Wyatt Earp has been one of the most-depicted characters in movie history (alongside Dracula, Wong Fei Hung, Hamlet, and the usual wartime leaders like Lincoln and Hitler, which is impressive company for a guy who held far less historical or literary significance). Even though Earp has fallen out of fashion since the heydey of the western, with his two most recent depictions of note coming from the western revival of the 1990s, in Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994), he became perhaps the singular icon of the upright western lawman and was unavoidable in movies and then TV for most of the middle third of the 20th Century.
A few years ago, in another movie challenge, I reviewed another notable Earpopic, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and in that review cited John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) as my favorite of the Earp film canon. But here's the thing: I've watched My Darling Clementine twice before in the last 30 years, and despite also having watched the same basic narrative ground covered (albeit with a casual commitment to historical fact) in numerous other incarnations, I couldn't recollect a danged thing about it, other than it is named after the song that Alfalfa used to sing in Little Rascals shorts. As I mentioned in the OK Corral review, western mythology has never been of much interest to me, often blowing in one ear and out the other like a lonely tumbleweed down a dusty ghost town street. So, here I am, watching My Darling Clementine for the third time, and hoping it sticks.
It seems only natural that Ford, arguably the foremost director of the American western movie, took a turn at the Earp mythos. Ford's take in My Darling Clementine is easily split into two categories: narrative and aesthetic. Narratively, the movie tracks the Earp family's arrival in the Arizona town of Tombstone, Wyatt's (Henry Fonda) uneasy bromance with drunk gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), and the Earp brothers' feud with a local outlaw gang. Ford takes a languorous, romantic approach to what is, essentially, elemental western pulp. While Ford basks in the milieu, Fonda and Mature seem be to in an entirely different movie, one so straight and stiff it's practically anonymous. Fun character actors like Walter Brennan and Jane Darwell are used too sparingly to brighten the dour proceedings, and even though it's momentarily amusing for Linda Darnell to refer to Cathy Downs as "Miss Milkface," all of the characters are like afterthoughts, cardboard archetypes. Ford lingers, but these actors don't give him much on which to linger, and if his movie wasn't also so goddamned beautiful to look at, it might be easy to dismiss My Darling Clementine a dull retread of over-tilled Earp soil.
I don't know if it's controversial or commonplace to say this, but as a big fan of Ford's The Searchers (1956), this isn't trivial to me: My Darling Clementine may be his most perfectly iconic visual representation of the old American West. Ford sets up every scene that one might associate with the classic western and nails it, in gorgeous black and white. So what if Monument Valley is an 8-hour automobile drive from Tombstone's actual location? The way it looms over Ford's set is how this movie gloriously looms over the legacy of Western cinematic iconography.
So maybe, as it seems, Ford picked any old western material as a random excuse to create the wondrous series of images swirling around in his mind's eye. Reading up on the development of this project doesn't help to illuminate Ford's attachment to the material — Did he make the film against his will to fulfill a contract? Was the movie based on Ford's silent-era conversations with an elderly Earp, or the heavily fictionalized 1931 biography that fast made Earp a legend? — or the material's attachment to Wyatt Earp — The title character, Clementine, is a fictional construct, and several other details stray far from known facts. Maybe one of the reasons why no Wyatt Earp movies stick with me narratively is that few of them agree on what happened and who was involved; it's all a muddle, a blank slate of Western cliches that can be repurposed as filler content for B-movies and forgettable TV.
It would've been nice to have been as enthralled in My Darling Clementine's story of Wyatt Earp as I was with its imagery — particularly during the final 30 minutes, which include a climactic gunfight between characters of no importance to me and several shots and tableaux that knocked my socks off. But sometimes the iconography is enough, and My Darling Clementine is stuffed with it.