Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, like Errol Flynn as Robin Hood in The Adventures of Robin Hood, is something of an oddity. Neither actor is anyone’s abstract idea of the icon he plays, yet each owns the role he plays so completely that he transforms it.
Ford, who met the real Wyatt Earp, could easily have cast John Wayne in the role; Roger Ebert, in his “Great Movies” essay on the film, speculates that Ford perhaps “saw Wayne as the embodiment of the Old West, and the gentler Fonda as one of the new men who would tame the wilderness.”
That the film’s title mentions neither Wyatt Earp or the O.K. Corral is an indication of the lightness with which My Darling Clementine carries the legendary baggage of its subject matter. Unlike such self-conscious later films as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (or, more recently, Wyatt Earp and Tombstone), nothing about My Darling Clementine betrays any awareness that the viewer is supposed to know these names and events. My Darling Clementine exemplifies the mythology of the old West, but it never feels like an act of myth-making — or demythologizing. As Battleground is to The Battle of the Bulge, My Darling Clementine is to Shootout at the O.K. Corral.
The title also puts the emphasis not on the shootout or the hero, but on a schoolmarm, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), and thus on the coming of civilization to the frontier. For Fonda’s Earp, as for Ford, the shootout at the O.K. Corral isn’t the defining moment of Earp’s life, but only a necessary bit of business; the Sunday morning dance on the floor of the unfinished church — at once a celebration of joie de vivre, community and civilization in the rough, and faith and church as social institutions — represents the film’s real high point.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.