wills at the saloon ends with a wary mutual respect. Doc has a girlfriend who works at the saloon, a spitfire named Chihuahua, who’s already tested Wyatt’s mettle and come up short. Doc’s old flame from Boston, Clementine Carter, arrives on the morning stage. She’s been searching for Doc across the West, but the TB and alcohol ravaged Doc, trying to be noble, wants her to leave him be. Chihuahua is immediately jealous of Clementine, and does everything in her power to send the woman back East.
Into this scenario steps Granville Thorndyke, travelling Shakesperean actor, and I’d like to take a moment to focus on this sequence. Alan Mowbray plays Thorndyke as an erudite vagabond, and though the role is small, Mowbray gives it all he’s got. When Thorndyke’s forced at gunpoint by the Clanton boys to perform in a rowdy cantina, he recites the Bard’s “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy with aplomb. Wyatt and Doc bail the frightened Thorndyke out, and when Old Man Clanton finds out the boys were outdrawn by Earp, he savagely whips them, snarling, “When you pull a gun, kill a man”. Thorndyke gratefully leaves Tombstone the next day with the parting words, “Great souls by instinct to each other turn, demand allegiance and in friendship burn. Good night, sweet prince”. Though the sequence doesn’t have much bearing on the overall plot, it’s one of my favorites in Westerns, and Alan Mowbray does an excellent job as the wandering thespian.
Chihuahua is found with a necklace that belonged to James, and she tells Wyatt she got it from Doc. He rides out to fetch Doc back to Tombstone, and they confront Chihuahua, who breaks down and confesses she’s been two-timing Doc with Billy Clanton. Billy, who’s just escaped through the window, fires and mortally wounds the girl. Doc is forced to operate while Virgil goes after Billy. He shoots Clanton and tracks him to the Clanton home, where Old Man Clanton shoots him in the back. Chihuahua dies, and the Clantons drop Virgil’s body off in Tombstone, where the bitter patriarch yells, ‘We’ll be waitin’ for ya, Marshal, at the O.K. Corral”.
Sunrise: Wyatt, Doc, and Morgan square off with the Clanton gang. This dramatic eight minute sequence is a true cinematic masterpiece, and shows why John Ford is The Great American Director. Skillfully shot and edited, with a minimum of dialogue, this showcases the power of the Western film as an art form. I can only think of the final gunfight in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY as even coming close to it. Sergio Leone, of course, was a devotee of The Master, John Ford.
There are so many wonderful moments in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE it’s impossible for me to go over them all without making this a book-length post, so let’s look at the cast. Henry Fonda stars as Wyatt Earp, and his ease of being and laconic nature shine in the role. Fonda and Ford did six films together, and of them all, I only rank THE GRAPES OF WRATH higher. Victor Mature (Doc) was a good actor with a Mitchum-like quality who didn’t get much respect from film critics. He may be guilty of walking through some of his movies, but here he’s superb as the ailing Holiday. Character actor supreme Walter Brennan makes Old Man Clanton one of the genre’s most memorable villains. The ladies are ably represented by sweet Cathy Downs (Clementine) and sassy Linda Darnell (Chihuahua). Besides Mowbray, others in the cast include Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, John Ireland, Tim Holt, and Roy Roberts.
Ford shot MY DARLING CLEMENTINE mainly on location in beautiful Monument Valley, Utah, which he used as a backdrop in many of his Westerns. There’s a reason John Ford is the only director to garner four Oscars. His total devotion to his films give them a look and feel as distinct as an artist’s canvas. Indeed, film WAS Ford’s canvas, and The Great American Director gave us another of his masterpieces with MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.