Every damn year we go through some overheated foofaraw over whether a movie up for an Academy Award is somehow — how to put this — LYING about history, or History. This year’s chew toy is Selma; mostly, so far, over whether Lyndon Johnson is fairly, accurately depicted as a roadblock to Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign against voting restrictions. Just for starters: Couldn’t such time be better spent assessing and attacking those now responsible for dismantling what King and others (including, dammit, LBJ himself) fought for a half-century before instead of showing off our erudition and/or grievances? Seems to me that’s a far more urgent matter and a FAR more productive use of one’s time than being aggrieved over who gets dissed in a dark room that smells like melted butter.
Well, the counterargument goes, for the great masses of people, movies ARE historical fact; becoming fairly or not the means through which all our history gets filtered and then hardened into something jocularly known as Collective Wisdom. At the risk of boring those who’ve heard me say such things before. especially me, I counter the counterargument for what I hope, in vain, will be the last time: If you really think that something as loose, baggy and relatively undernourished in nuance as a fictional feature film based on true stories is a plausible substitute for History itself, then you not only get the History you deserve, but the government and culture you deserve, too.
Nevertheless, as we are now less than 24 hours away from this year’s Academy Awards nominations being announced, I’m almost 99.9 percent certain than someone’s going to ask me to write about this and other similar controversies over this year’s crop of Big Movies That People Will Forget By Summer as well as those of the past. I don’t expect what I’m about to post will in any way innoculate me from such assignments. Nonetheless, since I bring this movie up every time the matter rises from the muck, I figured now was the time to make a pre-emptive strike.
So here’s something I wrote some years back on one of my favorite westerns, included in a journal listing the greatest of the genre. It says just about everything I have to say about fidelity to facts in historical movies — and how little it matters in the very long run.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)
Director: John Ford
Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature. Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Ward Bond, Cathy Downs, John Ireland.
Even the least conscientious historian can get the bends accounting for the historical inaccuracies in My Darling Clementine. And you don’t have to get very deep into John Ford’s version of events leading to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral to find them. The movie opens with the Earp brothers herding cattle to Tombstone, Arizona in 1882 when the youngest brother James is shot dead (in the back, of course) by the rustling Clanton family.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Let’s see:
1.) James was the eldest of the Earps, not the youngest,
2.) The Earp brothers never had any cattle either heading towards or ensconced within Tombstone’s city limits and …
3.) Though James death is depicted as the spark that eventually led to the Earps’ confrontation with the Clantons at the OK Corral, that famous gunfight actually occurred in 1881 – if you’re scoring, that’s one year earlier.
We could go on and on and on, cataloguing Ford’s blatant manipulation of fact throughout this movie, which credits Stuart N. Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall, published two years after Earp’s death in 1929, as its principal source. But fact never mattered much to Ford, whose attitudes towards historical veracity were pithily summarized by a journalist in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “This is the West, sir! When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” This gnomish sentiment both tickles and irritates the American psyche: We know something’s wrong with it, but how much do we care?
In the case of My Darling Clementine, probably not much, because the movie has over time proven more resonant and more powerful than any other about the Wyatt Earp story, no matter how historically faithful those films are.
Begin with its visual graces. Few black-and-white movies have ever conveyed such stark contrasts between the illuminated prairie landscape and the twilit corners of so-called civilization where savagery is ready to swallow innocence whole. Within this panorama, Ford orchestrates not a factual account, but his own mythic vision of history. His set pieces are adhesives to a movie lover’s memory: the town dance in an unfinished church, the woozy Shakespearean recitation sharpened by Mature’s tubercular Doc Holiday (looking as if he’s perpetually staring at his own wake) and Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in varied states of wary repose, whether in a barber’s chair or rocking jauntily in front of the “Mansion House” as Darnell’s Chihuahua hectors him.
Indeed, Fonda’s insouciant balancing act hints at mischief burrowed beneath Ford’s decorousness. It doesn’t emerge often enough to qualify as irony, but you have to wonder (as generations have) about this “say what” exchange that takes place between Earp and the saloon’s barkeep.
WYATT: Mac, you ever been in love?
MAC: No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.
At moments like this, one remembers that My Darling Clementine was made after Ford, Fonda, and co-screenwriter Winston Miller had returned from World War II military service. Comparing Fonda’s depiction of a ramrod American icon in this film with that of 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln (also directed by Ford), one detects a serrated edge applied to the solitude and resolve in the pre-war portrayal of Lincoln. With Fonda and Ford, wartime experiences inspired in both a need for traditional American values of community, honor, and law and a lingering perception that traditions were ready for tweaking, even bending here and there.
Put another way, it is possible to claim that My Darling Clementine provides a definitive model for the standard Western film while it discloses clues to undermining that model. The willful disregard for fact is arguably part of the subversion. OK, whatever. In the end, the best way to watch this movie is just to embrace its evocative dream of a past that never was.