I give up: I keep insisting I’m not a big fan of Westerns--but there I was, watching one. On my birthday, yet. I joked beforehand that all I really wanted to see was Henry Fonda with a droopy mustache--maybe looking a little like the MGM cartoon dog, both of them with a nasal drone--although Fonda’s a bit taller.
But enough ribbing: Fonda knew exactly how he could play Wyatt Earp--matter-of-fact, a little shy (with not a hint of a stammer), a little vain (but almost secretive about it--until the wafting honeysuckle of his tonsure catches everyone’s attention)--all with his usual calm. And John Ford once more goes to the desert’s alien rockscapes and sets up a rhythm between town and land and sky that fits whatever the script demands: the Earps as cowboys, leaving the youngest in the wide open--so that he could die for the pictures sake--sending Wyatt and the remaining Earps into town, where the main street empties onto the same desert into which their brother disappeared, but gives them the opportunity to begin to build some shade from the hot sun.
In the town itself, the saloon, as always, dominates--but also the upstairs rooms, where a sweet young thing from back East has to contend with Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, both of them looking for Doc Holliday--Victor Mature seemingly too big to play a dying man, but his eyes tell us the truth--and so does that scene in the saloon, the frightened old actor on the table, Doc helping him recite Shakespeare--Hamlet wondering what happens in the undiscovered country, coaxing a little tear in the eye. And bringing town and country together, the Clanton family, father (Walter Brennan doing one of those perfect villains who smile, and smile) and four sons, doppelgängers of the Earps--and only a few remain by the end, Tombstone cleaned up by picking off all of the wild men, most of the lawmen, plus consumptive gamblers and raven-haired spitfires.
It had to be done, if anyone was going to stay. This is Ford’s contribution to cinema’s telling of the myth of the West: The first to bring peace must step aside for the ones who build churches and provide schoolmarms to stand alongside the new picket fence, the desert still out there but held at bay with the dead, noble and otherwise.
--I suddenly thought of The Female of the Species, a silent movie where the men and women go mad in the desert, the sandstorm claiming most of them, the women left to the purple sage. Ford tames such hysteria, but the images overlap, his desert and the silent one, the two of them ready and waiting.