April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
My Darling Clementine
There aren’t too many DVD releases of classic Hollywood films that justify an elaborate concept. For the most part, they’re filled with gratuitous commentary and frivolous interviews. The special two-disc issue of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is a rare and lovely exception. More than just a nostalgic evening at the movies, the discs trace the film’s evolution into a classic and then look back to its legendary roots.
Like virtually all frontier lawmen, the real Wyatt Earp was no saint but a rough-edged character who spent most of his formative years in saloons—which, of course, was where most of the action was. (“We had no YMCAs,” he explained to his biographer Stuart Lake.) The most famous of all Western shootouts, the so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, came about as the result of numerous professional and personal complexities, including Earp’s political rivalry with the shady Cochise County sheriff, John Behan, and, possibly, both of their affections for a young Jewish girl named Josephine Marcus, who ended up spending nearly half a century with Wyatt.
Neither Marcus nor Behan puts in an appearance in the film, though in fact Ford knew the real Wyatt and had Stuart Lake on hand for consultation. Their presence would have complicated the director’s near-primeval vision of good versus evil—evil, here, being personified by Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton, who horsewhips his sons for forgetting that “when you pull a gun, kill a man.” Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday, a character who lives close to the fine line between right and wrong, gives his loyalty to Wyatt for a simple compelling reason: Earp represents something better than the Clantons.
Ford took only the barest bones of the Earp-Tombstone saga, omitting what he chose and embellishing what he kept. Henry Fonda’s taciturn portrayal of Earp is letter perfect as far as it goes, but Doc Holliday, a frail dentist from Georgia, is transformed into Mature’s robust surgeon from Boston. (Mature is also fine, though as tubercular looking as a Kodiak bear.) In this telling of the Earp saga, the facts hardly matter; as Wyatt Earp III phrases it in the section on historical commentary, “You don’t come to this film looking for the facts, you come looking for the poetry.”
You can see the movie’s reflection in recent Westerns such as Tombstone (1993) and last year’s Open Range . My Darling Clementine illustrates why this generation of film enthusiasts embraces the films of John Ford, not for a nostalgic view of history—Ford’s intention was never to depict history—but to connect with the vision that Ford and much of America once held of itself.