John Ford takes on the legend of the O.K. Corral shoot-out in this multilayered, exceptionally well-constructed western, one of the director's very best films. Henry Fonda cuts an iconic figure as Wyatt Earp, the sturdy lawman who sets about the task of shaping up the disorderly Arizona town of Tombstone, and Victor Mature gives the performance of his career as the boozy, tubercular gambler and gunman Doc Holliday. Though initially at cross-purposes, the pair ultimately team up to confront the violent Clanton gang. Affecting and stunningly photographed, 'My Darling Clementine' is a story of the triumph of civilization over the Wild West from American cinema's consummate mythmaker.
Hollywood loves a good legend, and once it grabs hold of one, it relishes retelling it. There are some tales of which Tinseltown just can't get enough, and one of them is the life of that mythic figure of the American West, Wyatt Earp. Over the past several decades, a plethora of performers from Burt Lancaster and James Stewart to Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner have portrayed the soft-spoken, avenging marshal who cleaned up the lawless frontier town of Tombstone, Arizona, struck up an unlikely friendship with boozy gambler Doc Holliday, and etched himself into the annals of history when he confronted the marauding Clanton clan in a famous sunrise shootout at the O.K. Corral. Though many films have chronicled Earp's adventures at various stages of his existence (yet who knows how much of it all is true, as Earp notoriously spun fanciful yarns to inflate his stature and heroism), John Ford's 'My Darling Clementine' is unquestionably one of the best. Understated, passionate, and fittingly poetic, this lyrical film speaks softly yet carries a big stick as it depicts the pivotal episode of Earp's life with a firm hand and eloquent grace that overshadows the violence that defines the story.
Though hardly factual from an historical standpoint (among other things, no one named Clementine Carter ever crossed paths with Earp), 'My Darling Clementine' captures the mood and spirit of both the western landscape and hardy, visionary souls who populated it in the late 19th century. Ford shot the film on location in Utah's breathtaking Monument Valley - a favorite spot of his and a far more striking setting than Tombstone's actual barren locale - which lends the tale an essential authenticity and heightens its dramatic impact. Yet within the period framework, Ford also honors contemporary sensibilities, often adopting a dark, bleak tone that reflects the jaded attitudes of the late 1940s and prevailing notion that good can no longer be counted upon to triumph over evil. The first post-World War II production for both Ford and star Henry Fonda, who makes an indelible impression as the tough yet taciturn Earp, the movie began a wave of character-driven westerns focusing on personal angst and inner turmoil. While the basic hero-vs.-villain formula would remain intact, moral codes became more ambiguous, adding dimension and complexity to standard plots.
When we first meet Earp, he and his three brothers - Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt), and James (Don Garner) - are driving a herd of cattle across the Arizona desert and headed for greener pastures in California. A chance encounter with a couple of strangers, Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his son Ike (Grant Withers), sparks an offer from the Clantons to purchase the steer. Earp declines and heads to nearby Tombstone for a shave and a beer with Morgan and Virgil in tow, leaving the young Jim to care for the cows by himself. When the Earps return, the cattle are gone and James is dead, the victim of a brutal murder. An angry Earp returns to Tombstone and hastily replaces the ineffectual marshal, vowing to clean up the lawless town and catch his brother's killer. Gruff, disillusioned saloon owner Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), a former surgeon plagued by alcoholism and tuberculosis, piques Earp's interest as a potential suspect, and his sultry Mexican concubine, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), knows more than she's telling. Adding fuel to the fire is the arrival of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), Doc's prim and proper Eastern girlfriend, who's been scouring the country for her lost love and immediately strikes Earp's fancy. Plenty of strife ensues, all of which leads to the inevitable and explosive climactic showdown at the O.K. Corral.
The film's episodic first half ambles along like a lazy Western drawl, as Ford paints an atmospheric portrait of a rough, bawdy community populated by bullies, cowpokes, and women of ill repute. At times, we wonder where the movie is going and whether it's abandoned its central elements, but Ford's slice-of-life approach quickly begins paying dividends as we assimilate into the surroundings and observe the action as if we're a ranch-hand bellying up to the bar in Doc's crowded saloon. The introverted Earp and self-destructive Holliday are both enigmas, and a simmering tension and mutual distrust underscore their uneasy relationship. Yet a bond slowly forms, and when fate conspires against them both, the two men join forces, leading us to a memorable, well-executed climax and staggeringly simple yet marvellously effective denouement.
Like a master maestro, Ford orchestrates the action, manipulating pace and tone, and his personal stamp is evident in almost every frame. (Although 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck would take over the film's editing and trim about 30 minutes from Ford's initial cut, the director's imprint remains.) Shot composition is one of Ford's many fortes, and rarely does he err here, constructing images that resonate with beauty and power. With a keen sense of cohesion, he and cinematograhpher Joe MacDonald maximize the impact of their location without calling attention to it, seamlessly weaving the massive buttes and mesas of Monument Valley into the tale's fabric. Ford does the same with his featured performers, all of whom are essential cogs in the narrative machine and seem utterly authentic, as if they were plucked from the dusty streets of Tombstone more than a half century ago. Whether they recite one line or 100, Ford treats them equally, realizing their vital importance and honoring it.
Ford also honors and trusts the power of his story. In an audacious move, he shuns any kind of musical scoring for the film's final 15 minutes, which encompasses the climactic gunfight, its lead-up, and aftermath. The jangling of chains, creak of a gate, crunching footsteps, and ricocheting bullets are the only sounds we hear, and they heighten the sequence's realism. As always with Ford, less is usually more, and this stunning example of restraint defines the director in a nutshell.
Yet for all of Ford's brilliance, Fonda is the picture's heart, soul, and conscience, and he underplays to perfection, crafting a nuanced, sincere, appropriately laconic portrayal that ranks among his best. Never an imposing figure, Fonda's Earp brims with an inner strength that eclipses his outward insecurity and awkwardness, instantly commanding respect. Mature, however, is even more impressive, mainly because we expect so little from him. Often typecast as a beefy Biblical hero in a series of big-budget epics, Mature suprises with a colorful, intense performance that's rarely showy. Although the strapping actor never resembles someone wasting away from consumption, Mature is easy to accept as a tortured, broken man who views life as an arduous burden. The beautiful Darnell flaunts her palpable sex appeal and makes the most of a sketchily drawn part, while the fresh-faced, demure Downs supplies a hefty dose of homespun charm, and the always marvelous Brennan excels in a rare villainous role.
Far from a typical western, 'My Darling Clementine' is more than a story of revenge and retribution or the depiction of a crackling gun battle. It's also about the ties that bind (both family and community), the growth of civilization, and the courage to face duty, embrace fate, and follow one's heart. And it's about exceptional filmmaking as well. Though the final version may not be the cut Ford wanted, it's still an awe-inspiring piece of work - exquisitely photographed, perfectly pitched, and impeccably constructed. Ford made a lot of great westerns, but 'My Darling Clementine' just might be his best.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'My Darling Clementine' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page, fold-out booklet is tucked inside the front cover, and includes a rather pretentious essay by film journalist David Jenkins, a cast and crew listing, transfer notes, and a few black-and-white photos. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, Criterion's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer was mastered in 4K resolution from a "35mm nitrate composite fine-grain held by the Museum of Modern Art," and the result is a spectacular viewing experience. Rich and vibrant, with stunning contrast, palpable depth, and exceptional gray scale variance, this clear, crisp black-and-white rendering is a joy to watch from start to finish. A faint veneer of grain makes the presentation look marvelously film-like, and all traces of age and decay, such as nicks, marks, and scratches, have been meticulously erased. Few films capture the stunning vistas of the American West in black-and-white more dramatically than 'My Darling Clementine,' and this exceptional effort makes them more immediate than ever before. Impeccably photographed by Joe MacDonald, the stark exterior scenes of Utah's Monument Valley often resemble Ansel Adams portraits, while interiors exude a pleasing lushness. Blacks are lusciously inky, yet excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Fine details, such as dust clouds, rain, wood grain, and costume textures, are well defined, and background elements show up nicely, too. Reflections are sharp, and close-ups highlight both Darnell's exotic beauty and the scraggly beards and weathered faces of the men. No noise or jitter mar the image, and any digital enhancements have been so judiciously applied they escape notice. A great movie deserves a great transfer, and once again, Criterion appropriately honors an American classic.
The original monaural track, presented here in lossless LPCM, was also taken from the Museum of Modern Art's 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain, and remastered at 24-bit. The results are quite good - any hiss, pops, crackles, or other age-related imperfections have been scrubbed away - but a couple of instances of noticeable distortion (the most jarring comes at the 55-minute mark) slightly blemish the presentation. The sounds of rain, gunfire, and galloping horse hooves are all distinct and vibrant, dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend, and the music score by Cyril Mockridge adds lovely, understated atmosphere to several sequences. Yet the track's true mettle is tested during in its plentiful moments of silence, which enhance tension and emphasize the dramatic importance of the climactic scenes. Often in films of this vintage, faint surface noise disrupts the mood and distracts the listener, but not here; the full impact of the dead quiet comes through, heightening realism and sharpening viewer focus. Though the audio can't eclipse the video in terms of breathtaking quality, this track does its job and nicely complements this introspective western.
Criterion almost always packs its discs with an absorbing array of high-quality supplements, and the extras that complement 'My Darling Clementine' follow that tradition.
Audio Commentary - John Ford biographer Joseph McBride sits down for an insightful and informative commentary (recently recorded in 2014) that really gets under the film's skin. McBride calls 'My Darling Clementine' "an optimistic film shadowed with darkness" and a "consciously mythical" movie heavily influenced by Ford's recent war service. He even links the story to World War II, relating the Clantons to the Axis powers and the Earps to the Allies. McBride discusses the simplicity of Ford's style, and how the director was more interested in atmosphere, mood, and character than narrative; he talks about Ford's respect for 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, yet outlines their myriad disagreements and how Ford's displeasure with Zanuck's meddling soured their relationship; and examines Ford's ambiguous feelings about 'My Darling Clementine.' He also looks at Ford's attraction to and love for Monument Valley, explains the military maneuvers of the climactic gunfight, identifies a scene that he defines as "pure magic," and relates a personal incident with Henry Fonda. Film enthusiasts and Ford aficionados will especially enjoy this thoughtful and interesting track.
Prerelease Version of 'My Darling Clementine' (HD, 103 minutes) - More of a work in progress than an actual director's cut, this edition of 'My Darling Clementine,' which 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck shaped and modified himself, dates back to July 1946, and is presented here in high definition. More cuts were made before the film was released nationally a couple of months later, and though this version doesn't differ drastically from the final edit, it does add more atmosphere and nuance. The transfer of this version was taken from a 1946 nitrate preview print and features a different soundtrack, presented here in Dolby Digital 1.0. Though clarity and contrast are quite good, no effort has been made to clean up the image, which is littered with specks, marks, scratches, vertical lines, and reel change markers. The damage is more pronounced during the additional footage, which is also plagued by a few missing frames. The soundtrack also lacks the original's purity of tone, with hiss and mild surface noise occasionally creeping into the mix. Still, this prerelease version is well worth watching, and, in many ways, is preferable to the final cut.
Version Comparison (HD, 42 minutes) - Robert Gitt, the preservation officer of the UCLA Film Archive, examines all the differences between the two versions of the film, citing memos from Zanuck to Ford about his initial disappointment with 'My Darling Clementine' and his desire to re-edit it. Some of the changes that distinguish the prerelease version include an early hint of attraction between Billy Clanton (John Ireland) and Chihuahua, a less romantic farewell between Earp and Clementine, and far less music on the soundtrack. Gitt also describes the alterations he made to the film to accommodate some missing footage in the prerelease version and improve continuity. Though this is a lengthy featurette, it's well worth one's time, as only those who know 'Clementine' backwards and forwards would be able to identify all the subtle variances that cut across both versions.
Featurette: "Print the Legend: Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral" (HD, 14 minutes) - Separating fact from fiction in the life of Wyatt Earp is no easy task - the famous marshal was a notorious fabricator who often inflated his deeds and relevance - but western historian Andrew C. Isenberg does a fine job in this fascinating featurette. Isenberg tells us Earp was not a cattle driver as depicted in Ford's film, but rather a professional gambler, among other things, and late in his life he forged several Hollywood friendships in order to remake and enhance his legend. We also learn about Earp's real relationship with his brothers and Doc Holliday, as well as the real reasons behind the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Vintage TV Clip: "David Brinkley Journal: Tombstone" (HD, 8 minutes) - Shot in brilliant color and broadcast on April 15, 1963, this segment of the NBC journalist's series focuses on the tiny Arizona town depicted in 'My Darling Clementine.' Ford, of course, did not shoot the film at the actual location, but rather built his own Tombstone hundreds of miles away in Monument Valley, so it's especially interesting to see the real thing (as well as the actual O.K. Corral) and the authentic atmosphere of the surrounding area.
Vintage TV Clip: "Today: Report on Monument Valley" (HD, 5 minutes) - On September 26, 1975, the popular morning show broadcast this report by journalist Paul Cunningham, who examines Hollywood's connection to Monument Valley, divulges how Ford came to film there, and shows off remnants of the set of 'My Darling Clementine.'
Featurette: "Lost and Gone Forever" (HD, 18 minutes) - This video essay by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher includes lots of quotes from Ford himself about his experiences with Earp, the fabrications of Earp, and his own filmmaking style. Gallagher calls 'My Darling Clementine' Ford's darkest film and draws several parallels between Earp and other Ford heroes and Fonda roles, especially Abraham Lincoln. He also examines Zanuck's re-edit of the movie, calling attention to what he believes is a fatal error Zanuck made in the prerelease version. (Other critics might disagree.) Though well constructed and cogent, this piece often feels cold and distant...the antithesis of a John Ford motion picture.
Vintage Silent Short: 'Bandit's Wagon' (1916) (HD, 14 minutes) - Ford's older brother, Francis, was a prolific director during the silent era, and this amusing short about a bandit who captures a damsel and will only release her if she kisses him spoofs the genre that would become his brother John's specialty. John Ford (billed as Jack Ford) plays the damsel's boyfriend, but the role is fairly brief. Video quality is pretty darn good for a 98-year-old film, and a new music score was composed for the picture by composer Donald Sosin.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (58 minutes) - The long-running Lux Radio Theatre series broadcast this truncated adaptation of 'My Darling Clementine' on April 25, 1947. Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs reprise their film roles, and rising star Richard Conte takes over for Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. It's always intriguing to hear how these movies are trimmed down and altered for radio, and strong visual works such as 'Clementine' lose a lot in the translation. The climactic gun battle obviously can't compete with its cinematic counterpart, and Linda Darnell and Walter Brennan are sorely missed. (The actor who portrays Old Man Clanton tries his best to imitate Brennan but to no avail.) The corny scripted banter at the end of the performance is always good for a chuckle or two, and it's interesting to note the program's emcee heralds 'Miracle on 34th Street' as Downs' next film appearance. While it's unclear what role Downs might have played in what would become one of Hollywood's most beloved holiday films (Maureen O'Hara's, perhaps?), it's a fact she never joined the movie's cast.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview completes the extras package.
Almost seven decades after its initial release, 'My Darling Clementine' remains one of Hollywood's iconic westerns and one of director John Ford's finest films. The story of reluctant lawman Wyatt Earp, his volatile cohort Doc Holliday, and the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral is told in poetic and appropriately languorous fashion by Ford, who showcases his beloved Monument Valley and wrings exceptional performances from Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, and Walter Brennan. An intimate western, fueled by emotion and a quiet sense of honor and duty, the movie also chronicles the taming of a barbaric society and slow coming of age of a still immature nation. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation properly salutes this American classic with a superior video transfer, strong audio, and a captivating array of substantive supplements. Far from a typical western, 'My Darling Clementine' favors character over plot and mood over action, and the result is a beautifully realized, exquisitely executed, and ultimately unforgettable motion picture. Highly recommended.