“What kind of a town is this?” shouts Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) shortly after entering Tombstone, the rough-and-tumble Arizona municipality at the heart of My Darling Clementine. Earp’s incredulousness is certainly warranted, as his shave at the local “tonsorial parlor” has just been interrupted by stray bullets coming in from the adjoining saloon, but it’s a question that hangs over the entirety of John Ford’s masterpiece. How, in the Wild West of 1882, is a community to operate? What values, institutions, and individuals come out on top, and which are left to rot in the dustbin of history? These concerns can be felt throughout Ford’s filmography, which returns again and again to the potentials and pitfalls of group formation at a moment in American history—and within a genre of American cinema—defined by the collisions between people of varying classes, ethnicities, and visions of the nation’s future. Rarely have these weighty queries been explored with such elegance, poignancy, and dexterous economy as in My Darling Clementine.
The film subtly complicates viewer expectations early on, eschewing clear-cut character rivalries in favor of more complex emotional and social configurations. Earp and his two brothers indefinitely extend their stay in Tombstone after discovering their cattle stolen and other brother murdered, most likely by another all-male familial clan, the Clantons. Revenge against the Clantons soon quickly takes a back seat, however, as newly minted town sheriff Earp soon finds himself embroiled in a ever-fluctuating friendship-cum-rivalry with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), a black-clad local powerbroker. Prone to heavy boozing and intimidation of local riffraff, Holliday also appreciates the finer things in life, like sipping champagne and reciting Shakespearean soliloquies from memory, signs of a more-cultured past back East that he mysteriously abandoned for the anonymity of the West. This history catches up with Holliday soon enough in the form of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), a nurse and former lover who has scoured the frontier in search of him. Their reunion is complicated by Holliday’s self-destructive rejection of his former life and his present romance with local saloon singer Chihuahua (Linda Darnell)—not to mention Earp’s tentative interest in Carter.
These ever-shifting arrangements reflect My Darling Clementine’s broader understanding of how the frontier community itself rests in a state of flux. From a classically trained yet perennially soused tragedian breezing through town to the skeletal beginnings of a house of worship, signs of the “civilizing” East arrive in Tombstone containing both the glimmer of progress and the shadows of the past. Locations that seem to have a fixed meaning become more-amorphous sites of social and emotional negotiation—no more so than the town saloon’s late-film transformation into a makeshift operating room, with the physical well-being of one character and the spiritual fate of another hanging precariously in the balance. (Ford and cinematographer Joe MacDonald’s use of depth staging and chiaroscuro lighting here is a master class in how physical space can be transformed to evoke the psychological landscape of the characters inhabiting it.)
The film sketches its mirrored couples in similar shades of gray. This quartet of frontier archetypes—the “good” woman vs. the “wild” lady, the sheriff vs. the outlaw—move within a complex web of sexual attraction, shared history, principled camaraderie, and pained resentment. Holliday and Chihuahua’s would-be “sordid” romance becomes a richly emotional and mature study of two damaged souls achieving peace with the other’s flaws, while Earp and Clementine’s seemingly “respectable” courtship contains a roiling and poignant eroticism just beneath the surface. To watch Earp take Clementine by the arm and walk her to the town’s church social, with Ford-favorite “Shall We Gather at the River?” sung by the townspeople just off screen, is to witness one of cinema’s most remarkable evocations of burgeoning love; it’s as heartrending in its delicate understanding of interpersonal attraction as it is keenly aware of how romance is shaped by social codes and communal expectations.
Those nefarious Clanton boys eventually roar back into My Darling Clementine, prompting the classic shoot-out sequence seemingly embedded within the DNA of the American western. In keeping with the ambivalence that defines the entirety of the film, Ford films the confrontation between Earp (joined by Holliday and others) and the Clantons as a swirl of riled horses, kicked-up dust, jutting fence posts, and erratic pistol blasts. Lives are lost and fates determined, but this is the most uncertain of showdowns—the necessary purging of a societal contaminant so that a community may continue on its search for identity and wholeness. It’s only right, then, that My Darling Clementine ends only with the possibility of a romantic clinch somewhere down the road. Death still hangs in the air and the wounds of emotional (as well as actual) crossfire remain to be healed. Until then, there’s a school to be built, grieving parents to be consoled, cattle to rustle. Within such day-to-day tasks, decisions, and negotiations, Ford insists, one begins to finally decide just what kind of town this will be.