Although the legend of Wyatt Earp and his gunfight at the O.K. Corral seem like a familiar piece of American folklore to us now, the story wasn’t actually common knowledge until decades after it happened—and even then, it only entered the public imagination through the magic of media. Stuart Lake’s 1931 book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, was monumental in introducing the public to the story of the Western lawman, who had passed away just two years prior. From the pages of that book came three direct cinematic adaptations, the last of which, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), was an especially popular and an essential component in establishing the myth of the man and his legendary shootout.
We first meet Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) alongside his brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond—who also played roles in the two previous incarnations of the Earp story), Virgil (Tim Holt), and James (Don Garner), driving a herd of cattle towards Mexico. They’re approached by Old Man Clanton (Walter Brannon), who makes an offer to purchase the cattle and save them a trip. Sticking to their word, the brothers decline, and the older brothers ride into nearby Tombstone for a shave and a beer, leaving James to watch over the cattle. When they return, James has been shot and killed, and the cattle gone and rustled. The Earps go back to Tombstone, where Wyatt is made marshall, and Virgil and Morgan his deputies, all determined to bring the killer to justice. Their search culminates with a gunfight—where else?—at the O.K. Corral, along with some other misadventures along the way.
Ford seemed to recognize Earp’s potential as a figure of American mythology right from the start, and it’s apparent in the way he chooses to depict him, from introduction on. Other characters, meeting him for the first time, echo the audience’s casual, perhaps, familiarity with him, asking if he’s THE Wyatt Earp, which he assures them—using his name like currency—that he is. But we don’t learn right away why Earp’s reputation has preceded him, as Ford allows us to offers actions as evidence as the film progresses. There are also scenes like Earp’s audition for town marshall, which comes in the form of subduing a drunken, dangerous man (cringingly, “Indian Charlie”); however, Ford hides the actual action of this process from the camera, simply showing Earp entering the building, and a few moments later, calmly dragging the man out the door. In these early scenes, Ford forces us to supplement what we’re seeing on screen with our own imagination, while later scenes—like the actual O.K. Corral shootout—we’re allowed to witness fully from beginning to end. This builds up Earp’s mythic persona by requiring the audience’s participation, then confirms our wildest ideas with a thrilling finale, thus justifying Earp’s role as an American hero.
My Darling Clementine is a film full of gorgeous landscapes and photography, but at its core, it’s a personal movie. Most of the film takes place in the town of Tombstone, Arizona, with the familiar Monument Valley setting mostly serving as a backdrop to some of the traveling scenes. But there’s not too many of these, in comparison to some of Ford’s other celebrated films—this film is not so much of a celebration of the landscape of the American West, but rather an exploration of a man residing in it, and attempting to harness some of the wildness.
Though Earp seems like a mythic figure of a long-ago past, he actually lived until 1929, dying in Los Angeles, where he served as a film consultant for Western pictures. It was on the set of one of these films that he reportedly described his adventures, including the shoot out at the O.K. corral, to Ford himself, who was starting out his film career as a prop boy at the time. Because of these conversations, Ford assured the press at the time that his film would depict what had truly happened; though later analysis proved much of Lake’s biography, upon which the film was based, was fictional. Among the inconsistencies were the basic order of events, and that the gunfight itself actually occurred a few doors down from the O.K. Corral. Films like this one, in which the gunfight literally takes place over the backs of corralled horses, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), which popularized the catchy moniker, cemented the association.
My Darling Clementine is a gorgeous, fascinating study on the power that films still hold in the creation of magic and myths, elevating Earp to a legendary status as something of an American fairy tale. It’s a fitting tribute to the man most associated with bringing “civilizing” forces to the American West, and a masterwork of filmmaking from Ford.