The legend of Wyatt Earp has inspired plenty of Hollywood films, but John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” (1946) remains one of the finest cinematic treatments of the tale, despite the inevitable artistic license when it comes to history. Set against John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, the film stars Henry Fonda in one of his best Western roles as the iconic marshal, with genre stalwarts like Ward Bond and Walter Brennan in the supporting cast. Subdued, thoughtful, and deeply moving, “My Darling Clementine” is a Western for grown-ups, one that contemplates its themes of loss and hope with tender, constant care.
The action takes place over a period of several days, beginning with the arrival of the four Earp brothers in the vicinity of Tombstone, Arizona. When the youngest brother is killed by cattle rustlers, Wyatt and his two surviving siblings (Ward Bond and Tim Holt) take up residence in Tombstone to see that justice is served. Wyatt strikes up an uneasy friendship with the notorious Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and falls for Doc’s former sweetheart, Clementine (Cathy Downs). Doc’s current flame, a tempestuous Mexican girl (Linda Darnell), hopes to drive Clementine away, but romance takes a backseat to retribution when Wyatt gets proof that the villainous Clanton family is responsible for his brother’s murder.
Surprisingly quiet for a story about a shootout, the movie establishes its characters’ stories and personalities with quick, deft strokes. Victor Mature is broodingly tragic as the doomed Doc Holliday, a perfect foil to Fonda’s slight, even-tempered Earp. Both Clementine and Chihuahua yearn for Doc’s love, but the developing attraction between Wyatt and Clementine adds depth to their characters without seeming like a betrayal of their dying friend. Walter Brennan is truly intimidating as the patriarch of the Clanton gang, his usual half-cocked persona here employed to give Old Man Clanton a serpentine meanness that borders on criminal insanity.
There’s a certain mournful quality to “My Darling Clementine” that sets it apart from many other Westerns; it seems to accept death and disappointment with greater resignation, even if a desire for justice urges its major players toward their fateful encounter at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt is by no means indifferent to the deaths that occur, yet he never becomes an angry avenger. He carries on in the hope of forging a better world for those who come after him, while Doc hopes only for a death becoming to a man who has lived by the gun. Of course, poetic justice must be meted out by the closing scene, but the story as a whole is told in a language of muted sorrow. It is an elegy, not so much for the passing of the Old West, but for the sacrifices of those lost in the birthing of the new.
For more films about Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral, try “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), “Tombstone” (1993), and “Wyatt Earp” (1994). John Ford directed many important Westerns, including “Stagecoach” (1939), “Fort Apache” (1948), and “The Searchers” (1956). You’ll find Henry Fonda in “Jezebel” (1938), “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), and “12 Angry Men” (1957), as well as dozens of other classic films. See Victor Mature in noir pictures like “I Wake Up Screaming” (1941) and “Kiss of Death” (1947), and don’t miss the striking Linda Darnell in “The Mark of Zorro” (1940).
The National Classic Movies Examiner posts new content regularly. Subscribe to this column by clicking the “subscribe” button at the top of this article and get automatic updates when new articles appear. You can also follow Jennifer Garlen on Twitter as @garlengirl.