My Darling Clementine: John Ford telling stories

Can a work of art tell us something about the character of the artist?

At the beginning of John Ford’s My darling Clementine (1946) there is an interaction between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) that portends things to come. At the end of that conversation Earp rides his horse away and Clanton presumably drives his wagon away. Ford adds a wonderful little sequence of images and sounds at this point that, in effect, sums up the entire film. It goes like this:

Clanton uses his whip to get his horses going. We see the motion of his arm and the curling of the whip in the air.

We then hear the loud, sharp crack of the whip as we cut to Earp riding away.

Earp continues to ride quietly away.

Then, as the shot is beginning to dissolve to the next, we see a fire burning as though it is Earp on fire.

Once the dissolve is complete we discover the fire is the campfire of the Earp’s camp.

The story has Clanton and his sons stealing the Earp brothers’ cattle and killing the youngest brother. This action brings Wyatt Earp out of retirement. In order to mete out justice and get revenge, Earp takes over the recently vacated marshal job for Tombstone.

What I love about this little cinematic moment is the way Ford subtly used the language of cinema to tell a story within the story. The juxtaposition of the whip crack with the image of Earp, and then the fire growing within Earp, tells us what the story arc will be. What I also love is how Ford, in my opinion, frequently demonstrated, with moments like this, that he was every bit the filmmaker of Welles, but that he didn’t care for so much bravado as we find in Kane. He was servant, as it were, to the art & craft of cinema rather than to his ego. He was a master storyteller more about the story than the teller.

Both Welles and Ford needed and respected their audiences, for sure, but Ford’s respect was more self-effacing, more about others than about himself. At least that is what I take from their works of art. Am I right? You tell me.

One thought on “My Darling Clementine: John Ford telling stories

  1. >I love the observation you made here, but before discussing Welles in any capacity you should learn how to spell his name.Welles was a great admirer of Ford. It doesn't take much to see why. However, I think it's foolish to subscribe to the myth that Welles has a virtuoso directorial style merely to appease some egotistical urges.

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