On the afternoon of October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, AZ, Marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and their friend John "Doc" Holliday engaged in a gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, an event that quickly became one of the most legendary true events of the American West. Though the reasons for this battle are convoluted and drenched in local politics, the showdown was mythologised as a face-off between the New West, with law and order and civilisation, and the Old West, full of rustlers and cowboys and frontier survivalists.
65 years later, director John Ford and screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller produced a dramatisation of the fight and the events leading up to it called My Darling Clementine; neither the first nor last filmed version of the gunfight, it's probably the best-known and most well-loved. It's also, arguably, the most important, if only for the key role it played in the director's development. The first movie that the World War II veteran helmed after the cessation of hostilities, it was also his return to the Western genre, which he had left behind after Stagecoach in 1939, itself the only Western he directed during the 1930s, despite his reputation in the silent era as a genre whiz. My Darling Clementine was the film that sealed Ford's doom for the rest of his career, launching the series of masterpieces in the late '40s and 1950s that forever after defined him as the greatest director of Westerns in history.
Ironic, then, that Clementine would be one of the films that the director came closest to disowning, stopped only by the fact that people didn't do things like that back in the days before auteur theory. By 1946, Ford was undeniably a master of American cinema - he'd already won three of his unmatched four Oscars, and had been deified by that unhinged Wunderkind, Orson Welles - which makes it strange that he should have been forced to put up such a fight with the studio execs, but that's just what happened when Fox's Darryl Zanuck took the film away after poor test audience reports, handing reshoots over to Lloyd Bacon, hardly a slouch but clearly not a filmmaker like John Ford. This event poisoned Ford's relationship with the studio that had been responsible for many of his biggest successes (including The Iron Horse, the silent epic that made his career), and by the decade's end, the director was working almost exclusively with independent producer Merian C. Cooper, the iconoclast with whom Ford founded Argosy Pictures in 1940. In 1994, a preview copy of My Darling Clementine was found that included some 35 minutes of footage missing or altered in the released version, including a different ending. Though no-one knows with certainty if this cut represents Ford's unadulterated vision (he'd been dead 20 years when it was discovered), it is by common consent the better of the two films.*
I have called My Darling Clementine the film from which all of Ford's later Westerns sprung; that said, it's a film somewhat unlike any other Western he ever made. Mind you, a lot of the elements are in place: the Monument Valley locations (the second time he shot there, after Stagecoach); a few actors that he worked with on multiple occasions, though only one was properly a member of the celebrated John Ford Stock Company; and the instantly-recognisable "look" of a Ford film, with its heavy use of foreground objects, framing elements, and the deliberate use of low-vs-high angle shots (of course, most of Ford's visual style was set in stone by the end of the silent era). But in its narrative and characterisations, Clementine is strange kind of transition from Ford's early dabbling in the genre, which could be best described as "manly men and pretty ladies, lowdown varmints and killer Injuns", to his later deconstructions of Western tropes, famously culminating in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which essentially stated in so many terms that the very notion of an entertainment genre set in the American West is fundamentally corrupt. We could refer to these later films, arguably beginning with 1948's Fort Apache but obviously in place by 1956's The Searchers, as Ford's "anti-mythology": layer by layer, he exploded the lies of the Western both in film and in print, from the idea that the U.S. Cavalry was composed only of the bravest and most noble of men, to the stereotype that all Native Americans were savages, ultimately taking aim at the very core notion of the Western, showing that one lone man with a gun isn't the guy you want leading the way to civilisation.
Based on one of the most durable stories in frontier history - Ford's only retelling of a particular historical event in Western clothes - Clementine is on the one hand, a myth as much as any of the immature Westerns before or after. If anything, the film errs on the side of too much myth, and this where things start to get interesting. There are details in the film's narrative that are flatly without truth, such as the deaths of James and Morgan Earp years ahead of time - James's tombstone even establishes the events of the film taking place in 1882, months too late - the absence of Claiborne and the McLaurys, which Clantons were actually present and killed at the O.K. Corral. The entire narrative arc of the film, in which Wyatt Earp is marshal for about two weeks, instead of Virgil's year or more in the position, is ridiculously compressed to make a complicated series of events a clear-cut case of one family getting revenge on another for cattle rustling. Most viewers probably wouldn't know these things one way or the other, but at there's at least one major death that almost everybody (certainly in the '40s, when Westerns were far more popular than they are today) would know didn't really happen. I half-wonder if Ford and the writers' wanton disregard for anything like "fact" through the whole of the film's running time is part of some conscious or subconscious wish to dare us into calling them on it; if we're supposed to notice how clearly Clementine flies against the facts, and thus have our suspicions raised that hey, maybe these Western pictures are full of lies!
At the same time, the characters in the movie have much more in common with the "frontier assholes" of Ford's later films than the white-hat heroes of so many matinee Westerns. Victor Mature's Doc Holliday is a bit of a bully, who treats his former lover Clementine (Cathy Downs) like a spent snotrag after she travels halfway across the continent to be with him, all because he's sleeping with a short-tempered Mexican girl with the remarkably unfortunate name of Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp is never driven by any sort of sense for justice, but only a desire for bloody revenge for his kid brother and cattle, in addition to being a bit of a preening dandy (late in the film, he spents what must be 20 seconds making certain that his hair has been cut and parted just exactly right). It's common to state that Fonda made a living out of playing walking saints, but here and in Fort Apache, Ford makes him out to be something of a dick. And given Walter Brennan's reputation as the cantankerous but charming old man, casting him as the sociopathic leader of the Clantons can't help but do strange things to our reception of the film's villain. It might have the plot of a myth, but it's a myth strangely populated with grey characters.
There's clearly a lot more one could talk about, but once you've discussed the meaning of impeccably-composed frames in one Ford picture, you've discussed the meaning of impeccably-composed frames in them all. Which is actually a complete goddamn lie, and My Darling Clementine has a much more mature use of shadows than any of his preceding Westerns, just for starters. But you have to cut yourself off somewhere, and I'll leave off with this: Clementine is an excellent film from one of the greatest filmmakers in history during one of his most fertile periods. Go see it, and if you already have, see it again. You can never have too much Ford.