“What you see is what you get.” So said Winston Miller, coscreenwriter of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), in a terse rejoinder aimed at those searching for motivation, commentary, or other subtextual delights in the work. Miller bellyached that critics tended to read things into his script that simply weren’t there, a line that Ford was also known to toe. Were one to abide by the wishes of its no-muss-no-fuss creators, a gentle wallow in the film’s superficial pleasures (which are ample) would be all that was required. But that would be selling the film, and yourself, short.
My Darling Clementine is often labeled an “antiwestern,” largely, one assumes, owing to its drowsy, death-waltz tempo, its absence of dust-kicking six-shooter showdowns (the climax notwithstanding), and its hero who, for a surprising portion of the film’s run time, sits jack-legged on a porch, waiting patiently for those around him to meet with their own inexorable demise. It deals in such boilerplate genre fundamentals as blood revenge, existential torment, and the cultivation of an enlightened (read possibly nonviolent) American idyll, but does so in a manner that is at once explicit and passive. The latter is an epithet that could apply just as easily to Henry Fonda’s protoslacker/Droopy-like monotone performance in the lead role. He plays the character of Wyatt Earp as a man who appears insusceptible to high emotion and remains casually unperturbed by the changing world around him.
Yet there may be another reason the film has the reputation it does, one that would placate the literalist sensibilities of Messrs. Miller and Ford and also help to open up this coolly enigmatic work. The “anti” assignation could refer not to the film’s oppositional manner—that is, its inversion of the roistering traits of the classical horse opera—but to its use of negative space, both geographic and temporal. The low-slung genius of this film is that its every nuance appears loaded with information about a world (the world) that exists outside the confines of the frame.
One example: Its extraordinary centerpiece finds Wyatt Earp and the sad-eyed china doll Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) joining a hoedown at the grand opening of the first church in Tombstone. The entire sequence, which is preceded by a charming boardwalk promenade, frames Earp as something of a blundering novice in the domain of female courtship. Later, just before the showdown, Earp clumsily demands of the town bartender, “Mac, you ever been in love?” Our hero’s romantic yearnings resonate because these are clearly the words of a man who is experiencing these emotions for the first time. They speak to a cloistered life of dedication, possibly to family, probably to justice.
Another: Earp and his (remaining) brothers, alongside Victor Mature’s tubercular outlaw, John “Doc” Holliday (Mature’s first non-musical- comedy role since 1941’s The Shanghai Gesture), confront their destiny at the O.K. Corral at the behest of the nefarious Clanton brood. The sequence takes place in near silence, with scant dialogue and no musical accompaniment. As the men sashay and leap into position, a stagecoach suddenly cuts across the field of play. Wyatt uses the resultant dust cloud to his strategic advantage. Though easy to dismiss as a rudimentary mechanism to build tension, it’s also a lovely reminder of the multitudes who remain untroubled by this fateful showdown, another drama playing out on the same turf. Another narrative. Another film.
So the film we see is merely a cozy point of convergence, with swirling metaphysical gravity and back-porch nostalgia attained through the way in which Ford frames the story as a curious detail on an epic canvas, or a single, gorgeous constellation amid a blanket of stars. The characters are rounded, rootsy products of lives lived and knowledge procured, and this story little more than a juncture of souls or a random point of communal progression. It’s not our duty, per Miller, to read things into the film that aren’t there. It is to know what the things that aren’t there are.
Ford famously wandered from the trail when it came to matters of historical accuracy. But straight docu-fiction or biography were seldom part of his creative purview. Hollywood legend says that Earp, a regular on the Fox lot, regaled Ford with a detailed breakdown of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a fact often used to refute accusations that My Darling Clementine has no basis in reality. And yet layers of myth and misdirection obscure quaint notions of the truth about this story. Stuart N. Lake’s salty 1931 biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal became the basis for a number of filmed works, most famously this one but also Allan Dwan’s curt, skillful 1939 Frontier Marshal. But the book was later revealed as an unabashed romanticization of life and events in Tombstone. Still, Ford is doing something more provocative than simply printing the legend. He instead recalibrates the legend in the service of his own poetic ends. One might even read this film as a Brechtian statement underscoring the story’s fictional provenance. This gentle remove from the historical continuum is what makes My Darling Clementine such a deeply melancholy film, particularly as it shuns any sense of down-home triumphalism and goes out of its way to suppress anything that might be deemed a glamorization of cowpoke lore. The remove also justifies the invention of context not included in Lake’s book.
At the beginning, Wyatt and his three brothers, Virgil (Tim Holt), Morgan (Ward Bond), and James (Don Garner), saunter wearily across an open plain in search of sweet water for the herd of cattle they’re driving west to California. Swiftly coaxed into the flytrap jaws of, per Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), the “wide-awake, wide-open” town of Tombstone, Wyatt loses young James and the herd, not realizing that “wide-open” was perhaps not meant in the sense he first understood. Following his skillful dispatching of a hog-wild barroom Indian, Wyatt discovers his loss and bullishly decides to accept the job of local marshal, chiefly, it appears, to settle his personal scores from within the bounds of official law.
Having already plied his violent skills years before in Dodge City, Earp finds his legend precedes him. His demeanor is of near-ethereal calm, as if he knows what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen before it does. This is the confidence of a man of experience, but one who may be destined to repeat the same heroic, liberating actions ad infinitum. Before this, in the 1858 Springfield, Illinois, of Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Fonda had performed a courtroom-bound trial run for Earp’s lead-powered emancipation of the region’s opportunist scallywags. He also perfected the art of balancing precariously on the hind legs of a chair and delivering a touching graveside soliloquy, though the dancing was still a work in progress. And later that year he starred as a wet-behind-the-ears newlywed in Drums Along the Mohawk, stepping up to fight the good fight for a decrepit band of American colonists in New York’s Mohawk Valley.
Drums Along the Mohawk was Ford’s first film in color, and glorious and vibrant it was, too. And yet with My Darling Clementine, he opted for black and white. In early cinema, the use of monochrome was a technical necessity, but here it is the schema of denial, of allusion, of presenting the world as a foggy blueprint. Atmospheric signifiers such as weather are muffled when compared with, say, the eloquent and expressive use of color for seasonal shifts in The Searchers (1956) or the shadows and fog of The Long Voyage Home (1940), as is any trite pictorial beauty that might sully this game of fill-in-the-blanks—though the skies look exquisite, as always in Ford’s films, with the wispy clouds appearing as if they’ve been choreographed by the director himself, inspired by western painters but resembling a particularly foreboding marine landscape by Turner. The absence of color marks an overall tenor of natural and spiritual indifference. When the Clantons are wiped out, Ford offers a conciliatory low-angle peek at the heavens, but the bunched clouds provide only cruel ambiguity as to whether salvation awaits them. In key scenes, Victor Mature’s face is bathed in shadow, his frustration cloaked in Toland-esque high-contrast chiaroscuro. He glances ruefully at his medical diplomas, hanging proudly on the wall of his snug—physical symbols of mental strain and time passing, but also of his relationship with Clementine, a relationship, a time of contentment, that we are left to conceive for ourselves.
Ford had a general interest in exploring the vicissitudes of nascent societies, be it the pioneers of American steam train travel (1924’s The Iron Horse), Mormon nomads intent on forging a town of their own (1950’s musical-western Wagon Master), or the tragic, dirt-poor hayseeds of Tobacco Road (1941). Tombstone is wide open. Structure has yet to be imposed. Everything is in a state of flux. Nothing is ever finished. People are always just passing through. They build toward an idyll that they will perhaps never see. It’s an enlivening and affirmative view of history—especially compared with some later westerns in which the march of progress is framed as an almost apocalyptic reckoning for the cowboy way—that the possibility of civic betterment is omnipresent. American flags whip in the wind near the skeletal structure of the church. We see enough to imagine what it will look like and the people who will go there to worship. At the end of the film, Clementine announces her intention to become the town’s new schoolmarm and bring education to a savage land—another tantalizing battle that Ford leaves for another day.
Just as Ford’s cinematic worlds are constantly under construction, so too is the drama in My Darling Clementine, sometimes literally so. A traveling ham actor arrives in town and is forced by the Clantons to drunkenly intone the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet while perched inelegantly on a saloon table. (Shakespeare, another master of elision and allusion.) Despite the performer’s fragile state, the sequence is emblematic of the film’s overall design, an example of high drama, meaningful drama, primal drama, shorn of the unnecessary trinkets and context of the stage. The speech is executed in such a way that actor Alan Mowbray’s impassioned line readings quell the parallel production that’s occurring within the bar. There are no footlights or stage props, but Ford invites you to accept them without seeing them.
Purely for the purposes of sport, let’s round things off by examining a detail that is literally (rather than figuratively) obscured from view. Had Ford’s wishes been followed, Wyatt Earp would have parted ways with Clementine at the foot of that winding dust road out of Tombstone with a genial shake of the hand. A cursory brush of skin on skin and nothing more. But test audiences didn’t go for it. They laughed. Perhaps the gesture seemed too effete for this gentleman gunfighter who had just decisively expunged the Clanton scourge from the township. As detailed in a memo to My Darling Clementine coscreenwriter Sam G. Engel, producer Darryl F. Zanuck personally preferred the shake but relented to the desires of the test audience and had extra footage produced, replacing it with a more emotionally finite gesture: a kiss. This ensured an altogether more generic form of closure, but Ford wasn’t happy.
It may appear to be a superficial switch, one token expression for another, but there’s something more precise, more achingly bittersweet, about the original ending. Fonda intones this line, the final one of the film: “Ma’am, I sure like that name . . . Clementine,” which is heartbreaking in its puppy-dog inanity, as if he’s stalling for more time, like he wants to start the relationship again, to create a new cycle. He then drifts off, dutifully, into the hills, to inform his father of the recent death tally. The kiss signifies a certitude about their continuing relationship; it seals a desire for return, even if he flounders in picking up on her volley of naked, come-hither utterances. There’s the sense that this love will naturally blossom, that Wyatt will see his old pops and then one day return for his prize. The tragedy of family is what it all boils down to. It also implies that Clementine might feel more contented to remain in Tombstone until that day, and not embark on another ad hoc tour of the American “cow towns” that led her to the original object of her affections, Doc Holliday. The shake conforms to the theory of spiraling cosmic cycles, that Wyatt would like to return but most probably won’t. He’ll arrive at another Tombstone and lope through the motions. Yet the kiss does evoke something simpler and possibly more beautiful: that Wyatt’s cycle has finally reached some kind of closure.