“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
– Virginia Woolf
The more Ford I watch, the more I understand how essential The Searchers is. These 500 words are not about that particular miracle, yet the testimony of a film-maker like Ford requires a direct point of comparison. We could go further, to the more obvious likeness; Liberty Valance deals frankly with Ford’s Machiavellian sabotage of American histories, encapsulated in the oft-quoted maxim: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend‘. Yet, for all its grand reaching, it solved nothing. Because, in terms of pure bullshitting, nobody comes close to John Ford (though Clint Eastwood has given him a run for his money). He is a natural and romantic fabulist. And My Darling Clementine is pure bullshit, wrapped up in Ford’s masturbatory pipe-dreams of an America that never existed. But that’s not to say that it isn’t essential in every way.
Here, everybody does a beautiful job of convincing us of nothing and everything in equal turn. We know the Wyatt Earp story, or think that we do; we know enough, at least, to think that Fonda, whatever he may be, cannot be the gambling whoring opportunist who spent only his most famous years in Tombstone. Yet it is telling that Ford chose Fonda over his other great actor; for this is not the story of frontier men, of Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday, and it could not be about John Wayne. That the film is named after the glowing beauty of Cathy Downs, and not that famous shoot-out at the OK Corall, is crucial. Ford builds the film’s tonal rhythms around the arrivals and presences of Clementine, and a lovely central piece fuelled by Ford’s hymnal ‘Shall We Gather At The River?’. Violence is an afterthought. Deep silence reigns in the Arizona mornings. And so the Clanton gang barely get a look in. Facts are discarded. And we find it difficult, suddenly, to care.
Instead, Fonda illustrates quite literally that integral balancing point between lawless degradation and order. Doc Holliday, no longer practising civilised medicine, is doomed to die out here, and Earp himself destined to tilt his chair forever, dreaming of Clementine. Progress (education, square-dances, uninterrupted shaves) is coming. This could be Stagecoach, or an even more paltry Western, but Ford knows what he is shooting for. Peckinpah saw it. Leone knew. Altman hijacked it for McCabe. Monument Valley stands beyond, and is the true character of the film. Lives could be frittered away writing about Ford’s use of those gorgeous monoliths. No matter that Tombstone is nowhere near the Valley; we are caught up in the drifts of Ford’s history, as dangerous as they may be.
And if history always has a tendency towards myth, Ford has merely accelerated the process. We are living, all of us, in the cultural heritage of our mythologies, as they become increasingly contemporary and start to impeach upon the very condition of living. What is cinema if not the great act of mythologising, rendering eternal the central morality of civilisations. And who, sometimes, now and then, doesn’t want to cry ‘fuck the facts‘ and just give in, if only for a moment, to the bullshit of a perfect Western.