I wouldn’t talk to him right now if I were you.
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Traditional Westerns work on many different levels. They embody an American national myth, a sense of the values and circumstances that forged the nation. They chart an ideal of the national character. They are pageants of pictorial and plastic beauty.
On a deeper level they are wisdom tales about manhood, and sometimes about womanhood — educations in the passage to adulthood.
John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is problematic in many respects, despite offering some of the greatest passages in any Western, indeed in any film. Its secondary narrative, involving Doc Holliday and his girlfriend Chihuahua, doesn’t seem of a piece with the rest of the film — Victor Mature, though he gives one of his best performances ever, and Linda Darnell, vexing as always, seem like visitors from another movie, another genre, another era.
Their story feels perfunctory, artificial — miles away from the deeper currents of the film, which show a wanderer, Wyatt Earp, seduced into the concerns of civilization, gallantry and love. Most importantly they present the image of an authentic manhood coming into being.
Henry Fonda’s Earp synthesizes a number of contradictory traits. He is boyish, instinctively reticent, even shy, but utterly fearless and thoroughly competent when called on to confront danger. He is unfailingly courteous towards others unless they cross the line of the unacceptable, in which case he is matter-of-factly punitive.
He is gallant towards women, even when he’s not sure what form gallantry towards women should take, even when he fears that in showing gallantry he might make a fool of himself. He’s coolly efficient when violent action is required, befuddled when dealing with etiquette towards women — but equally courageous in both predicaments.
His style of being a man defines the essence of manhood — a virility without bluster or show, a politesse without artifice or vanity. His practical resourcefulness and bravery establish his manliness without need of further proof — his humility and generosity lend his manhood a natural nobility.
There are no men like Fonda’s Earp in modern popular art, one sign of the degradation of our culture.
Visually, shot for shot, this one of John Ford’s most beautiful films. The cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa is consistently amazing.
The film itself is both suspenseful and deeply moving, a rare feat indeed for a work which is so overtly religious. All of Ford’s films are religious, though rarely overtly so, because he was essentially a religious artist — service, sacrifice, forgiveness and redemption were his perennial themes. But he was wise enough to disguise these themes through indirection. Overtly religious themes make people nervous.
There’s something defiant in The Fugitive — an insistence on calling a spade a spade, spiritually speaking. You get a sense that Ford identified intimately with the film’s protagonist, a priest in a nameless country where religion has been outlawed, a man hunted, persecuted and eventually executed for his beliefs.
The film was a total flop commercially, and doesn’t hold a high place in the critical canon of Ford’s work. It was perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy — Ford saying, “If I tell you what my films are really about, you’ll hate them.” Point taken. If you want to love Ford’s work while ignoring its religious content, you don’t really love Ford’s work at its thematic core.
Sadly, Ford tried to hedge his bets with The Fugitive, supplying it with a truly terrible score, which tries to inflate its simple, fable-like narrative with trite, overblown cues that in fact undermine its radical simplicity. The score tries to sell us a conventional suspense melodrama which bears no resemblance to the film Ford made, a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same, and a very courageous one.