My Darling Clementine

            We’re now into our fifth week of films directed by John Ford, and our movie this week is the 1946 Western My Darling Clementine, starring Henry Fonda and Victor Mature. Of all John Ford’s achievments as a filmmaker, probably the most important one was his contribution to the genre of the Western. It was his first area of specialization back in the silent period; then in 1939, with Stagecoach, he almost single-handedly revitalized the mainstream Western at a time when the form was often thought to be fit only for B-movies and serials; and finally, after World War II he again turned his concentrated attention to it and made a collection of Westerns which is undoubtedly the most impressive single body of work in the history of the genre. During the Hollywood commie-purges of the 1950s he famously stood up at a Director’s Guild meeting and introduced himself by saying, “I’m John Ford. I make Westerns.”

            None of our first four Ford films was a Western, but all of the last four are. In fact, although I admire Stagecoach strongly up to a certain point, I would say that My Darling Clementine is Ford’s first really great Western, and that in the end Ford’s post-war Westerns constitute the apex of his achievment as a filmmaker. This is true even though Ford never again reached the same heights of fame and public recognition as he had in the years just before the war with movies like Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. Nor is any of Ford’s postwar Westerns without flaws, not even his masterpiece The Searchers. But in aligning his poetic idealism with some of the most powerful currents in the genre, Ford created a vision that’s still in many ways the most central and definitive realization of the movie Western.

            My Darling Clementine is one of a whole succession of Westerns telling the story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers fighting it out with the Clanton family at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in 1882. Just a couple of years ago we had two of them at virtually the same time: Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. Neither of them was a very good movie, but My Darling Clementine makes them look so totally inferior that the comparison isn’t fair. Ford’s version is as different from all the other ones I know as you can imagine. This Wyatt Earp, played with a wonderfully quiet and civil hardness by Henry Fonda, isn’t just a gunfighter with a badge, nor a hero who saves the weak and downtrodden. In fact, he isn’t very much of either of those things at all. What he is is a man who believes in order in society, and in institutions being enabled to do their work. Trying to get a shave in Tombstone surrounded by liquored-up cowboys having a rude good time, and dodging bullets being fired off by one particularly out-of-control specimen, he marches into the street with shaving cream all over his face and asks indignantly, “What kind of a town is this, anyway?” When he takes the job of marshall to hunt down the killer of one of his brothers, he finds himself caught up in the whole process of the early and gradual civilization of the frontier.

            Probably the best scenes in the film are those that show this process: Wyatt getting a haircut topped off with hair-oil and cologne, sitting on a tipped-back boardwalk chair surveying the town on a quiet Sunday morning, taking a refined and educated young lady from back East to the church dedication and square dance. In fact Wyatt’s enthusiastic admiration of this woman, Clementine Carter, typifies the civilizing zeal of the whole film. This awestruck respect for culture surrounded by the roughess of the frontier is a primary symptom of Ford’s vision of the principles essentially underlying American society—and you can see it again in the ironic but very affectionate treatment of the travelling Shakespearean actor and impecunious drunk played by Alan Mowbray. These rituals of society in the wilderness, taking place in barber-shops, churches, playhouses, at dinner-tables, can really function as foundational elements of a new society because they are new, and imperfect. The splendid scene of the church-dedication, one of the finest scenes in any American film, shows this very plainly. The clear morning sky, the church bell pealing through the air, the flags rippling in the fresh breeze, the church consisting only of a bell-tower and a wooden-planked foundation—these are the pure basic elements of American frontier civilization. If the church were already built the effect wouldn’t be nearly as strong; and if it were all taking place in refined Boston instead of in a Tombstone peopled with unpolished but heartfelt fledgling citizens, the effect would all but disappear. And so, when Wyatt says that as a result of his and his brothers’ efforts, perhaps someday this will be a country where kids can grow up and live free, the effect is something more than a sentimental cliché of Westerns.

            Against the Earps are set the Clantons—a primitive and violent patriarchal crowd headed by a savage old man who rules his four sons with a whip. And in the middle is the ambiguous figure of Doc Holliday, himself a product of the Boston elite who is driven by tuberculosis and self-contempt into the life of a lethal frontier gunfighter and gambler. And against Clementine the woman of refinement is set Chihuahua the barroom girl—the movie’s most embarassing flaw. Linda Darnell’s makeup-department hairdo and immaculate costume-department apparel, not to mention her egregious songs, mark her out more as an ingenue the studio was hoping to push into stardom than as a character in the drama. Just try to ignore her as much as you can. Instead, watch the really beautiful black-and-white photography, with its expressive wide-angle shots and often stunning compositions, or catch the wonderful backdrop of Monument Valley—Ford’s discovery, and used by him as the ultimate symbol of the heroic grandeur of the frontier.

            I do have some criticisms of this film, but I’ll postpone them until after we look at it.

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            I said before the movie that I had some criticisms of My Darling Clementine, and here they are. In the first place there’s the casual racism and sexism of the Wyatt Earp character, and it seems that these are attitudes of the film itself. Wyatt’s remarks about drunken Indians, or his contemptuous treatment of Chihuahua, are embarassing reminders of how common and widely accepted such attitudes were 50 years ago. In the last decade of his career Ford finally began to realize how destructive the white civilization he had championed had been. In The Searchers he tried mightily to come to grips the the problem of racial hatred, especially as it had existed centrally in the Western; and in Cheyenne Autumn he made a rather stolid and preachy epic out of the extermination of the Cheyenne tribe at the hands of white America. Even in Ford’s very next Western, Fort Apache, there’s a much more complex attitude to white-Indian relations. But in My Darling Clementine such doubts about the historic place of white civilization are not present. Instead, as we’ve seen, the film offers a poetic depiction of the process of “civilizing” the frontier that goes beyond endorsement into the realm of myth-making.

            But the film does show some residue from this process that’s contradictory and difficult to assimilate into a seamless affirmation of American ideology. For one thing, there’s the Doc Holliday character, who is troubling because of his outright rejection of the same civilizing values espoused by Wyatt and embodied by Clementine. Doc, from the civilized East which is bound by laws and institutions, seeks out the violence and lawless freedom that Wyatt is trying to root out in Tombstone. Why does he reject his Boston origins? We never do find out, but the bitterness of this character who has such stature in the film is, as I said, troubling, and suggests that there’s something sick at the heart of this culture which it won’t discover until it’s too far down the civilizing path to go back. I wouldn’t suggest that this contradiction representated by Doc Holliday is a weakness in the film—maybe the reverse, actually—but what it does do is to encourage a questioning attitude towards the values which are so strongly presented elsewhere in the movie.

            And when you start looking at these values in that light, you see some things that aren’t so easy to swallow. The reverse side of Wyatt’s calmness and certainty is a kind of steely authority that can seem almost fascistic. There’s not much democratic basis for his rule of law—it’s much more of a benevolent dictatorship. And it doesn’t really have its basis in law either. Maybe the strangest thing about the movie is the way Earp’s civilizing mission starts out as an act of personal vengeance. It’s only the murder of little brother James that causes the Earps to take over as the law in Tombstone, where they say they’ll only be staying until they find the killers. On the face of it, and down deep too, this constitutes conflict of interest in a public official.

            Now in the Western there are a lot of reasons for not making your protagonist a lawman, most of them having to do with not getting your lone hero who’s supposed to embody a principle of individual freedom tangled up with the wussy restrictions of law and the community. It’s the same problem Dirty Harry has—how can you be an aggressive, kick-butt kind of guy while drawing a government paycheck? Like a lot of these movies, My Darling Clementine tries to short-circuit the problem by making the hero reluctant: he has to save the community as a byproduct of his own personal motivations that have really nothing to do with the community.

            But in My Darling Clementine, this short-circuit gets short-circuited itself by Ford’s fundamental sympathy with the communalist task, and by his glowing idealism at the spectacle of the birth of American society in the wilderness. So Wyatt is finally much more convincing as somebody who civilizes, and gets civilized, than he is as the avenger of a private wrong. Even facing off with the Clantons, he obeys the requirements of ritual, and offers them, as he says, “the chance to submit to proper authority.” And at the end, even though he has to ride out into the wilderness again after saving the town like almost every Western hero, he is promising to come back and maybe marry the schoolteacher. The movie kind of wants to have it both ways—for the hero to be a loner and a joiner—and that confusion can be found stretched through the movie in ways that aren’t very much like the usual ways Hollywood movies deal with their internal contradictions.

            But at the end I have to come back to what’s good and in fact great about My Darling Clementine. It’s true that with Ford you have to put up with the flaws to get the gold; but, in this film as much as in any of Ford’s films, the expressive power of his cinema is rare and precious.