May 25, 2009
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Grade: 83/100

Director: John Ford
Stars: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell

What it's about. John Ford and 20th Century Fox tell the famous story of the Battle of O.K. Corral, as Hollywood would have liked it to have been. The Wild West town of Tombstone, Arizona has a big man on campus, gambler and gunman Doc Holliday (Victor Mature). The Earp brothers, headed by overly serious Wyatt (Henry Fonda), arrive only to have brother James ambushed and their cattle stolen. The culprits are obviously the Clantons, a sullen set of brothers and their treacherous and ungodly father (Walter Brennan).

Because Wyatt is a lawman, he takes no actions against the Clantons until the charges can be proven. Meanwhile, he takes a job as Marshal of Tombstone, and forms an uneasy friendship with the mercurial Holliday.

One day, the sweetest and most beautiful woman in the world appears in Tombstone, Clementine (Cathy Downs). Clementine claims to have searched the entire West looking for lost lover Holliday, who for no plausible reason will have nothing to do with her. Nonetheless, Clementine's presence upsets Holliday's immature girlfriend Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Fortunately for Clementine, she is under the protection of Wyatt Earp, who clearly regards Clementine as courtship material.

The soap opera involving the love quadrangle is eventually interrupted by more rascality from the Clantons, leading to what we've been waiting for: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

How others will see it. Old West historians will get a headache. Ford gave nary a whit about historical accuracy, not letting such bothersome detail get in the way of a good story. For example, Doc Holliday, James Earp, and Virgil Earp died of natural causes, years after the O.K. Corral gun battle. Old Man Clanton died before the famous gunfight. Doc Holliday was a dentist, not a surgeon. Virgil Earp was Marshal of Tombstone. The characters of Chihuahua and Clementine are fictional. Holliday and Wyatt Earp were acquainted prior to seeing each other in Tombstone. Holliday actually took some 15 years to die from consumption, as T.B. was known as in those days.

Fortunately, Old West historians are a small slice of the potential audience. The rest of us can enjoy the movie for what it more or less is, a fabrication.

Classic film fans are nearly in heaven, able to enjoy not only Henry Fonda and Walter Brennan but lesser lights such as Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Tim Holt, and Ward Bond. And the two ladies are hotties in completely different ways.

However, women enjoy the film less than do men. At, there is a wide gulf between the user ratings for men and women (7.9 and 6.4 respectively), and the gulf becomes careening for those above 45 (7.9 versus 5.3). Presumably, women regard both Chihuahua and Clementine as annoying stereotypes. Chihuahua is the shameless husband-stealing bargirl, and Clementine is the beautiful, perfect woman who never opens her mouth except on rare occasions to say something pleasant. Then there's the ending, which has Clementine eagerly agreeing to become the new schoolmarm and wait forever for true love Wyatt Earp to (maybe) return from his crosscountry visit to his father. Wyatt, they have this contraption called a telegraph...

How I felt about it. John Ford built his reputation as a great director with films just like this one. Sure, it's bad history, but it is fine cinema. Compare it with Tombstone (1993), the 'modern' version that is better history but merely watchable cinema. We won't even discuss Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp, except to state that actors with high pitched voices should not be playing Western lawmen.

It is unsurprising that long after his death, John Ford sets the standard for a story that later directors cannot approach, even with huge budgets and a DVD of My Darling Clementine for study. Ford, along with Sergio Leone and Howard Hawks, understood the cinematic nature of the Old West. It is a place where honor, courage, and family ties are more important than one's own life. After all, if it was so important to live long, why go west in the first place? No one will shoot you in New Haven.