The title character doesn’t show up in “My Darling Clementine” for about 40 minutes, which is enough time to set up the gritty and grim prospects in Tombstone, Arizona, where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday took part in the gunfight at the O. K. Corral. For this 1946 Twentieth-Century Fox film, director John Ford prefers to concentrate on the relationship between Wyatt (Henry Fonda) and Doc (Victor Mature), and the larger theme of the effect of civilization on the West. The real Doc Holliday’s longtime companion in real life turns out to be somebody named Big Nose Kate, so I think the current title of this movie seems much more romantic.
The movie opens with a cattle drive in Monument Valley, supervised by the Earp brothers, Wyatt (Fonda), Virgil (Tim Holt), Morgan (Ward Bond) and James (James). They run across Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), who watches the drive with his son Ike from a buckboard. Old Man Clanton offers Wyatt $5 a head for his cattle, noting that they look a little thin and scrawny. Wyatt turns him down, which leads to dire consequences later on. As the Earps ride off, Old Man Clanton sneers at them like a scruffy rat monster. This develops into the good-versus-evil story crucial to any classic western tale.
Wyatt could be classified as more of an urban cowboy than a man who’s at home on the range. He goes to Tombstone to get a shave and a glass of beer at a quiet tavern, but finds a lawless town in need of a strong man to keep the peace. Wyatt becomes the town’s marshall and meets his possible nemesis in Doc Holiday. However, instead of becoming enemies, the semi-famous firebrands form an uneasy friendship. Wyatt stays in Tombstone for the civilization and to find justice for the murder of his brother James, who he finds dead on the range. He also discovers that someone has rustled his entire herd of cattle.
I expected the film to count down the hours until the famous gunfight at the O. K. Corral, but instead it meanders around Doc’s relationship with a bar girl named Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) and Doc and Wyatt’s relationship with the thoroughly civilized Clementine. The nasty family vendetta between the Earps and the Clantons has a pre-determined outcome because of the historical record, but Ford gives us a fictional account of almost everything else. For instance, in real life, Doc Holliday was a dentist; but in this movie, he’s a surgeon who actually performs an operation.
The great visual artist, John Ford, is a master at limiting dialogue and letting the images tell the story. Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth-Century Fox re-edited the film for its release, but I watched a pre-release version that I think comes more in line with Ford’s vision for the film. Ford uses more natural sounds instead of background music and the film seems to amble more elegantly to its conclusion. The good performances of Fonda and Mature focus the viewer’s attention, and it seems as though we’ve also travelled to Tombstone like uneasy settlers.