Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘My Darling Clementine’: One of John Ford’s Greatest Films

Ian Kane

Passed | 1h 37min | Drama, Romance, Western | 1946

The year is 1882 and much of the West is still very, very wild.

A quartet of brothers, Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt), and James Earp (Don Garner) are driving a herd of cattle through Arizona, which they hope to sell in California. The men are scruffy and bearded, all except for the youngest, James, who sports a bit of peach fuzz.

Suddenly, a buckboard appears with two men on it—Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his oldest son, Ike (Grant Withers). Wyatt notices them and casually rides up to politely greet them. But Old Man Clanton seems more interested in purchasing the Earps’ cattle than in exchanging niceties.

Old Man Clanton tries to offer a relatively measly price by mentioning how “scrawny” the cattle look. When Wyatt flatly refuses the offer, the elder Clanton ups the amount. When that offer is likewise refused, Wyatt tactfully switches the subject and asks the Clantons about the area. He learns that a town called Tombstone is “just over the rise, there,” Old Man Clanton says as he points off in the distance. Meanwhile, Ike sits glowering with silent menace the entire time, eyeing Wyatt as if he’s sizing him up.

Part of the scurrilous Clanton clan—Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan, L) and his oldest son, Ike (Grant Withers), in “My Darling Clementine.” (20th Century Fox)
Part of the scurrilous Clanton clan—Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan, L) and his oldest son, Ike (Grant Withers), in “My Darling Clementine.” (20th Century Fox)

This opening scene is a foreshadowing of the violence to come. In this case, it is legendary director John Ford who retells the epic showdown between the upstanding Earps and the nefarious Clantons in his 1946 American classic, “My Darling Clementine.”

There have been many cinematic recountings of this famous conflict, most notably (at least in my book) 1939’s “Frontier Marshal” and 1994’s “Wyatt Earp,” with Randolph Scott and Kevin Costner playing Wyatt Earp, respectively. However, Ford’s version is perhaps the greatest of them all.

As the tale continues, the Earp brothers hunker down later in the evening and set up a campsite. The eldest three decide to ride into town for shaves and beers, leaving James to stay and watch over the cattle.

As the three ride over the rise, they find a town full of crude, raucous people. They pass a saloon packed with braying throngs of folks out for a night of mischief. Oddly, a prim and proper barbershop stands out from all of the dust, grime, and tumult. But as the barber is about to begin shaving Wyatt’s beard, several bullets strike the mirror in front of them, almost hitting Morgan.

Wyatt rushes after the fleeing barber to discover that a Native American named “Indian Charlie” is drunk and shooting his pistols in all directions. And when the local lawmen cower from the danger of facing down the drunk, the townspeople turn to courageous cowpoke Wyatt to deal with the situation. Thus begins Tombstone’s powerful pull of Wyatt into its orbit, and his eventual date with destiny—the famous clash with the Clantons at the O.K. Corral.

A Film of Greats

It’s no wonder that this film is considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time—basically a national treasure. The sumptuous, wide-angle black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Joseph MacDonald) pairs perfectly with the gorgeous, flat-topped mesas and foothills of Ford’s favorite shooting location for Westerns: the sprawling, dust-choked environs of the Monument Valley, located on the Utah-Arizona border.

All of this eye candy is backed up by one of the more fascinating aspects of the film, which is its many dichotomies. As mentioned, while much of Tombstone is rough-and-tumble and seemingly untamable, there are patches of civilization in the place, such as the upscale barbershop that the Earps first visit. As Wyatt plops himself down in the plush barber chair, the barber tries to ease it back but it almost drops Wyatt onto the floor. The barber explains that it’s a fancy chair that just arrived from Chicago, so he hasn’t had time to figure out how to operate the advanced piece of machinery thoroughly yet.

The Earps also represent a civilizing force for the area, as if they showed up to tame the savage-beast Tombstone and bring it into modernity as a law-abiding settlement with law-abiding citizens.

These contrasts are subtle at first but gradually become more apparent as the film unfolds. Part of the magic created by such a subtle approach to building the differences is largely due to Ford’s magnificent direction, as well as the superbly nuanced performances by its stellar cast.

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) becomes town marshal of Tombstone, in “My Darling Clementine.” (20th Century Fox)
Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) becomes town marshal of Tombstone, in “My Darling Clementine.” (20th Century Fox)

The Cast

Victor Mature plays Doc Holliday, a sophisticated Easterner who happens also to be a tubercular hard-drinker with a sense of justice. Holliday teams up with Wyatt after the latter becomes the town marshal.

Cathy Downs plays the titular Clementine Carter, a schoolmarm who also represents order and dignity. She soon becomes the romantic interest of Wyatt.

Fonda is believable as the scruffy but upstanding masculine force of good in the film, yet he’s awkward and vulnerable enough at times to be relatable.

Ford’s film is emblematic of the more mature-themed Westerns that would bloom in the late 1940s and early ’50s, which were far beyond the reductive good-guys-wear-white-hats era that largely proceeded it.

“My Darling Clementine” is a pitch-perfect classic Western that has a bit of everything: rousing drama, taut tension, heartfelt romance, and a slow-burn story line involving righteous vengeance that eventually boils over into a satisfying and thankfully bloodless climax.

‘My Darling Clementine’ Director: John Ford Starring: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature Not Rated Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes Release Date: Dec. 3, 1946 Rated: 5 stars out of 5
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.
Related Topics