A powerful film about the moment when a frontier becomes a civilization – and a community decides to live under the law.
On the surface, this 1946 John Ford classic film is simply one of the greatest Westerns ever made. On the surface, it is about the famous “Shootout at the OK Corral” between Wyatt Earp and the evil Clanton gang. As a Western it sets the stage for John Ford’s later, more challenging “The Searchers,” “Cheyenne Autumn,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” It also opens the door for numerous films about the shootout. (“Wyatt Earp,” “Tombstone,” “Gunfight at The OK Coral”)
However, I think “My Darling Clementine” is in many ways the greatest of all those I mentioned.
The settling of the American West is a story which can be told from many different perspectives. In “My Darling Clementine” John Ford examines how a community becomes a civilization. Although the characterizations may seem as obvious as in the early days of professional wrestling–the Earp family are all good guys and the Clanton family are all bad guys–there is something much deeper going on here.
The breathtaking cinematography of Monument Valley is often remembered as a highlight of ” My Darling Clementine.” Deservedly so. But look deeper at how Ford frames the shots and you sense the deeper message he is trying to convey. Quite often Henry Fonda (Wyatt Earp) is framed in a way that puts the infant town behind him and an endless frontier in front of him. He sits with his feet up on a railing in front of the barbershop and we see that that is literally the end of the town. Civilization ends at that sidewalk.
Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) sits literally at the crossroads of civilization and lawlessness in “My Darling Clementine”
In one of the most memorable scenes, Fonda accompanies Linda Darnell to the laying of the foundation of the town’s first church. The establishment of the church itself is indicative of the coming of civilization, but Ford does not stop there. He frames the new church again against the background of a wide open, lawless frontier just behind it.
Note how just beyond the Church boundaries is a vast lawless frontier.
One leaves the “safety” of town to see civilization starting to expand in the form of a church.
Wyatt Earp and his “lady fair” participate in a raucous, delightful square dance. By its nature, a square dance expects its participants to accept rules, direction, and order. In other words–civilization.
Wyatt Earp’s transformation from a drifter cowboy to a barbered law man, the transformation of “Doc” Holliday from gun toting roughneck to supporter of the Marshall, the town’s acceptance of the new order in which they will all protect one another are all evidence of what John Ford was trying to say.
Of course, no film is independent of the era in which it was made. Significantly, John Ford returned from witnessing heavy combat in World War II and made this film. Ford, like many Americans, saw World War II as a battle between civilization and anarchy, and “My Darling Clementine” reflects that mindset.
Wyatt Earp leaves civilization to visit the grave of his brother.
always great, gives a memorable performance and the supporting cast, especially Walter Brennan as the treacherous patriarch of the Clanton family, are uniformly excellent.
Even in recent American history we are reminded that there are situations in which the rule of law can be tenuous. The Los Angeles riots. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The assault on freedom by evil terrorists. In “My Darling Clementine,” John Ford reminds us why a community needs to band together, support one another, and accept the rule of law in order for all individuals to have a chance to seek their destiny as part of a greater America.