Director: John Ford
Writer: Samuel G. Engel, Winston Miler
DP: Joseph MacDonald
Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Score: Alfred Newman, Cyril Mockridge, David Buttolph
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Starring: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
Length: 1 hr. 37 min.
My Darling Clementine returns twice to the image of Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, sitting on a porch near the edge of town, watching stagecoaches roll in against the Monument Valley landscape. He's a person on the frontier, in the liminal area between the untamed wilderness and the interiors of civilization. He came to Tombstone for a shave, and he stayed for his own reasons, but this image is pure formalism; it's poetry with a human figure, bearing no relation to the man Wyatt Earp as he's portrayed in the film.
It's appropriate that the film should make such a distinction between Wyatt Earp as an icon and Wyatt Earp as a person. He brings order to the town of Tombstone in the film, but not because he's some paragon of morality. It's because he tries to enact a legacy for his murdered younger brother James; by effecting some change in the world that James Earp would have wanted or that his brothers would have wanted for him, Wyatt regains some element of what was lost.
Doc Holliday is in town for a similar reason, and he also enforces a kind of order. Though the film initially hints at some friction between their differing styles of instituting the law, it's their eventual friendship that ultimately takes center stage. They can reconcile with each other because they have the same ends. Their reasons don't matter; their personal concerns are segregated from the rest of the town, relegated to interiors - the most obvious example of which being Doc Holliday's room at the inn - but the give the town at large its own identity; when Wyatt or Doc runs someone out of town (and only when they do it), it means something.
Tombstone is introduced as a foreboding world of shadows, smoke, and broken forms. The presence of law and order brings it into the daylight, but we only see this happen in the periphery; when we see Wyatt invited to the dedication of a new church, we realize that as we were watching the Earps and Doc Holliday by themselves, the town underwent a personality shift. The moody darkness returns when the rule of violence threatens to return again, but relegated to interiors and to accompany certain characters.
Here, Ford visually captures the importance of the dissociation between the effect Wyatt and Doc have on Tombstone and their reasons for taking the actions that brought about that effect. Their status as individuals becomes divorced from their status as icons, and Ford injects the most emotion into the former; the film's pathos comes not from the fact that they're such towering figures that Tombstone depends on them, but from the fact that they created something so much bigger and longer-lasting than themselves.
In the film's reality, the improved Tombstone is their legacy, but My Darling Clementine adds to that, magnifying them for being able to step aside and make way for that legacy. Ford would return to the idea of the rule of violence willingly stepping down in favor of the rule of law in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but that film took a less personal view, observing the figure who steps down only from an external perspective. Where that film allows us to see a community change, My Darling Clementine allows us to see a few individuals up close as they are inspired and fulfilled by a fully realized community.
One scene near the beginning is unequivocally racist. It's easy to compartmentalize, and tempting, given the rest of the film's accomplishments. But I think it's also important to keep it in mind and criticize it; it's a part of the film, and it's not a good part. It's still one of my favorite films, but an example of why criticism is necessary and always will be.