It’s easy to see why the gunfight at the O K Corral in 1881 has acquired such mythic significance in American history. A young country lacking a mythology (or an ancient body of instructive literature) of its own found equivalents in the legends of the Old West, and the story of Wyatt Earp – a steadfast lawman who helped end the anarchic rule of the Clanton gang and brought order to the wilderness – became a perfect allegory for the growth of civilisation. The story has been dramatised many times on film, but my favourite by far is John Ford’s quasi-realistic My Darling Clementine.
The great director claimed this movie was virtually a documentary since he had heard the full story from an ageing Wyatt Earp himself, and filmed it accordingly – but this claim needn’t be taken too seriously. My Darling Clementine certainly is more austere than the typical Hollywood western (no small thanks to Henry Fonda’s superbly understated performance as Earp, and Ford’s refusal to strike up the drum-beats at the crucial moments). But it is a Hollywoodisation alright, and in the best sense of that word: it has a solid script, characterisations (notably Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, the gunman with a poet’s heart) and just the right amount of dramatic tension, even though a romantic subplot is slightly jarring. Thank heavens Ford didn’t really make a documentary!