Director John Ford's much-admired take on the tale of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the evil Clantons, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been superseded in realism and historical accuracy by a number of more modern films, but what it lacks in documentary precision, it more than makes up for in visual poetry and its timeless comments on the conflict between the impulses of civilization and those of anarchy. For one who only knew My Darling Clementine as the "background noise" to a particularly anarchic episode of the TV series M*A*S*H, finally seeing this classic from beginning to end (with no comical film breaks!) was a revelation. Admirable acting performances and a focus on character interaction as opposed to violence -- the climactic gunfight is, if anything, underplayed -- make this a quintessentially atmospheric Western.
Someone once joked that Henry Fonda's well-known liberalism made it imperative that, when the actor played in a Western, he be shown packing major heat in order to be "taken seriously" as an action hero. Well, as Wyatt Earp, Fonda only pulls a gun when he absolutely has to -- all he and his brothers want is basically to be allowed to pass through Tombstone, Arizona in peace. But when the Clanton gang, led by their vicious Paw (Walter Brennan, a "fur piece" away from the amusingly genial Dan'l Baboon inspiration we're all used to), rustle the Earps' cattle and kills the youngest Earp brother, Wyatt willingly takes up the task of defending the thin veneer of civilization surrounding the town. Symbolically, Earp defends a traveling Shakespearean actor (Alan Mowbray) from the Clantons when he sees the louts torture the hapless ham into performing for their own amusement. The tubercular, hard-drinking, hot-tempered gambler/gunman Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) perfectly straddles the line between the tame and the savage; he's a Bard-quoting exile from the medical schools of the East who nonetheless refuses to rejoin his ex-girl Clementine (Cathy Downs) when the latter comes to win him back, preferring the dubious company of saloon-hall girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) and a bottle of whisky. The relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is the subtlest one in the film; they would not normally be allies, yet are thrown together in opposition to the Clantons and ultimately learn how to cooperate.
While most of the performances here cannot be faulted, the weakness of the female leads is a major debit. Chihuahua is about as authentically Mexican as a bowl of Cheez Whiz with a little cumin sprinkled on top, while Clementine is entirely too demure and passive. A catfight between the two women was considered but ultimately dropped; while I can understand why -- the leisurely pace of the narrative, so well exemplified by Fonda's casual gait as he strolls through Tombstone, would have been badly disrupted by something as cheesily superfluous as that -- it would at least have given Downs and Darnell something lively to do. The unseen woman whose irritating, cackling voice can be heard during literally any loud "saloon scene" made a much bigger impression than either of these ladies.
The DVD contains two versions of the movie: the 97-minute cut familiar from TV and a somewhat longer "pre-release version" containing several scenes that were snipped by 20CF boss Darryl Zanuck. (Ford was not pleased by this, but the picture had been done as part of a commitment to the studio, so he had only limited control over what Zanuck did.) The movie commentary, by Scott Eyman (with an assist from one of Wyatt Earp's relatives), was a major disappointment. As Ford's leading biographer, Eyman certainly had the potential to be a fount of additional information about the making of the movie, so it was a real turnoff when I heard a verbatim recitation of generous chunks of PRINT THE LEGEND. I draw one important lesson from the experience: If a commentator talks really fast and makes no mistakes, then there's a good chance that they're performing a recital, rather than giving visceral impressions -- which often provide more insight than "mere" manuscripts.