FilmJuice have my review of the high-end Arrow Academy release of John Ford’s classic western My Darling Clementine.
I knew that John Ford was a great director the second I saw ‘that shot‘ in Stagecoach when John Wayne makes his entrance and the camera seems to scamper towards him like an over-eager puppy. Since then, I’ve seen a few more of his films and even written about one of them in less than flattering terms but while I haven’t been all that aggressive about seeking our Ford’s work, he has been sitting at the back of my head with a ‘Genius?’ post-it note stuck on his forehead. Reviewing My Darling Clementine was a great chance to peel off the post-it and remind myself why I instinctively hold Ford in such high esteem. This is a stone cold classic in which every shot is a painting and every line is a poem.
The thing that took me completely by surprise was the depth at which Ford seems to be operating. What depresses me about a lot of the films coming out of contemporary Hollywood is that rather than operating on several different levels at the same time (e.g. telling a story, exploring some characters, elaborating a theme, providing a spectacle) they often struggle to do even a couple of these without collapsing in a heap. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films are an excellent example as while they more or less tell stories, have characters, and provide spectacle, they never do any of these things particularly well. John Ford, on the other hand, does all of these things in a way that allows them to flow into one another in a completely organic fashion. For example, the main plot of My Darling Clementine is this deeply symbolic meditation on moral grace that brings Henry Fonda’s morally up-standing cowboy to the morally decadent town of Tombstone and watches as the goodness seems to seep out of his boots as he wander about the place. This conflict between the grace humans can create and the moral decadence that is native to this world plays out in every image and every character including Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday who arrived in Tombstone as a good man only to wind up getting infected by the animal selfishness of the town:
Ford explores Holliday’s dilemma by positioning him between two women: On the one hand is Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, a white woman named for a Mexican dog and wearing Mexican clothes despite frequent references to her being some sort of Native American. As in many films of this era, racial otherness combines with moral and sexual otherness to create an image of everything that Holliday is yearning to become. Chihuahua is like the household god of Tombstone; she’s beautiful, treacherous, promiscuous and a ravening Id that is unchecked by anything even approaching a conscience. On the other hand is Cathy Downs’ Clementine, a Boston school teacher who fell in love with the man Holliday used to be and who came out west in order to lure him back to civilisation. Clementine is not exactly successful as her presence shames Holliday into a bender and plans to move to Mexico with Chihuahua by his side. However, Clementine’s journey turns out not to have been wasted as her simple goodness turns out to be a perfect match for that of Wyatt Earp.
Very symbolic and character-focused, this plot strand stands in stark contrast to a secondary strand dealing with the burgeoning relationship between Wyatt and Holliday’s ex-lover Clementine. Ford presents both Earp and Clementine as restrained and upstanding and so, rather than having them talk about their feelings, he allows the relationship to unfold with virtually no dialogue at all. These sections of the film could have been culled from a film by Carl Theodor Dryer, such is the faith that Ford displays in his audience’s capacity to read emotions straight off the actors’ faces.
It’s always nice to encounter a canonical film that doesn’t disappoint and My Darling Clementine is entirely deserving of its canonical status.