Sunday, November 25, 2007

Movie Review: My Darling Clementine

(This past October 26 signaled the anniversary of the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral. The episode has inspired numerous works of literature and, most notably, films. In the first installment of a series, Doug Bentin will take a look at some of the movies that have recreated this interesting chapter in the history of the West.

Doug writes film reviews for eFilmCritic! and book reviews (mostly Westerns) for the most indispensable website Bookgasm. His personal blog is The Long Saturday of the Soul - Saddlebums).

With Oct. 26 marking the anniversary of the Gunfight at the OK Corral—which is surely one of the half-dozen most iconic incidents in the history of the American West—I thought we might take a look at three easily accessible movies that were inspired by the famous shootout.

The oldest of the three is John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine (1946).

It seems to me that there are three varieties of Western fiction: realistic, romantic, and legendary. None is superior to the others and which one plays best with you depends on what you’re in the mood for at the time. MDC is definitely legendary, drawing as it does on actual historical events, even though tossing its ingredients into the blender of Hollywood and working with the smoothed-out results.

Henry Fonda is Wyatt Earp. He and brothers Virgil (Tim Holt), Morgan (Ward Bond) and James (an uncredited Don Garner) are just passing through Tombstone, AZ, on their way to California with a herd of cattle. One night Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan ride into town and James is left behind to watch the herd. He is murdered in the rain and the cattle are rustled.

James is presented as the baby of the family, a mere 18, when in fact he was seven years Wyatt’s senior and didn’t die until 1926. Additionally, there was no herd and all four brothers had been living in Tombstone since at least 1879. James was the only brother not involved in the gunfight and in the movie his death is used as the motivating factor for Wyatt to pin on the marshal’s badge and rid the town of the evil, thieving, rustling, murdering Clanton gang.

It’s in town that Wyatt meets the gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature, giving one of his best performances, although he is a bit husky to suffer from tuberculosis). This is not the first time Holliday has appeared in a John Ford Western, but the most famous time he was called “Hatfield” in Stagecoach and played by the much more physically believable John Carradine.

Romantic complications ensue when a lady friend of Doc’s from long ago and far away shows up unexpectedly. Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) has been following Doc deeper into the west as he’s been trying to avoid her. His motive is to release her from the pain of watching his disease waste him away. He’s taken up with a dance hall gal named Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Her profession and ethnicity are indicative of just how far Doc Holliday, that fine surgeon and southern gentleman, has fallen. That symbolism is as faulty as turning a dentist into a surgeon.

As Doc runs away from Clementine, Wyatt moves toward her. Fonda was always good at portraying the hesitant man in affairs of the heart, too respectful of good women to make the first move, so Wyatt’s sort-of courtship sails slowly. It doesn’t really get under weigh until Doc removes a stray bullet from Chihuahua and reclaims some of his old pride, at which point Clementine seems more willing to let him go. Wyatt is as puzzled by her attitude as we are. He leans on the bar and asks the whiskey-server, “Mac, you ever been in love?” to which Mac replies, “No, I been a bartender all my life.”

The action part of the story heats up when one of gang leader Ike Clanton’s (Walter Brennan) sons is killed and Ike and the rest of his brood come into town to wrap up their feud with the Earps.

Even if you can’t keep the Earp brothers straight in your mind and have no idea that one called James wasn’t killed by rustlers, you know the movie is going south historically speaking when you see on James’ headstone that he was killed in 1882—a year after the famous gunfight took place.

Nothing is made of the tinder-box politics of Tombstone in the early 1880s. Many historians believe that at the root of the conflict was a scramble for economic dominance, much as was the case in the Lincoln Co. War.

But this movie isn’t trying to be historically accurate. It’s a movie about the Wild West being tamed. Cattle trails give way to churches. When Doc performs his surgery, he uses tables pushed together in the saloon, so the bar becomes a hospital. Doc is the sophisticated man racing toward death just as Wyatt is the rough neck turning to civilization. Only one of them will reach his goal.

My Darling Clementine is one of those westerns that use a sand grain of historical truth around which to grow a pearl of western legend. If historical inaccuracies drive you nuts, and you can’t appreciate a movie just for the purity of its movie-ness, you might have a hard time with this one. Otherwise, it’s a classic. Enjoy.


Chap O'Keefe said...

A sound wrap-up of a classic movie that passes muster today mainly as nostalgia.

Though it still might not apply to Hollywood screenwriters, modern western writers (especially those whom one US agent has dubbed "non-indigenous") are not allowed to take liberties with such facts as the public has accepted or can easily check.

Might not the playing fast and loose with history, as in MDC and other classics we enjoy, be yet another reason why the western has fallen into disrepute in many quarters?

Anonymous said...

A fond memory of something that has probably disappeared now was a Master Class given by the British director Lindsay Anderson on C4 here in the UK (July 1988 google tells me) deconstructing Clementine. The film was the one Lindsay claims as giving him the motivation to make movies and the one he admired the most, surprising in some ways when his films like O Lucky Man are at first glance as far removed as you could imagine from Ford's.
Ian Parnham