Criterion Release of the Month: John Ford’s 'My Darling Clementine'

Adam Cook

It seems pointless to declare any one of John Ford’s masterpieces as one of his “greatest” films when there are so many that could share such an accolade—and 1946's My Darling Clementine certainly finds itself among this crowded bunch. Also in its company are the Criterion Collection’s previous releases of Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln (both 1939).

John Ford is a master of landscape, but more than that he is a master of gesture, and Clementine is a film crammed with moments made profound by the arrangement of people and objects in the frame, and the movement therein. The movie tells the story of the legend of the O.K. Corral shoot-out, in which Wyatt Erp (Henry Fonda) comes to Tombstone and bands with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) to defeat the Clanton gang. The emphasis, however, is not on the eventual violent clash—rather it is a film of repose, of contemplation.

Erp’s narrative trajectory in the film is one of vengeance—he takes up post as sheriff briefly only to take the lives of those who murdered his youngest brother. Holliday’s, on the other hand, is one of existential dread. Dying from Tuberculosis, Holliday knows he hasn’t much time left, and each of his scenes are characterized by a sense of melancholy. Surrounded by smoke in a close-up, Mature’s shimmering tar black pupils (never more pronounced than in this restoration) hint at a soul weighed down heavily. In spite of the dark content, the film has a warmth and an optimism at its core, embodied in the arrival of the beautiful Clementine, who immediately captures Erp’s attention in one of Ford’s most perfect sequences in which she steps off a wagon, and Erp rises to attention, his back to the frame. Ford brilliantly establishes—without dialogue but through blocking, gesture, and music—Erp falling for Clementine, while also conveying that there are forces that will keep them apart.

Tag Gallagher analyzes this memorable composition on his video essay included as part of the disc’s supplements, pointing out that the distance between Erp’s gaze and Clementine seems infinite, and notes both a vertical and horizontal post that stands between them. Most interestingly, Gallagher links the film’s contemplative nature to its relationship to World War II, which had just ended before its making.

Gallagher is easily the foremost authority on Ford, and provides yet another incredible piece of work here. His video essays are always concise, entertaining, personal and even exciting to watch with their sense of discovery—in particular those on Ford always penetrate the films’ depths so powerfully and succinctly. A different sort of Ford scholar, Joseph McBride, who wrote Searching for John Ford has a tremendously informative, and naturally delivered, audio commentary that contains all sorts of details about the production history of Clementine, and observations about Ford’s working style. More biographical and broad in scope, McBride’s approach compliments Gallagher’s, and including them both in this release is a wise decision.

The most notable inclusion on the release though is the preview cut of the film. Longer, and with more of Ford’s own footage, it's by no means the definitive cut of the film. In fact, as an extensive special feature breaks down, it lacks the same sense of vision and precision that is present on the more common cut of the film. With different music cues, and less poetic rhythm, the cut is ultimately for completists only, but is nevertheless an invaluable curiosity. You may find that watching the feature that details the differences in the versions to be a sufficient substitute.

“To be or not to be,” recites a drunk thespian on a bar table in another of the film’s most striking scenes. This famous inquiry of Shakespeare’s, delivered though it is in a crude setting by someone with alcohol on their breath, seems pointedly like the very question the film and each of its characters ask. Those lucky enough to survive the film do continue to be, to move forward, even if the perennial presence of the looming sky above Ford’s low-hanging horizon line outdoes the mythic connotations of the human tragedies and dramas that play out beneath it. Such existential connotations always seem to lurk behind Ford’s films, but never more delicately than in My Darling Clementine.

To purchase the new release of 'My Darling Clementine', head over to Criterion

Follow Adam Cook on Twitter: @AdamCook

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