Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

My Darling Clementine (Fox, 1946)


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After the war, says Michael Coyne in his book The Crowded Prairie, “the Western could conceivably have become – like the screwball comedy – a relic of a simpler, more innocent past.” Happily, it did not. “Instead, it became a vital medium for reflecting and articulating crucial issues of modern American society.”


Well, I’m not sure about that. But certainly entertainment was back on, and going to the movies. Coyne says that in 1946 America had 18,700 four-wall movie theaters, 900 more than in 1939, and 82 million Americans attended per week. Takings totaled an amazing $1.69 bn, a billion up on ’39. And people loved Westerns. 88 were released in that calendar year (oh happy day), 29 of which may be said to have been A-pictures, with all the Western stars back in the saddle, even if they’d been off to war. Pictures like Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, MGM’s The Yearling (amost a Western), even RKO’s Badman’s Territory made serious money.


John Ford and his partner Meriam Cooper in their company Argosy Productions planned a talkie remake of Ford’s silent Western The Last Outlaw, to be released by Universal, and they signed up Harry Carey Sr and John Wayne (who had appeared together for the first time in The Shepherd of the Hills in 1941) to star in it. But the project never came to fruition for a variety of reasons and instead, Ford’s first post-war picture was to be a treatment of the Wyatt Earp myth, starring one of the director’s preferred actors, Henry Fonda. My Darling Clementine, one of the finest of all Earp films, if not the finest, was a poetic version of the legend of Wyatt Earp, not the fact. Ford made it to complete his contract with Fox which had been interrupted by his navy service. But he was happy to get back to the oater. He often used to introduce himself: “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.” He was still famous for Stagecoach. He was ready to go back to the genre.



For Clementine was Ford’s first Western since then (if you exclude the rather clunky early-frontier yarn Drums Along the Mohawk) and Stagecoach itself (1939) had been Ford’s first Western since the silent 3 Bad Men back in 1926. Clementine certainly moves on from Stagecoach in subtlety and artistry, as well as budget (Clementine had four times the Stagecoach budget) and scale. And of course it brought Ford back to the form big time with the cavalry trilogy in the late 1940s and on to even greater things.


Interesting how Mature is highlighted more than Fonda in the publicity material and Cathy Downs isn’t there at all, despite having the title role


Like all Ford Westerns, Clementine deals with the images and ideas of American myth. It’s a marvelous tale of good and evil which is unburdened by actual adherence to the truth. Ford himself said that it was historically accurate, a frankly preposterous claim (exaggeration and false claims were part of Ford’s stock in trade). Henry Fonda said that “Ford used history, he wasn’t married to it” but that’s a pretty polite way of saying it. Ford claimed how, as a young man, he had met Wyatt Earp who “told me about the fight at the OK Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.” He also said in an interview with Bertrand Tavernier that his Westerns “always” followed the historical facts. Baloney. As Old Man Clanton (who actually died well before the OK Corral fight) was killed in Ford’s version and so was Doc Holliday (who in reality died in a Colorado sanatorium in 1887), it is rather difficult to believe that Ford was following Earp’s recollections to the letter. Ford couldn’t even be bothered to get the year right: his story is set in 1882. As I have said before, I don’t mind Hollywood presenting an historically inaccurate picture; they are not producing documentaries but entertaining dramas. It’s only when they claim factual accuracy that I object. But then so many of Ford’s claims should be dismissed as falsehood and make-believe. He was an inveterate liar.


Ford said he got it straight from the horse’s mouth – the eldely Wyatt Earp didn’t die until 1929, in LA


Several scenes of My Darling Clementine derive from earlier treatments of the myth – for example the early moment with Wyatt dealing with a drunken Indian terrorizing the town, which came from Fox’s 1939 Randolph Scott/Cesar Romero picture Frontier Marshal. Ford claimed that he had necer seen the Dwan picture but that was more falsehood. Evidence proved that Ford screened it in Ocotber 1945. Ford even hired the same actor, Charles Stevens, to play the Indian. And in fact the basic structure is the same – the quartet of cool Westerner (Wyatt) and wild Easterner (Doc), and ‘bad’ saloon girl (Chihuahua) and ‘good’ Eastern one (Clementine). Doc Holliday’s resuscitation of his surgical skills, the traveling actor, other scenes too, came from earlier movies. Perhaps these references and repetitions cemented the continuity of the myth: repeat a story often enough and the legend becomes fact – and as Ford knew very well, to paraphrase a well-known line, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact…” (you can finish it as you will).


The story 1939 style


Stuart Lake, author of the mildly entertaining but now discredited and over-sensational Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal of 1931, was at the origin of both Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine. In fact he was on the set of the first as technical adviser. In spite of this, or because of it, both movies were historical absurdities.


Enthusiastic, but don’t expect history


Nevertheless, My Darling Clementine, a far finer film than Frontier Marshal, is Ford’s creation and bears his stamp. And historically accurate or not (in fact, not) it’s a truly wonderful example of American myth-making.Ford and highly talented photographer Joseph MacDonald shot it in Tombstone, UT, as it were – that is by building a town of Tombstone in Monument Valley, at a cost of $250,000. The spare, almost lunar landscape makes the settlement small, precarious, isolated, on the edge of civilization only.


DP Joe MacDonald


The black & white photography is very beautiful. The picture was planned in Techniciolor but ended being shot in monochrome. OK, there are a lot of interiors (location shooting was still expensive and difficult) but Ford knew that Westerns belong out of doors and whenever he could, he had stages rolling across the screen leaving dust clouds behind them, and sun and skies. The scene of the so-called gunfight at the OK Corral is particularly well done, with a huge background and instead of blaring or tense music, the sound of wind and boots scuffing. Actually Ford rarely used ‘background music’, though he was fond (over-fond, possibly) of music produced by characters in the movie, especially rather sentimental ‘folk’ tunes.


Ford in Monument Valley


Henry Fonda was majestic as Wyatt Earp, one of his finest ever roles (and that’s saying a lot). Picking up his career after serving in the Navy, Fonda didn’t miss a beat. Still under contract at Fox, Hank was in the right place at the right time – and a fellow Navy man for Ford – and Victor Mature was too, almost, having just got out of the Coastguard (though that didn’t stop Ford insulting Mature as a “greaseball”). True, Fonda and Ford had an increasingly prickly relationship. Fonda had started as a buddy, gambling and drinking aboard Ford’s yacht the Araner, but Ford was too much of a tyrant for that to last. Still, friends or not, Ford knew what power Fonda could bring to a role. He had been magnificent as Young Mr Lincoln, then the best thing about the frontier drama Drums Along the Mohawk, and was especially fine, of course, as Tom Joad. “Fonda quietly imbues the Earp character with stunning power,” said Brian Garfield. He is the classic Western hero: laconic, moral, tough, with a hidden soft heart.


Fonda majestic


Of course it’s the story of Wyatt Earp. The opening of the film immediately establishes the hierarchy: each brother is introduced with a low-angle medium shot typical of Ford, alone on his horse driving the cattle. Wyatt is last. It is he who gives the orders. Yes, he is a fittingly considerate, almost democratic leader, and he is contrasted with the cruel and autocratic patriarch Old Man Clanton. Wyatt is the more ‘American’ and the new-world figure; Clanton is from the old world, and doomed.


In reality, we know, James and Virgil Earp were more senior than Wyatt, with Morgan and Warren (the latter does not appear in this movie) younger. Virgil was Marshal of Tombstone for a time; Wyatt was never marshal of any town. But this does not suit the mythmakers. All movies concentrate on Wyatt as hero. In this story it is Wyatt who takes the marshal’s job when ‘baby brother’ James is killed. Virgil is played by young Tim Holt, 14 years Fonda’s junior and looking it, Morgan by Ward Bond, two years older than Fonda.


Wyatt’s the boss


Bond makes a good Morgan Earp but Tim Holt is disappointingly unmemorable and bland as Virgil. Not that his few lines of script helped. James Earp (Don Garner, uncredited) has become the youngest brother and is killed off in the first reel in order to give Fonda a reason to become marshal. The graveyard scene where he ‘talks’ to James and promises him to create a new world where young men would not die by the gun, once more harks back to a similar one when Fonda as Young Mr Lincoln addressed his late sweetheart, also committing himself to a better future. And Ford would use the idea again in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, three years later, with Duke talking to his dead wife.


James Earp (the real one) not quite the tender flower, actually a brothel owner, and the Earps were known as the Fighting Pimps, but that didn’t suit the legend


Actually, James was often portrayed in movies as the younger brother, which is odd. He was in fact seven years older than Wyatt and fought in the Civil War. He was a tough cookie who had kept a brothel in Wichita, but of course that wouldn’t do for a sentimental vision of the West. There is often a temptation to ‘under-write’ the parts of Wyatt’s brothers and/or use weaker actors because this heightens the dramatic power of the Wyatt role. Ford didn’t fall into that trap with Ward Bond, who was always powerful even in small parts, but there is an element of that in the Winston Miller script. (Miller, by the way, had as a boy played the young George O’Brien for Ford in The Iron Horse in 1924. He would write again for Mature, Fury at Furnace Creek.)


When Wyatt meets the Clantons in town and tells them he’s taking the job as marshal, they laugh at the very idea of law in Tombstone and as an afterthought they ask his name. He answers, “Earp. Wyatt Earp.” And the camera focuses in on the Clantons and the sheer shock in their faces. As if Wyatt was a world-famous lawman with a powerful reputation. In fact he’d been a constable of a town in Missouri and a deputy for a time in Wichita and Dodge but that was pretty well it. But that won’t do for the mythical Wyatt Earp.In his excellent biography of John Ford, Scott Eyman perceptively writes that Ford’s Earp is one of the last times he would draw a man of the West without a character conflict; Earp has no particular nostalgia for the past, and, except for the scene at his brother’s grave – a later addition – never expresses any interest in the future. The Wyatt Earp created by Ford and Henry Fonda is a self-possessed, pragmatic man, interested in a clean shave and a quiet town. If nobody else will get him those things, he’ll have to get them himself.


Doing so, he ‘cleans up the town’ in an almost standard way. Under Wyatt’s benevolent rule the lawless sink of Tombstone, first seen at night and rather like the lowdown Lordsburg in Stagecoach, whose denizens are the likes of Indian Charlie and the Clantons, becomes a place of schools and churches and the community dances which Ford so loved. The BFI Companion to the Western says the high-stepping church dance is “the secret heart of the film” because it “hesitantly inaugurates the new era.” In this way Clementine is a classic ‘progressive Western’. The hero brings civilization to the wild frontier.


The high-stepping dance


That church social dance was specially written in by Winston Miller for Ford to reference Fonda’s earlier one in Young Mr Lincoln. Miller said, “[Ford] did a picture called Young Mr Lincoln with Fonda, in which there was a dance in which Fonda did his funny knee-high waltz. Well, Ford loved that, so we had that in Clementine. We wrote that church social scene so that Fonda could do his dance.”


It is, though, curious in a way that whereas for much of Ford’s career, going right back to the silent days, the heroes were society’s outcasts, this story is far more socially conservative. As recently as Stagecoach, the good guys who saved the day were not society’s pillars such as the banker or the army wife, or even the lawman, but an ex-convict (Wayne) and a whore (Trevor), and they go off to married bliss together in the last reel.


In Clementine, though, Doc and Chihuahua, social outcasts if ever there were, must both die. They have committed the sin of ‘miscegenation’, a word hardly used today (many people would have to look it up) but commonplace then. Chihuahua (and remember, Western women with place names, like Dallas, were usually disreputable) not only dresses lewdly and dances likewise, she is a Mexican or, even, an Apache. Heavens, she might even be a half-caste of both! Wyatt is utterly contemptuous of her, dunking her in a horse trough and threatening to “run you back to the Apache reservation where you belong.” On his arrival in Tombstone he had also shouted at Indian Charlie, “Indian, get out of town and stay out!” He wasn’t exactly the enlightened non-racist or proto-feminist that many after the war had become. The goody woman is the educated Eastern, the white and submissive one. Ford made Clementine a nurse and a schoolma’am (rather over-egging the pudding there) and she will thrive and prosper in the new civilized Tombstone, whereas Chihuahua will molder in her grave there. The idea of mixed-race relationships, even marriage, was beginning to come in. We think of Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (made 1949) and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow (1950), in both of which such a romance flowers. But in both one of the couple must perish – the Apache maiden in Arrow, the Shoshone hero in Doorway. I mean, romance is all very well, my dear, but think of the children! In Ford’s picture they both die.


Darnell was Chihuahua…


…and Downs was Clementine


Similarly, where in Stagecoach disgraced drunk Doc Boone had found redemption with a medical intervention, an operation does not save Doc Holliday. Chihuahua dies, and so must he.


Mature as Doc, in his first Western, was a surprising choice (although Vincent Price, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks Jr were all considered by Ford, which would have been interesting!) and was a remarkably powerful Doc Holliday, from his storming entrance onwards. Dramatically, as I say, he had to die at the end and duly does so at the low-key but powerful OK Corral shoot-out. Sword-and-sandal expert Mature, studio boss Darryl F Zanuck’s choice, was an unlikely Western actor but in fact put in some very good performances – in Fury at Furnace Creek in 1948, for Anthony Mann in The Last Frontier in 1955, and in the Leo Gordon-written Escort West in 1958. His performance as Chief Crazy Horse, also in 1955, however, is probably best glossed over.


Surprisingly good Western actor


Ford heightens the unlikelihood of the friendship between Wyatt and Doc by making them opposites in so many ways. Doc is theatrical and flamboyant, and ruled by his emotions, whereas Wyatt is measured, calm and controlled – and Fonda was supremely good at characters with some reserve. Take the way they both deal with an unwanted gambler: Doc sweeps the hat off the man’s head and runs him out of town by shouting and blustering, silencing the saloon. Wyatt deals with an ‘undesirable’ gambler who steps off the stage by quietly telling him to be on the next stage out; he remains seated in the shadow and no one else hears. Or compare Wyatt walking sedately down the street with Clementine to the church social with Doc flying wildly down the same street after Chihuahua.


Compare and contrast


As Robert Lyons points out in a 1984 essay on the film, My Darling Clementine as History and Romance, all Doc’s ‘good’ qualities – his erudition, doctoring skills, courtly language – are Eastern, and left behind, while his bad ones – drinking, gambling, violence, impetuousness, flouting of the law – are of the West. Wyatt, on the other hand, is a classic laconic Westerner (Ford cut out many of the self-justifications and wisecracks that the original shooting script gave him) and what could be more Western than a cattleman turned lawman?, but he is drawn to the Eastern Clementine, the church social, barbering, a black suit, law and order – the East, in fact – and is reluctant to use his gun unless it is absolutely necessary. Ford has him try to serve a warrant on the Clantons before having to resort to shooting. Wyatt is a Westerner who wants the East. It’s very well done.Walter Brennan is also splendid as the desert rattlesnake Old Man Clanton, though his sons (John Ireland, Grant Withers, Mickey Simpson) are not developed at all, which is a pity. The real Clanton villain of the piece, Ike (Withers), who ran away from the OK Corral fight, is just a nonentity. Clanton and his brood look forward to the loathsome Cleggs in Wagonmaster. Ford subtly suggests that the Clantons are lowlifes. They are not based in Tombstone, so not part of the civilized community, but outside. They are a united family, yes, but unlike the Earps, who are closely bonded through affection, the Clantons are literally whipped into line by the old man. The saloon they frequent is not the posh Oriental but a low cantina for Mexicans, and Ford once again uses that to suggest baseness. Brennan and Ford disliked each other and it seems that Clanton’s cold loathing of Earp stood in for Brennan’s for Ford. Brennan finished the picture in a professional way (he was a fine actor) but refused to work for Ford ever again.
Brennan splendid as the desert rattlesnake Old Man Clanton


Samuel Engel was also credited as writer but it was one of those Hollywood politics matters. Zanuck had brought him on as producer, but Engel reckoned that being a producer on a John Ford picture was worth nothing (probably true) and so because he had been on the set (Miller had gone off to other work) and rewritten a few lines here and there on the hoof, he claimed a credit as writer. Miller contested it but in the end shrugged and put up with it, but he always insisted that he and Ford cooked the whole story up way before Engel tinkered with it at the edges.




Ford was less good with the women. Linda Darnell looked frankly ridiculous in her 1940s hair and make-up as Chihuahua, Doc’s woman (no sign of Big Nose Kate). I think it possible that she and Ford were trying for a watered down and bowdlerized Jane Russell from The Outlaw. Cathy Downs as the saccharine Miss Carter (the darling of the title) is far too saintly. Ford had wanted feistier Anne Baxter and Jeanne Crain and Donna Reed were also in the running but the director had to settle for the rather tame Downs. Fox’s publicity department clearly understood this. The posters and so on highlighted Darnell and placed Downs in the shadow. The tagline She Was Everything the West Was – Young, Fiery, Exciting! almost implied that Darnell was the Clementine of the title.


Of the smaller parts, good old Russell Simpson plays John Simpson (though his long sermon was another casualty of Ford’s red pencil through the script, probably rightly), and Mae Marsh is his sister. Both were regular members of the Ford stock company. John Ford’s brother Francis has a rare speaking part as ‘Dad – old soldier’, though uncredited. John had a curious relationship with Francis, the elder brother who had given him a start in the business and who had been a leading actor and director in the silent days. John seemed to resent Francis’s success and almost gloat at his come-down. Still, a brother is a brother, and John often gave Frank small parts in his pictures, to help pay the bills. It’s also good to see Ford oldie J Farrell MacDonald as Mac the barman.


Frank Ford got a bit part


Alan Mowbray has a lovely little cameo as the Shakespearean actor Granville Thorndyke, a whisky-sodden ham who is trying to be Booth or Irving, and who by conveniently forgetting his lines gives Doc an opportunity to spout some of the Bard too.


Hamlet on the frontier


It’s Hamlet, of course, and I’d never really thought much before about this but Scott Simmon, in a 1996 essay, makes the point that there is something of the Hamlet about this Wyatt Earp – vaguely. At least in Wyatt’s reluctance to act. One might imagine, having seen a Western or two, that once the Clantons had killed young James, Wyatt and his brothers would be all for going in guns a-blazin’ to exact revenge. But Wyatt doesn’t. He wants justice, not vengeance. He takes the marshal’s star, gets a warrant, bides his time. He is often seen sitting, at the poker table or leaning back, tipping in his chair on the sidewalk in that famous image, or, if standing, leaning against a post and watching the world go by. Morgan urges him to act but he waits. In the shooting script Wyatt made some quite Hamletic remarks but Ford (or possibly Zanuck; more likely Ford) cut these out, so it’s implied, not stated, and is all the more potent for that. Finally, though, Wyatt does act, deciding to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them, to coin a phrase, and the OK Corral looks a bit like the stage in Act V of Hamlet, littered with bodies. This idea seems to me perfectly acceptable, and not too hi-falutin’. After all, Shakespeare was frequently performed in the West, though what many of the uneducated miners, teamsters and cowpokes made of it can only be imagined. In The Arizonian, an RKO Western of 1935, the audience is so bored that they run Hamlet’s father’s ghost off the stage with their six-guns. And indeed, when Thorndyke is reciting on a table in the cantina, the Clantons are far from impressed. “Look, Yorick, can’t you give us nothin’ but them poems?”


Of course you can overdo this. I can’t see Walter Brennan as Claudius, somehow, or Victor Mature as Laertes. Come to think of it, if anyone is Hamlet maybe it’s Doc. After all, it is he who finishes the soliloquy when the actor forgets the words. Many writers read too much into what is, after all, only an old cowboy movie, and ‘film studies’ persons especially tend to do so. It’s an occupational hazard. Writer Winston Miller said, in an interesting interview with Robert Lyons, “If anyone tried to read motivations into [Ford’s] work he’d just say, ‘No kidding! Is that so?’” Miller added, “I have read things about My Darling Clementine where people read things into it that weren’t there. I know because I wrote it.”


Wyatt as Hamlet? Doubtful…


And Miller said that the reason that Wyatt did so little about avenging James for most of the middle of the film was very unHamletic. It “was because we couldn’t think of anything for him to do.” The interviewer prompted, “Or you would be ending the picture,” and Miller added, “The picture would have been over in two reels.” So that’s a rather more prosaic explanation.Another classic Western trope is observed when Ford has Wyatt not walk down to the showdown at the corral in line abreast of his brothers and Doc, as in other versions (and quoted by Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch) but instead has the others break off and skirt round while he, hero Wyatt Earp, strides purposefully and alone down the dusty street. It fits because Wyatt is always isolated, in a way, even from his brothers. They visit James’s grave together; he goes alone. It’s more heroic when a Western hero is alone, as we were discussing the other day, here, and soon Gary Cooper would provide the definitive example of this in High Noon.


The solitary walk-down


This lone-ness is heightened by the ending. We might assume at the end that Wyatt will stay, marry Clementine, who is now the schoolma’am, and settle down to a community life as a respected member of society. But he doesn’t. Or we might assume he will return to do that one day, but it ain’t necessarily so. As JA Place says, in his 1974 assessment The Western Films of John Ford, Wyatt’s stature as mythical hero means perhaps that he is destined to remain separate. I think his departure is almost Lone Ranger-ish, or, slightly grander, Shane-ish: he has righted wrongs in a noble fashion and now rides off into the sunset.


Ford managed in this film to contain the sentimental side and limit the slapstick humor that he was prone to and which disfigured so many of his Westerns. For example, the original script contained a Destry-style ‘catfight’ between Clementine and Chihuahua, a scene which Ford axed – it would have been disastrous. The simplicity of the plot allows Ford to take his time, and the tone of the picture is quiet and contemplative. This helps in my view to make it one of Ford’s very greatest Westerns. And the contemplativeness heightens the explosions of violence when they come.


This measured pace combined with the lyrical photography led one critic, Robert Warshow, to dismiss the picture as “too soft” but I think he thus wrote off what was a deliberate and high-quality feature of the film. Zanuck was a skillful editor and, uncredited (the editing is listed as by Dorothy Spencer), he made considerable changes to produce the final cut, including replacing Wyatt and Clementine’s final handshake with a (subsequently filmed) kiss on the cheek. The editing tends to reinforce the narrative, making it easier for the audience to grasp the story. It didn’t please Ford, understandably. He refused a huge offer of $600,000 a year to make more pictures for Fox, and when asked later which had been his best Westerns he never mentioned Clementine. He seemed to think it no longer belonged to him. It is unclear exactly what Ford eliminated from the shooting script as he went along (and his instinct was usually right) and what was left on the cutting-room floor by Zanuck. There was a whole comic sub-plot of a bawdy house run by Jane Darwell that went – Darwell’s part was reduced to little more than a cameo.


Zanuck was hands-on


My Darling Clementine opened, surprisingly, to mixed reviews and only average box-office takings. It grossed about $2.8m, little more than a break-even. It was also completely ignored at the following Academy Awards. Curious, really, for such a splendid film, the first big Ford picture after the war and with such a superb cast.


Bosley Crowther (left) in The New York Times thought the picture close to Stagecoach in merit but “not quite”. He praised the pictorial quality, saying “every scene, every shot is the product of a keen and sensitive eye” but he also commented that “Too obvious a definition of heroes and villains is observed” – which was a bit harsh given the complexity of the character of Doc Holliday. Manny Farber found Clementine a “slowpoke cowboy epic” ruined by Ford’s pictorializing, and Robert Warshow claimed that Ford’s “unhappy preoccupation with style” reduced his material to a “sentimental legend of rural America.” Variety expressed the opinion that the “Trademark of John Ford’s direction is clearly stamped on the film with its shadowy lights, softly contrasted moods and measured pace, but a tendency is discernible towards stylization for stylization’s sake. At several points, the pic comes to a dead stop to let Ford go gunning for some arty effect.” The New Republic was really quite rude: “A dazzling example of how to ruin some wonderful Western history with pompous movie-making.” TIME magazine called it “horse opera for the carriage trade”. Ford (talking to Bill Libby) resented that. “The people who coined that awful term horse opera are snobs. The critics are snobs.”


Even writer Miller himself wasn’t that fulsome in his praise. “It wasn’t treated as any classic or anything, because basically it was still just a Western, although it happened to be done in Ford’s style, which made it a step up. … Reviewers who expected to see more depth in things from Ford probably were disappointed. But it was a commitment he had had with Fox left over from before the war.”


Richard Griffith, in New Movies Review, was more positive, writing, “On the surface, and to millions of its audiences, it will appear as no more than a jimdandy Western. It’s all of that. It is also a sustained and complex work of the imagination.” He added, rather perceptively, I think, “Undoubtedly its qualities derive from Mr. Ford’s affection for the portrait he is drawing – the portrait of the Old West. It is a mixed portrait, half-truth, half folk lore, but fact or fancy, it is the West as Americans still feel it in their bones.”


More recently, Alan Lovell in 1976 called My Darling Clementine “the perfect example of the classic Western” and in 1997 the late great Roger Ebert said, “My Darling Clementine must be one of the sweetest and most good-hearted of all Westerns. The giveaway is the title, which is not about Wyatt or Doc or the gunfight, but about Clementine, certainly the most important thing to happen to Marshal Earp during the story.” Ebert knew a good movie when he saw one. William Everson calls the film “superlative – easily one of Ford’s best Westerns … and quite certainly the best of all the Wyatt Earp films.” Paul Simpson, in The Rough Guide to Westerns, wrote, “Of all the Wyatt Earp movies, Ford’s graceful, lyrical, deeply romantic interpretation of the legend is the quintessential, most low-key and most affecting version of the story.”


It is indeed ‘John Ford’s My Darling Clementine’. Writer Winston Miller said, “He was the boss. This was a John Ford production, no question about that.”


My Darling Clementine is a flawed picture in a very few ways – all Ford pictures were – but it is a fine, fine film. For me, it could be the very best of all of Ford’s Westerns, for sure ranking with, if not indeed surpassing The Searchers and the cavalry trilogy. It is certainly his most poetic. In any case it is an absolutely essential part of the canon (Webster’s on canon: an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture).


Sorry this post has been rather long.


You’re probably saying about time too


10 Responses

  1. No need to apologize for the length of the post Jeff, it was excellent as usual. I agree with you that this may be Ford’s best Western, although I give the slight edge to Stagecoach. It also has one of the funniest lines in a Ford picture –
    Wyatt (Fonda) “Have you ever been in love, Mac?”
    Mac (J. Farrell Macdonald) ” No, I’ve been a bartender all me life.”

  2. Lucky enough to have just seen it (once again) in a beautifully restored copy on a large screen thanks to the Institut Lumière in Lyon (Followed in the next weeks by Red River and The Far Country). Close to perfection, an absolute western, Ford at his best.

  3. Clementine for me is up there with the strongest of Ford’s work, which means among the best of all Westerns ever. Alongside MDC, the other Ford Westerns in that pantheon (for me) are Stagecoach, Fort Apache and Wagon Master. All superior to The Searchers in my opinion (which I find fascinating but frustrating) and Liberty Valance (which I never tire of but doesn’t quite reach the perfection of those films in what I consider Ford’s peak period- 1939 to 53, he really was at the top of his game in that decade-and-a-half) or the many other pleasures, major and minor, to be found among his other Western works.

  4. Always challenging to establish this lind if list as it so much depends on age, mood and feelings, conditions of vision, culture and knowledge, filming and styles’ evolution etc.
    The very first time I had heard of John Ford is when my father brought back at home Stagecoach from Paris Cinémathèque in 2, maybe 3, 8mm silent reels… We were playing country & western LPs on a brand new electrophone to get some sound backdrop. It was in the late fifties/early sixties. I already knew cow-boys and indians stories, my father
    had already showed us silent Hopalong Cassidys but Stagecoach was a revelation (almost a holy one) and I instantly knew that I was going to remember all my life John Wayne twirling his Winch by using its lever… That said, I am still pretty fond of Stagecoach even if, since, I have watched many other westerns (and other films). Anyway, to me, as recently expressed on this fantastic blog, a weaker Ford will always be better than any bad western (that Jeff in his great magnanimity keeps on carrying his duty to present as scrupulously the bad and the ugly). Back to your list, I would not say that they are superior to The Searchers which is is just different kind. The more Ford was getting older, maybe suffering from bipolar disorder, the more he was marked by nostalgia
    and sadness. The Last Hurrah is very significant if not a western. And Liberty Valance for which I have a special affection in spite of its flaws says also a lot about a depressed, bad tempered and cantankerous old man who was shooting his last sparks, thinking that each movie could be his last. Sorry for being too long.

  5. My frustration with The Searchers is not the concept of it but the execution, I want the film to work but just find it doesn’t really gel – it doesn’t pull me in. Unlike Clementine or Wagon Master, but more like Stagecoach in this respect, it’s very much a film driven by plot rather than atmosphere but whereas I find the plot construction to be perfect in Stagecoach, in The Searchers I feel it’s a lot less perfect, almost as if the script was a first draft. Also I’m completely on board for Ford’s taste for low-brow slapstick comedy in films like Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, because (up to the final massacre in Fort Apache) their plotting is leisurely, in the Searchers it’s incredibly distracting because it just gets in the way of the story, and also shifts the tone of the film so much, and so quickly, that it’s jarring. Whereas The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has a very steady tone to it, with the comic characters and bits well integrated into the whole.

    So many other people love The Searchers that I’ve come to accept it may be me rather than the film that is the problem. And it’s always nice trading opinions with fellow admirers of Ford and Westerns, even- or especially – when disagreeing. I too love this site because there’s so much information, insight and opinion to get one’s teeth into. (The Searchers is one of three Westerns labelled ‘masterpiece’ by many that I’ve never really been able to fully appreciate – the other two being Once Upon a Time in the West (which Jeff is also critical of, but unlike him I generally don’t mind Leone, and The Wild Bunch, despite my liking some of Peckinpah’s other work. On the other hand, I disagree with Jeff’s slight criticisms in his review of Shane, a film which to my mind could not be more perfect than it is.)

  6. I was still a young boy the first time I saw Shane at a movie theater (before TV) and I was upset by Joey all along the film especially at the end. I was about to tell him to shut up when he yells “Shaaane! “so many times. Maybe I was jealous even if I was not attracted by Ladd too. And I fully agree with Jeff saying that Ladd is no match compared to Fonda, Peck, Stewart or Cooper or Glenn Ford or Widmark (if it is mandatory to have a blond hero…).
    Besides Shane is a great film and I have learned to love it since
    for many other reasons.
    Because of it and High Noon and
    Johnny Guitar maybe Pursued and others, the French critics invented the concept of sur-western (above western) a theory explaining that in spite of being a ” film de genre” the western was saying much more (insisting on psychology and personal relationship and historical context such as the witch hunt) than being an entertainment cow-boy story despised by the snobs.
    Once Upon a time has some quality indeed but it is more a western encyclopedia (but the Indians) including the spaghetti contribution than a true western in my opinion.
    The Searchers and The Wild Bunch many have their flaws but a masterpiece cannot be always and is rarely perfect… I also like very much Vera Cruz and Heaven’s Gate which are holding high places in my personal pantheon.
    And yes Jeff’s blog is a marvel !

    1. It’s good that we all have different takes on ‘important’ Westerns. It’d be rather boring if we all agreed on everything. I’m closer to Jean-Marie than to RR on SHANE. I too think it’s a great film, but with a few flaws. Ditto THE SEARCHERS. For all it’s mythologizing, I still think that MY DARLING CLEMENTINE was Ford’s greatest work. But he didn’t, and lots of other people don’t!

      1. Indeed, variety (of opinions) is the spice of (film appreciation) life. In the case of Shane, I’m not especially a fan of Alan Ladd in general but I find him perfect in that role, and can’t imagine anyone else in the lead. He projects a mixture of strength of character with gentleness of manner, laced with an almost but not completely hidden vulnerability, that I don’t think any of the greater (I agree they are usually greater) Western stars could have pulled off. I too saw the film first as a boy- but being I think a little younger than you two gentlemen that would have been on 1970s British TV. I think I identified with Joey, and I’ve never had the problems with the character or the actor that others seem to have, perhaps if you fall for a film early in life you’ll never see the flaws in it that other viewers find….

        As for Clementine being Ford’s best, I think that’s a pretty convincing proposition! Wagon Master coming very, very close.

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