My Darling Clementine – Fabulous Friday Flicks

“My Darling Clementine”

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.

 Henry Fonda,

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.

11 thoughts on “My Darling Clementine – Fabulous Friday Flicks

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  3. Barry …

    Excellent insights.

    You are so right – I find it almost impossible to put myself back to those moments – the time – when these films were made. That tells so much about what they say. And because of that difficulty I miss much of what is going and being said.

    I can still enjoy the movie, but such background is important information.

    • Thank you for your comments and for your superb website!

      The knock against Westerns is that they are too formulaic. However, films of any genre are capable of becoming artistic masterpieces. Westerns such as “The Ox-Bow Incident,” Dances With Wolves” and “The Searchers” defy our conventional notions of what a Western should be. In “My Darling Clementine” the deeply moving cinematography and symbolism are not accidental – they are the product of a great director, screenwriter and cinematographer attempting to use the movie to both entertain and provoke thought.


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  5. Howdy Barry …
    I was just rewatching clips from this incredible movie. Truly an inspired work.
    One clip in particular grabbed me: the scene of the bard doing Shakespeare in the bar and how his is derided by the bystanders who cannot appreciate this. Why is this highly unusual scene included in this movie? What comment is Ford making?
    I can tell it’s not a compliment to public tastes, intelligence or common culture. One can almost sense the woe …
    Yet how few have picked up the ball. Quintin Tarrantino is regarded as a great Director my many. I find his work to be shallow, disgusting, sadistic garbage. But this is typical of today.
    I better go before this turns into a rant.
    Take care.

    • Jeremy,

      Thanks for your most interesting question! Obviously on the screenwriter and director would know exactly why the scene is included. My theory is that it relates to the larger theme of civilization coming to the frontier. The Bard represents the ultimate in culture and the reactions of the people of Tombstone reflect how difficult it is to transition from frontier to civilization. By performing in a bar, he is approaching the lowest rung of society. Had he done it before the church raising, when women and more cultured men were present, the reaction may well have been different.

      What do you (and my other classic movie fan readers) think?


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