MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, JOHN FORD, 1946
The best genre films are those that touch on deeper themes, and John Ford was an expert at using the Western as a way of examining his present. My Darling Clementine is considered by many to be among the best of his films, and I’ve seen it mentioned as best of the genre. While it maintains many of the genre conventions that are found in his and other films, it is as much a statement about the horrific war that had just completed and Ford had seen, and the relieving peace and prosperity with his return.
Walter Brennan’s Clanton gang begins the film by welcoming Wyatt Earp and pointing him towards Tombstone, which we discover soon enough is just a ruse for them to rustle his cattle and kill one of his brothers in the process. Despite their benevolent first appearance, they are the embodiment of evil and completely merciless. In a later scene, Pa Clanton is unhappy with his sons when they create a ruckus in a saloon. At first we think he is angry because of their behavior, when in reality it is for pulling out their gun and not killing their opponent. This is the nature of the enemy, pure evil, and there is not a redeemable quality within them. This portrayal is not dissimilar to Nazi Germany, and that is probably no coincidence. Ford had seen the evils of total war firsthand.
Ford makes good use of darkness versus light in order to isolate his themes. Most of the beginning takes place at night, and Ford uses light and shadows to frame his shots, similarly to how he did with Gregg Toland on The Grapes of Wrath. When he discovers the misdeeds of his enemy, night is not only dark, but a torrential rain falls. Many of the confrontional scenes take place at night and oftentimes the characters are obscured by shadows and speak openly of death, especially Doc Holliday who is obsessed with the subject and his own mortality. This could again be yet another statement about the horrors of war.
However, the battle between the Clantons is not the only storyline in the film. After establishing Earp’s motivation of revenge and getting him situated as the town Marshall, the title character of Clementine appears on the screen. She is a former paramour of Holliday’s when he was a different person from a different world. She is grace incarnate, and she is out of place in the tumultuous town of Tombstone. With her comes peace and progress. Not long after her arrival, the foundation of a church is laid and later a school will be coming. She is not coincidentally filmed almost exclusively during the daytime, which is lit so brightly that it is the antithesis to the scenes that square off the the Earps versus the Clantons. On top of this, aside from her role as a nurse towards the end of the film, her storyline and the battle with the Clantons does not intersect. When she interacts with Earp, there is almost no sense that anything amiss is happening.
When Clementine is present, things are calm, peaceful. One of my favorite scenes is when Earp spots her getting out of the coach. He is calm yet is obviously stricken by her. Aside from the ending, the daylight scenes are total peace. Earp seems unaffected during these scenes by his feud with the Clantons. In another terrific scene, he does a little balancing trick with a support beam while leaning his chair back, seemingly without a care in the world. In the daytime, Tombstone is a nice, relaxing place to be.
The presence of Clementine is somewhat perplexing, and we cannot really tell what Ford intended. This disc includes two versions, the one cut by Zanuck and the rough cut put together by Ford. The latter is not a director’s cut by any stretch, but it gives a better idea of how this relationship was supposed to play out. The changes that Zanuck made were sometimes slight, like using the score more forcefully in Earp and Clementine scenes. There were other, bolder changes, like the ending that required a re-shoot to give the relationship a more romantic touch. In Ford’s version, the relationship between Clementine and Earp is of mutual, platonic interest, with an ambiguous hint of a possible romance. Earp is reticent to show pursuit because of his friendship with Holliday, and it is almost out of character for a man with his set of values to be so forward in the final scene. The platonic relationship, on the other hand, keeps him from committing between war and peace. He is playing both sides.
The final battle at the OK Corral is a thing of beauty. It is John Ford doing action at his best. He builds to it with the Earp party slowly and deviously approaching, using decoys through the center of town, photographed in gorgeous long shots that show the monolithic structures of Monument Valley in the background. The shoot out is quicker yet more satisfying because of the pacing to get to it, and the dust storm that he uses is another move of cinematic, action genius.
Film Rating: 8/10
Comparison of versions: This was terrific. This is one of the movies, like with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, where the consensus is that the shorter version is the better version. This lengthy comparison shows many of the key differences between the two, so you really don’t have to watch the longer version to understand it (although I probably will someday). As I noted above, a lot of the changes had to do with the Clementine scenes, and Zanuck also cut some of the light comedy. There were some cuts that I agreed with, and most likely Ford did too, and some I didn’t like as much, like the ending.
Video Essay: Often these are my favorite supplements on a Criterion disc, and this was good, but it was a little short. That said, Tag Gallagher is an often cited, leading western genre scholar, and he shows a lot of things that I might have missed. He touches on the war motif, although I took it a little further in my reading of the film.
Bandit’s Wager: This was a mediocre 1916 short directed by John’s brother Francis that stars Francis in the lead and John in the supporting role. While the film is nothing to write home about, it does give a glimpse of what western elements John would use in his later films.
1963 news report about Tombstone and 1975 report on Monument Valley : I found that I appreciated the historical featurettes the most of supplements. They are short and sweet. They show that Ford’s version of the Earp legend was mostly fiction and not shot anywhere near the real location.. Tombstone has fascinated people because of the legend and has been portrayed in many films before and since Clementine. Monument Valley, on the other hand, was a favorite of Ford’s because it provided the aesthetical beauty of the outdoor shots. Whether it was realistic or not, the location and the legend added to the film.
Audio Commentary: I’ve heard better and I’ve heard worse. Joseph McBride is a John Ford biographer and has worked in the industry. He discusses many of the things that are touched on in the other supplements, such as the historical accuracy, the differences in versions, and the war motif. He also talks about Ford’s methods, how he worked with actors, and how he got along with Zanuck. There were numerous interesting anecdotes even if the commentary wasn’t the most compelling.
Criterion Rating: 9/10