John Ford classic My Darling Clementine is, according to the Observer’s Philip French, “the finest movie about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral.”
Henry Fonda plays Earp, a famed lawman who’s given up the game to join his brothers’ cattle-run to California. However, while camped outside frontier town Tombstone, one of the brothers is murdered, and the herd stolen by local villain Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his boys. Earp immediately accepts the post of town marshal in order to bring his brother’s killers to justice.
At first he thinks the culprit is suave, consumptive, Bostonian blackguard Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), but once Holliday’s innocence has been established, the pair form a strong friendship that survives even when Doc’s girl, Clementine (Cathy Downs), arrives from the east coast and falls for Earp.
When Holliday’s new belle, dance-hall floozie Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) rats on the Clanton gang, Wyatt, brother Morgan (Ward Bond) and Doc head off to the villain’s hideout at the OK Corral. In the ensuing shoot-out, the Clantons are wiped out and Doc is killed. Earp leaves Tombstone but promises to return to Clementine who’s become the town’s school teacher.
John Ford had met the real Wyatt Earp, who talked to him about the actual battle. But the western has always been the primary breeding ground of American mythology and, as ever, the director is not interested in historical fact – as a line in another of Ford’s films goes: “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.” So, Doc Holliday was not involved in the real shootout. Nor was there ever a Clementine Carter in Tombstone. But, as the New Statesman said, it is “a story about things lost and gone forever, a film deeply nostalgic for a mythical beginning, an ideal ordered world that never existed.”
Ford’s skill was to paint the myth so well that legend has become fact for most film-goers. As Philip French observed: “My Darling Clementine is a great movie, full of monochrome images that leave an indelible impression on the mind’s eye. It manages to be wholly truthful while being inaccurate in almost every verifiable historical detail.”
USA / 1946
Director: John Ford
Writers: Samuel Engel, Winston Miller (from story by Sam Hellman, based on Stuart N Lake’s book, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall)
Cast: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Ward Bond, Cathy Downs, Alan Mowbray, John Ireland, Grant Withers, Roy Roberts, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Francis Ford, J Farrell MacDonald