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My Darling Clementine

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // October 14, 2014
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted October 10, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Despite for my fondness of John Ford Westerns, I had never completely acquainted myself with My Darling Clementine save for an episode of M*A*S*H* where the medical hospital longed to see it for a movie night. But seeing it now makes me wonder why it does not get more play than it does, because it clearly should.

Based on the Stuart Lake book that covers the shootout at the O.K. Corral, Samuel Engel and Winston Miller wrote the screenplay that Ford directed. The iconic character of Wyatt Earp is played by Henry Fonda (The Butterfield 8), and Wyatt and brothers Morgan, Virgil and James are taking cattle to California. During the drive they run into Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan Sergeant York), who points them to Tombstone for a shave and a shower. The Earps go into town and find themselves confronted by a drunken Indian randomly shooting his gun in town. Wyatt stops him and this angers Clanton and his gang, who kill James. Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil decide to stay in town, taking on Sheriff roles in Tombstone, and they try to find out who killed James while developing roots in the town.

Admittedly it is somewhat oversimplifying the story, and if you've seen (Wyatt Earp) or (Tombstone) you know the basic outline of the story. But what makes My Darling Clementine so much better than those films is the characters have such a sense of doubt that is damn near profound for a film made in the 1940s. Sure, you may be in love with the Dennis Quaid of Val Kilmer interpretations of Doc Holliday, but honestly Victor Mature (Kiss Of Death) knocks both of theirs right in the dust. All three have a sense of self-destruction, yet Mature's has a sense of conflict buttressed by a deep level of sensitivity is wonderful to experience. He is much less the wild card you would expect, with Wyatt being the stronger one in many levels. Yet even with Wyatt there is an emptiness that you feel much more so than in other actors' performances, a tenderness where others would not show over stoicism or trite machismo. Watch him as he tries to summon the courage to ask Clementine to dance. It may be considered overdone today, but consider Earp's ordeal the first two acts. It is allowable for the viewer, and fun to experience.

If there was a complaint to have about the film, it is that is does not use some of their ensemble more than they so. As Morgan, Ward Bond (The Searchers) frequently played off Fonda, Wayne and others, but you see him for two or three scenes of any note. Linda Darnell (The Mark of Zorro) is a treat as Chihuahua but as the film winds its way to the shootout, her fate in the film is pretty much spoken for. And John Ireland is fun but since he's on the Clanton side, you do not see that much of him.

Perhaps the best part of My Darling Clementine is less about the performances and more about Tombstone. Which is to say the beginning of the film shows Wyatt and his brothers being warned to a degree about Tombstone because it is lawless and rough. But past the roughness we experience, there is a sense that it is draining emotionally and/or spiritually that, by the end of the film, we are glad to see the decisions made by those left standing after the gunfight. It is less that they have nowhere to go and more that they almost want to get out of Tombstone for another chance at some sort of happiness somehow. I do not know if this was something Ford was trying to get at, but it was something which stood out for me.

If nothing else, My Darling Clementine possesses a lot of characters, even the Clantons, with a better than anticipated amount of depth and range to them. It leaves me wondering what the hell it was that was being done in those ‘90s films that tried to tell the same story, when all they really needed to do was tell this one.

The Blu-rays:
The Video:

Not too many films can boast of a transfer from a print that the Museum of Modern Art holds, but that is precisely what Criterion has done for My Darling Clementine, and it looks the business. Film grain is present throughout, black and gray levels are generally consistent (as much as one can expect for a film of such age). The exterior backgrounds look superb; even as I was watching it with my wife, we both noticed how clear the Arizona and Utah look, particularly in the opening and closing sequences. It's a treat to experience on Blu-ray. I'd additionally note that this is for the theatrical version (1:37:19). The prerelease version of the film is included (1:43:18) but lacks the bells and whistles of a restoration. Looks decent, but hardly mindblowing.

The Sound:

The mono soundtrack is also excellent, with very little prolonged moments of hissing in the background, dialogue sounds good and the score even almost sounds immersive for a fleeting moment or two. The battle at the O.K. sounds clean and is a pleasant exclamation point to the soundtrack that is devoid of the usual norms that would make listening to a vintage movie be so arduous. Kudos to the restoration staff for the legwork put into this disc.


Along with the theatrical and prerelease versions, Ford biographer Joseph McBride contributes a commentary to the theatrical which is not bad. It is slightly dry in terms of delivery but has loads of information on Ford, Earp, and the cast. Whether it is Fonda's work with Ford, or detail on Fonda (such as McBride's work with him) and discussing the subtleties in storylines or could have been's in terms of casting like Jimmy Stewart as Doc, it is an excellent track. There is a look at both versions, recorded in 2004 and hosted by Robert Gitt, the Preservation Officer at UCLA Film & Television Archive. It is a little lengthy (41:49), but this is allow for as much context of scenes as possible, a clever move in fact, and includes production stills and notes between Ford and the studio. He discusses how UCLA got the prerelease print as well, and shows the scenes in isolation, then compares them to the theatrical. A nice comprehensive look at the versions. "Paint the Legend" (14:29) covers the life and lore of Earp, separating the myth from reality and talking about his real-life exploits. It does not touch on the movie until late in the piece but is nice.

Next up, "Bandit's Wager" (14:05) is a silent film where Ford's brother Francis pokes a little fun at the genre. "Lost and Gone Forever" (18:12) is a fascinating look at the symbolism in the film and scene breakdown, looking at the themes of doubt and loss, and possibly alluding to Ford's post-World War II days. The symbolism of black in Earp's character along with Western symbols like the badge is covered, along with how isolated Clementine is to the battles. It is a nice segment. There is a report on Monument Valley as shown by the Today Show in the mid-1970s (5:30), and a 1963 show with David Brinkley looks at Tombstone (7:41). There is a radio re-enactment of the film for the Lux Radio Theater (58:23) where Fonda and others reprise their roles, with the exception of Richard Conte (Don Barzini ?!?!) playing the Doc Holliday role. The trailer (2:23) completes things.

Final Thoughts:

Even for those who are peripherally attracted to Western films, My Darling Clementine should be required viewing. Heck, even if you do not like Westerns, there is such a sense of awareness or mortality at times that predates many films that have come since then. Technically, the film looks and sounds fantastic, and the supplements are what you would come to expect from Criterion. It is an excellent pickup one should not hesitate to add to their collection.

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