Connect with us

Disc Reviews

Criterion Collection: My Darling Clementine | Blu-ray Review

John Ford My Darling Clementine Criterion Collection CoverJohn Ford’s My Darling Clementine is a prime example of the Great American Western, embodying all that is good and right and just about this once dominant cinematic genre. Now available in a beautiful new hi-def burn by Criterion, this 70 year old horse opera gleams with new life and luster, preserving in minute detail the sweep and grandeur of Ford’s bedrock moralist visions. My Darling Clementine stands as a testament to Ford’s unique ability to balance the mundane with the monumental in perfectly proportioned tension; his laconic cowpokes equally imperiled by a parched, unforgiving wilderness and the dark designs of its human intruders.

While most scripts strive for reduction, My Darling Clementine is a case study in art of narrative inflation. The film takes a relatively minor incident in American history – a violent misunderstanding between two shady factions popularly known as The Shoot Out at OK Corral – and imbues it with a roiling backstory worthy of a Verdi libretto. Its perfect opening scene; a pristine panorama of Monument Valley sullied by the sudden arrival of hundreds of cattle as they climb over a ridge, simultaneously evokes man’s ejection from paradise and his foolish attempts to master the natural world. With undeniable logic My Darling Clementine, like Kubrick’s 2001 or Malick’s The Tree of Life, begins at the Beginning; the only rational place for a story driven by man’s primordial instincts.

Leading this massive herd of future rib-eyes is a burned out former lawman from Kansas named Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), who has ditched police work in hopes of making a quick buck in the cattle business. But when a casual exchange of pleasantries with a crusty stranger named Clanton (Walter Brennan) eventually leads to stolen cattle and a murdered brother (Don Garner), Earp elects to remain in the nearby town of Tombstone – a rowdy, lawless burg – and search for the killer. Reluctantly, Earp again dons a tin star, and the hob is lit for John Ford’s slow simmering stew of revenge.

However, while his viewers await the inevitable epic confrontation, Ford decides to have a little fun in Tombstone; its dusty streets awash with fallen angels and lost souls like a pioneer purgatory. Earp begins a wary bromance with a shadowy figure named Doc Holiday (Victor Mature), a gambling hall proprietor slowly succumbing to alcoholism and tuberculosis. Indeed, virtually everyone in Tombstone is under the influence of some mortal sin, in particular the slutty party girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) and Earp’s gluttonous brother Morgan (the irrepressible Ward Bond). Even straight-laced Wyatt is not immune; his vanity revealed by frequent trips to the barber shop and critical appraisals of his appearance in reflections from shop windows (as if young Henry Fonda could ever look anything but gorgeous).

As with any example of epic storytelling, there must be a love interest, and she arrives on the stagecoach one morning in the form of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), a nurse and former colleague – and perhaps more – of Holiday. Ironically, this titular character is the film’s least interesting, with rays of sweetness and light bursting from the folds of her sunbonnet. While Clementine’s feminine wiles provide a momentary distraction to Earp and Holiday, Ford never lets us forget that there is a job to be done, and the Earp brothers have not come to Tombstone for the sole purpose of flinging woo. Whenever My Darling Clementine threatens to become a romantic comedy, Ford stages an encounter between Earp and Clanton. While these exchanges are outwardly calm and civil, the subtext is all menace and darkness, with Walter Brennan a fine substitute for Teufel; his grimy duster evoking black wings of death.

Disc Review

Criterion’s 1.33:1 transfer is startlingly sharp and clean, and is a joy to look at. Cameraman Joseph MacDonald brings his background in Noir fully to bear on this production, and never has a dusty frontier town seemed more menacing. The stark formations of Monument Valley – known for shifting light and colors – seem even more impressive rendered in his masterful black and white. When viewed with the unrestored prerelease version also included on this disc, one develops a deep appreciation of Criterion’s laborious restoration process, and My Darling Clementine stands as another job well done. The soundtrack is presented in the original mono, and is crisp and clear without being overly tweaked in terms of dynamics.

High-definition presentation of the 103-minute prerelease version of the film
This version, discovered by film students at the UCLA archives, represents an amalgam of Ford’s original cut and the final release version of the film. Producer Darryl Zanuck was not thrilled with Ford’s version, and ordered some editorial tightening along with a few new scenes to help propel the narrative. The new footage, overseen by director Lloyd Bacon, consists mainly of process shots with Monument Valley vistas projected in the background, and are fairly easy to ascertain. Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archive offers detailed examples of Zanuck’s revisions, and points out areas of omitted material while offering conjecture on why the changes were made.

New audio commentary featuring John Ford biographer Joseph McBride
McBride’s thorough and learned analysis explores virtually every facet of this motion picture and is impressive in its comprehensiveness. McBride contrasts the film’s visual simplicity with its narrative complexity while offering perspective on Ford’s love of Western mythology. He addresses the long running controversy of whether Ford and Earp were actual real-life acquaintances, and presents circumstantial support for both sides of the debate. Also included is a lengthy discussion of Ford’s use of visual poetry and the director’s lifelong admiration of – and frequent homages to – the plays of William Shakespeare. The long, occasionally tortured, friendship between Ford and Fonda is examined, including a humorous story about a meeting McBride had with Fonda in the 1970s. McBride’s commentary will greatly add to one’s appreciation of My Darling Clementine and the John Ford filmography in general. Highly recommended.

New interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp
In this lively interview, Isenberg clears the air on Earp’s legend, and paints a very different portrait than the popular mythology. According to Isenberg, Wyatt Earp was a figure who cared much more about gambling than keeping citizens safe from outlaws. He discusses the events that led to the famous shoot-out and describes the Clantons as rather gullible hayseeds as opposed to the foul evildoers they are usually depicted onscreen. 14 minutes.

New video essay by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher
Gallagher’s expertise is on full display here, imparting a plethora of insights into Ford the filmmaker and the man. He traces Ford’s inspiration for My Darling Clementine to previous retellings of the Earp legend, and discusses connections between Victor Mature’s Doc Holiday character and Hamlet. Using film clips and narration, Gallagher analyses Ford’s visual style and his use of geometric shapes in composing shots and defining characters. The 19 minute segment is a worthy watch for aspiring filmmakers and historians.

Bandit’s Wager, a 1916 silent western short costarring Ford and directed by his brother, Francis Ford, featuring new music composed and performed by Donald Sosin
This amusingly silly artifact revolves around an elaborate practical joke and runs 14 minutes. Suffice to say, it’s good Ford decided to direct rather than pursue an acting career. Ford fanatics will find value here, but for the casual viewer this short is quite skippable.

NBC television reports from 1963 and 1975 about the history of Tombstone and Monument Valley
The 1963 report is narrated by David Brinkley and documents a British history professor’s visit to Tombstone. We see several locations referenced in the film, now tarted up for the tourist trade. Brinkley also describes the town’s origins and its rapid growth during a mining boom. 8 minutes.
The 1975 piece is from the Today program and features some lovely shots of Monument Valley. The lifestyle of the area’s Navajo inhabitants is depicted, along with the critical support to film crews working in the valley offered by Goulding’s Ranch. 6 minutes.

Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs
In this audio only presentation, Fonda and Downs reprise their roles from the movie. The tone is significantly more melodramatic than the film, and Walter Brennan’s sleazy take on Old Man Clanton is sorely missed. 60 minutes.

PLUS: An essay by critic David Jenkins
In an essay entitled The Great Beyond, Jenkins provides an extensive recap of the film and a description of an alternate ending envisioned by John Ford. Also included in the 12 page fold-out are production credits and notes on the transfer.

Final Thoughts

While My Darling Clementine builds to a final, climactic scene prescribed by history, the real surprise lies in John Ford’s unorthodox execution. Despite clearly framing the conflict as good verses evil, the iconic gun battle contains no triumphalism or catharsis, To Fonda’s Earp, confronting the Clantons seems like a grim duty; more of an accounting than vengeful bloodlust. Once the dust settles, Fonda and the viewer trudge away with a feeling as cold and empty as the dry desert winds that buffet the town of Tombstone. By appropriating the style and substance of classic dramaturgy and subtly twisting them, Ford evokes the profound loneliness of violence’s aftermath and makes My Darling Clementine much greater than the sum of its parts.

Film: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

Click to comment

More in Disc Reviews

To Top