*. The mythic West, which is to say the landscape of the Western. The town that’s a single street hosting a saloon and a hotel and a barbershop. The marshal with his tin badge. The stagecoaches and the covered wagons. The cowboys. And Monument Valley as a backdrop.
*. And those are just the props. Then there’s the story and its themes. The forces of order and civilization supplanting the wildness of the cattle-rustlin’ outlaws. The hooker with a heart of gold and the budding schoolmarm. The showdown between good and evil.
*. John Ford did more than anyone to establish the grammar of the genre, and it’s fitting that a movie like My Darling Clementine is considered by many to be the greatest work of a man whose most famous line (from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) was that when a legend becomes fact you print the legend. And how does a legend become fact? By being represented as such in movies like this.
*. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is one such myth, perhaps the best known outside of the Alamo, based on an event that took place in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. By the time Ford came to make this movie it was already a legend, the fiction having replaced the fact in an early Wyatt Earp bio written by Stuart Lake. Ford said that he talked to Earp back when he (Ford) was a prop boy working on silents, but by that point I doubt even Earp himself had an accurate picture in his head of what went down.
*. The historical accuracy of the movie doesn’t concern me a bit, though it’s something David Thomson really takes exception to in his essay on it. When someone once asked Ford why he didn’t shoot the events as they really happened he testily replied “Did you like the film? What more do you want?”
*. Fair enough, but there are other myths that may be at play as well. For example, this movie is now put very much on a pedestal by film critics and historians, but is it that good? I think it is, but it’s also awfully hokey. And that’s not just how it seems eighty years later. That’s how it struck many people at the time. Even the test audiences hooted at the handshake at the end, forcing Darryl Zanuck to do a reshoot.
*. Nor were critics in 1946 wholly on board. Manny Farber: “John Ford’s slow-poke cowboy epic, My Darling Clementine, is a dazzling example of how to ruin some wonderful Western history with pompous movie making. Made almost unrecognizable by this super-schmaltzing by 20th Century Fox, this is an account of how Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers rode herd on the badmen in Tombstone. Given almost equal billing with the Earps in this version of old Tombstone are cloudscapes which are as saccharine as postcard art. Typical of director Ford’s unimaginative, conforming tourist sensibility is the setting he uses — dead, flat country with Picassoesque rock formations jutting dramatically here and there — that has happened in Westerns ever since Art Acord was a baby.”
*. Another way this movie gets drawn into the world of myth is due to the story of its release. There’s a lengthy feature on this included with the Fox Studio Classics DVD (I think it’s also part of the Criterion package) by film restorer Robert Gitt that I’ll crib from here. Basically, Zanuck was disappointed with the preview version and insisted on what he described as “a major and radical cutting job.” This meant chopping some 30 minutes out of Ford’s original cut, as well as adding some material reshot by Lloyd Bacon and then tinkering with the score. Gitt concludes that Zanuck “undoubtedly improved” the film, but I don’t know how he can be so sure. It’s unlikely Zanuck did much to damage it, but I don’t think we can say more than that he made some changes that are at least defensible.
*. What I watched this time was what’s known as the pre-release version, but even that’s a controversial claim. Gitt had a free hand with restoring this version, even taking a scene from part of the movie, darkening and cropping it, and then reinserting it later to help paper over a point where something was obviously missing. He says a restorer normally “would not and should not do this.” I’d say! I mean, it’s well done and it works but it’s taking quite a liberty.
*. But enough with the back story. Let’s say something about the film.
*. It’s very much a star vehicle, and I think Henry Fonda does a terrific job as Wyatt Earp. Because let’s face it: does Henry Fonda look like a gunslinger? He’s not an imposing figure, and I had to smile at the size of the heels on his cowboy boots in the shots where those are visible. Yet he still manages to exude a sense, some would say a preternatural sense, of authority and confidence.
*. This may not be far removed from the reality. As Earp’s modern biographer, Casey Tefertiller, puts it: “He loved to be amused, yet almost never laughed; his dour countenance covered an air of supreme confidence in his ability to deal with just about any problem.”
*. I wonder if it helps that Fonda’s playing alongside Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. Mature was a big, burly fellow but really no great shakes as an actor and he’s no good at all here. In fact he feels like an anchor in nearly every scene he’s in. Set next to Fonda you never doubt for a moment who has real authority, on screen or in Tombstone.
*. The womenfolk are the usual Western clichés. Linda Darnell is the sultry singer Chihuahua (really), who never loses her glow even when being operated on without anesthetic. Indeed, she never even breaks a sweat. I don’t think ladies did sweat back in the 1940s. Cathy Downs is Clementine, and she’s the good girl who’s going to be the new schoolmarm. She’s so innocent she almost didn’t get a kiss at the end, having to settle for a chaste handshake from the terribly decent Wyatt.
*. I like the supporting cast too. Walter Brennan is another actor who feels like he’s playing against type. At least I always see him as being a somewhat comic figure, and he’s a nasty piece of work here as Pa Clanton. That opening scene where he and Grant Withers (Ike Clanton) are sizing up Fonda is so full of menace it’s one of my favourite parts of the whole movie. You can feel the tension there, and all the bad things that are going to come out of it.
*. Ford’s eye is, as usual, superb. I love the way he creates a sense of space, for example with the long receding diagonals of the bar or the porches lining the street. The creation of space goes underappreciated I think, but the best directors always handle it well. Look at all the different angles Ford uses, for example, to shoot the iconic image of Fonda leaning back in his chair on the porch. We feel he’s really there because the camera is walking all around him.
*. It’s interesting how often that action of leaning back in the chair gets worked into the film as a leitmotif for Earp’s character. From the faulty barber chair at the beginning to his sitting at the poker table, in the box at the theatre, and at his desk in his office. It’s a nice way of expressing both the dangerous situation Earp finds himself in and how confident he is at being able to handle it.
*. I’m less sure of the meaning behind the placing of so many of the character’s faces in extreme shadow. Is this meant to represent a dark fate? Maybe. Earp of course doesn’t die, but he’s in shadow during the operation scene and Chihuahua isn’t long for this world.
*. So much of the history of the Western for the past sixty years has been de-mythologizing that it’s fun to go back and see such a classic representation — maybe the classic representation — of the myth before it was deconstructed and undercut by irony and bowls of spaghetti. It’s a treasure of a film, but very much of its time. Or, as Farber thought, some time previous to 1946. Previous to 1881 even. It belongs to an archetypal past that’s no less impactful for being imaginary.