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.
Let me begin with a bit of history: until the arrival of the locomotive, the western half of the American continent was criss-crossed by a number of emigrant trails designed to help Americans immigrate to such emerging western territories as California. Arguably the most famous of these trails was the Oregon Trail, a 2000-mile route that linked the Missouri River to valleys in what we now think of as the state of Oregon. In its heyday between 1846 and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Oregon Trail conducted over 400,000 Americans to the west of the continent. It was through this steady flow of farmers, miners, ranchers and normal people that the West was truly won.
Kelly Reichardt’s film Meek’s Cutoff tells the (reportedly true) story of what happened when one group of settlers – lead by the famous explorer Stephen Meek – attempted to find a safer route to Oregon that might bypass some dangerous Indian land. Slow-paced and enigmatically shot, Reichardt’s film reveals both an emptiness at the heart of the American dream and the dangers of what can happen when being a man is mistaken for being a leader.
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Ever since John Sturges remade Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Sergio Leone ‘borrowed’ the plot of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) to make A Fistful of Dollars (1964), there has been a profound sense of kinship between the American Western and the Japanese Chanbara.
This connection can be explained in purely historical terms. For example, one of the side effects of America’s post-War occupation of Japan was a flush of Americanophilia amongst young Japanese people. Young Japanese people who would grow up to be filmmakers, filmmakers who might have been tempted to interrogate their own history using the iconography and genre conventions of American popular cinema. Alternately, we could point to the fact that Japanese cinema began to reach an international audience just as the Western entered its revisionist phase, prompting Western filmmakers to look at the Western with a sensibility informed by a newfound awareness of the tragic character of many Japanese films. However, while one could argue that the link between the Western and the Chanbara Samurai film is due to the winds of cultural history and political chance, this is not the story that people want to hear…
The popular (and somewhat more poetic) view of the link between the Chanbara and the Western makes use of the idea of the creation myth. Indeed, while both America and Japan reached the height of their historical powers in the 20th Century, both cultures like to see themselves as products of an anterior historical period characterised by violence and conflict. According to this view, contemporary America was forged in the ashes of the Wild West just as modern Japan can trace its cultural roots to the Edo period in which a warlord known as the Shogun ruled over a feudal order controlled by a class of sword-wielding nobles known as Samurai. While the reinvention of an anterior historical period into a sort of mythic creative age is common in both Japanese and American cultures, contemporary attitudes towards these mythic ages are varied enough that neither the Chanbara nor the Western could ever be accused of simple-minded nostalgia. Indeed, for every scene in which an ersatz Butch and Sundance romantically throw themselves beneath the mechanised wheels of modernity knowing well that there is no place for them in the new world, there is a scene in which a more-or-less ‘wild bunch’ show us that the only thing to have changed between now and then is the efficiency of the weapons that we use to murder each other.
Steeped in traditional iconography and fully intent upon revisiting this same set of ambivalent attitudes towards modernity, Jusan-nin No Shikaku resembles much of Takashi Miike’s recent output in so far as it combines a strict adherence to genre conventions with an eye for human perversity and a desire to celebrate that perversity in as horrific a manner as possible.
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