There are westerns, and there are westerns
“There are westerns and there are westerns.” Such was the first line of my very first attempt at a film review. The film was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the Warner flipper DVD that was a horrible print of a terrific film. And it is Peckinph that has a huge debt to the director of tonight’s feature; John Ford. A prolific director known for his westerns, Ford was headstrong, visionary and in every aspect an auteur. His story telling through the visual medium was unparalleled and without his stamp on the genre the likes of Peckinpah, Leone, Eastwood et al would never have come about.
There are further parallels between The Wild Bunch and My Darling Clementine; that of the men’s men standing up for what they believe and driving the story narrative through character motivation and not through violent set pieces. Of course, both films contain sporadic acts of violence and their respective climactic shootouts are high points of each; but it is the immediate preceding scene of both where the real weight of the film lies. For The Wild Bunch it was the long walk Bishop and his team make, in My Darling Clementine it is much the same – whilst Peckinpah improvised his scene on the day, it is clear where his inspiration came from.
As to the story itself. My Darling Clementine is a retelling of Wyatt Earp’s time in Tombstone and his climactic gunfight with the Clanton’s at the O.K. Corral and is based on the book 'Frontier Marshal', a biography of Earp written by Stuart N. Lake. It is now known that the book is largely fictitious in its depiction of the events told, it seems Earp was in love with his own legend and embellished many of his deeds, which, in turn, have been blown widely out of proportion by the Silver Screen. Indeed, Ford’s own adaptation was a remake of Allan Dwan’s 1939 Frontier Marshal starring Randolph Scott, and was made as Ford “could do better than that”. And indeed he could.
The story, at the time of filming was relatively unknown, but has subsequently become very famous, almost cliché in recent years: former Dodge City Marshal, Wyatt Earp, and his brothers are driving cattle near the lawless town of Tombstone. That night while Earp and his brothers are trying to get a shave, a wild drunk shoots up the town and the cowardly marshal refuses to do anything so Wyatt takes charge. On returning to his little brother left in charge of the herd and finding him murdered with all the cattle gone, Wyatt takes up the offer to become Marshal of Tombstone, using his influence to bring the murderers to justice. As the relations with the Clanton clan become ever more fractious, and more blood is spilled, a showdown at the O.K. Corral is the inevitable conclusion. But with Ford at the helm it has become so much more than that simple synopsis suggests.
Whilst action beats and climactic shootouts are staple parts of the western genre and are used throughout Ford’s films, they are not the driving factor of the narrative, indeed they are simple story telling devices that punctuate what is really important – character motivation; specifically the frontier mentality of good vs. evil between men of stature. In My Darling Clementine it is the real life lawman Wyatt Earp and his feud with the Clanton’s. But even this aspect comes second place to the relationship between Earp and Doc Holliday. Ford defines these two iconic characters with mutual respect rather than friendship; Holliday’s destructive nature brought about by his illness against Earp’s strict moral code form the backbone of the film, just as the estranged relationship between Bishop and Thornton would years later in The Wild Bunch. These two lead characters are played by Henry Fonda and Victor Mature respectively and both play with a gruff ‘manliness’ that brings out the best in their characterisations. Whilst the tale may have large elements of fantasy, these two stalwarts play it straight and true, giving the film an electric energy. With support from the likes of Linda Darnell, Cathy Downs and Walter Brennan there is much to admire in the dedication given to all characterisation bringing life to the Old West.
Ford also peppers his film with stunning imagery; famously filmed in Monument Valley (as indeed most of his westerns were) the scenic landscape backdrop shows the insignificance of man upon the surface, providing a sense of scale and grandeur to all his films, and My Darling Clementine is no exception. A critical and commercial success on its initial release, the film remains a wonderful example of the genre and few can beat it in terms of scale.
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