My Darling Clementine (1946)

There is always so much clamor going on. Attention seekers shout to the left and the right of things, up one side and down the other, round and round, backwards and forwards- it’s a noisy world. Good, then, for the occasional chance to escape the ruckus for an hour or so with a classic, a Western that promises rich storytelling and delivers, not only richness, but kernels of truth easily forgotten in the racket of modern discourse.

John Ford’s cinematic vision incorporates his belief in the beauty of human camaraderie, and he uses that solid foundation in order to pierce the ambiguities he himself flourishes on the screen; it’s one of the reasons he will always remain the consummate film director. When watching one of his films, I always enjoy the dark, unspoken corners into which his characters are allowed to wander, their silent attempts to stand strong alone, their inner sense of isolation, even self-loathing. At the same time, the subtle thump of Ford’s belief in community never fails to illuminate as deftly as his lighting a fine idealism that is as true today as it has always been. Ford’s belief in the dignity of humans acting in imperfect accord fairly hums through My Darling Clementine, an anthem sweeter and more lilting than the titular folk song.

My Darling Clementine bills itself as a retelling of the story behind the legendary alliance between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday culminating in the October, 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Wyatt Earp, played by Henry Fonda at his clean cut best, early on meets the dark side of humanity in the shape of the Clanton family, a cohesive unit of brutal, lying thugs who will stop at nothing to increase their cattle holdings. Ford then places the initial conflict between Earp and the Clantons skillfully into the background as Earp becomes Marshal, meets and befriends Doc Holliday, superbly played by Victor Mature, and falls in love with Clementine. At first glance, this might seem to be the straightforward telling of an old legend, but Ford’s intellectual range and skill imbues the narrative with detours and characterizations that dot the landscape of the story with poetry.

Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is the lawman’s lawman– observant, non-violent, and thoughtfully moral. Victor Mature’s Doc is a masterpiece of contradiction and dim, shadowy interiors, his individualism set aside in a crucial moment to quietly (with cowboys whooping and hollering in the background) portray something more central to the notion of America than Monument Valley, the idea that we can only have a finest hour as individuals when we are an integral part of a community that accepts and bears responsibility for one another. Ford’s characters might sashay it alone at times, but they do it right into the bevy of their neighbors’ arms.

My Darling Clementine, like most of John Ford’s work, is the kind of multi-layered marvel that rewards viewing and re-viewing. Sometimes it’s all about the lighting. Sometimes it’s all about one character or another. Sometimes it’s all about America. And sometimes it’s all about all of us.