Critics, historians and cinephiles of all persuasions are quick to label John Ford a ‘master of cinema.’ The reasons are manifold. The American director stands as an intimidating figure in the western canon. He is spoken about with just about the same reverence and awe that is apparent in the grand vistas of The Searches and, indeed, My Darling Clementine. The latter of which is to be re-released by Arrow Academy on Blu-ray and DVD, allowing generations old and new to rediscover this mythic tale.
The clue to the film’s magic is in the title. While there is action and violence to be beholden in this Wild West, the true draw here is the emotion and tenderness that is to be found in the expense of Monument Valley. Ford’s film is equal parts an exploration of love and friendship as much as it is about power and betrayal. It’s a joy to watch the blossoming of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday’s friendship alongside the awkward tenderness seen in Earp as he falls for tender charms of Clementine. Henry Fonda plays the laconic stand-in sheriff, a part which has drawn in any number of Hollywood greats over the past century. James Stewart, Burt Lancaster and Kurt Russell have all vied to embody the fabled man, however, Fonda’s turn may just be the pinnacle.
Like all great films, of any era or genre, what My Darling Clementine has that really draws you in is its sense of place. One feels attached to populous and properties here in much the same way one does in, say, It’s a Wonderful Life or Spirited Away. There is a palatable sense of space and place. The Oriental Saloon, with its musicians and barmen, becomes a sarsaparilla-soaked haven. Ford uses it to root the action and develop the plot at key moments. Filmed often in deep focus, taking in the length and breadth of the bar. These shots are so subtle, yet effective, and one would be forgiven for glossing over them in favour of the expansive vistas that open and close the film.
Indeed, upon watching, this critic became ever convinced that there may in fact be no better introduction to the oft intimidating genre of The Western. Quite a feat, then, considering that Ford preceded this film with the equally seminal Stagecoach. While the film does well to make the most of what are today well-worn tropes, the horseback chases and gunfights do show their age in places. Gunslingers here have more in common with school playground stand-offs than the balletic movements one finds in the likes of John Wick. With that being said, I was still totally swept away by all the set pieces, which were in turn swashbuckling and sublime.
Dir: John Ford
Scr: Samuel G. Engel, Winston Miller
Cast: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature
Prd: Samuel G. Engel
DOP: Joseph MacDonald
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Run time: 97 mins
My Darling Clementine is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 27th February.