my post in the Build Your Own Blogathon, (BYOB) in which 20 bloggers tagged each other, chose 20 films to write about in 20 days, each film connected in a different way. From Shadows & Satin’s choice, Cry of the City, I pick up Victor Mature and bring him here to Speakeasy and into one of the finest western movies ever made.
“What kind of a town is this?”
What kind of a movie is this?
It’s a movie about a gunfight. It’s about the Earps, riding through a new area with their cattle, and Wyatt asking the wrong person: “sure is rough looking country, what do you call this place?”
Tombstone. Where cattle is stolen, and the sweetest, youngest Earp brother shot in the back. Wyatt’s already been effective at solving a rowdy problem that interrupts his shave, and takes that offer by the mayor to become Marshall. He plans on staying a while. It’s the Clantons, one evil patriarch and his entitled, spoiled, scowling brutes of boys. “When you pull a gun, kill a man.” It’s Doc Holliday, a “good looking man” who helps an actor finish a Shakespeare soliloquy, who long ago left behind surgery and his fine Clementine and now has emptiness, illness and Chihuahua, a fiery floozy. It’s an uneasy truce and a good deal of respect between Wyatt and Doc, men from “opposite camps” and much in common, now at this crossing point on two different paths. It’s about Clementine, who arrives after searching everywhere for “John” (as she knows Doc), impressing Tombstone, and especially Wyatt, with her class and beauty. It’s Wyatt’s elaborate haircut and perfume like desert flower, a chair balancing act, an awkward but joyful dance at a “regular” church meeting, all out of this new feeling he has for Clementine. It’s a false accusation Chihuahua makes out of jealousy that ends up proving the Clantons did the Earp murder, a shooting that almost saves Doc’s soul but makes him one of the Earp “family,” sharing in loss. Then it’s the famous shootout, a new schoolmarm and hope.
It’s a movie about justice, loss and transformation, about lawlessness, self-loathing and running away, or standing and fighting for order in this Tombstone, this burial marker, this place where everyone loses something, while the better, more just souls “deliver them from all evil,” and leave something good on the spot to mark their presence. It’s about names that come with reputations so notorious that the band stops playing, all heads turn and rooms clear. Since the movie was released in 1946 it could be about the evil axis powers in WW2 vs the options of fighting with honour and hoping to establish a more civilized system, but by virtue of being about basic truths about human nature, the movie is by extension about that war, any war, any human conflict and the conflicting goals and values that create it.
Director John Ford passed on making this a technicolor remake of Frontier Marshall, and wanted to make it in rich, inky black and clean and clear Sunday morning white. He wanted to cast Henry Fonda, upright and decent, believable as a calm and determined activist, who hardly seems to act at all, conveying impatience, authority, heartbreak and romantic interest with modulations of his voice, a turn of the head, searching eyes, or a sudden jump out of his favourite chair when he first sees Clementine (Cathy Downs) get off the stagecoach. Fonda’s work here is some of his finest, and matched by that of Victor Mature as Doc, who provides both in character and look, a stark contrast suited to the black and white photography. Mature is complicated; a forceful, emotional, giant presence but moody, deep and mysterious, an intelligent and capable man with a poet’s soul, clearly capable of civility and friendship but crumbling, cold, empty, cynical, with sad dark eyes only hopeful for a brief moment when he thinks he’s proven himself useful again. When Wyatt says he’s heard of Doc from graveyard to graveyard in these parts, Mature’s gravelly voice threatens, “there’s a graveyard here too.” The next instant his confidence changes as he realizes the other Earp brothers are right behind him with guns ready. It’s one moment in a wonderful tragic performance, a character who’s not identified by his disease, but, being afflicted and doomed, is symbolic of a sou and a way of life that’s dying. It’s Walter Brennan, who chills to the bone as the evil Old Man Clanton, who could kill with a stare and bares teeth with predatory instinct, who sits in mourning over son John Ireland, sits still as a snake, taking only half a second to lift a gun and easily, calmly shoot Tim Holt in the back. It’s also Ward Bond as the only other Earp left standing, a genial, warm figure who gets a jug of milk in the face for mocking Chihuahua, played with earthy impulsiveness by Linda Darnell.
So it’s not about the gunfight as it is about ways of life, there or anywhere, a collection of authentic everyday things that seem small but have value and meaning enough to change lives and eras. The ending is not everything, but only an end to much that preceded it, and a moment in a larger process. It’s as much about a long walk to the church meet looking like a potential couple while the barber watches and admires the success of his client’s makeover, as it is about that long walk toward the showdown at the O.K. Corral. It’s as much about Doc hating and smashing his reflection in his framed, now useless diploma as it is about smashing the outlaws in town. It’s about never being in love because you’ve been a bartender all your life and what that says about limiting yourself and your expectations in life and in this town, about how that same attitude keeps you cowering under people like the Clantons for too long. The shootout is just another step in the long walk, which already started when the barber brought the dandiest styles from the North, when Clementine arrived promising something fresh and pure, looking to recreate a better past, not knowing she would help usher in a better future. The Wyatt who walked into the rowdy Tombstone, the one who repeatedly wondered out loud what kind of chaotic town this was, is a different Wyatt in a different Tombstone at the end, now the kind of a town with a new church, a new school teacher, and no more Clantons to fear. He leaves as a former Marshall, expressing affection for Clementine, trusting that the order and the better future he’s leaving behind will remain. It’s not a factual movie, since Ford liberally altered the truth of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the shootout at the OK Corral, but it’s a masterpiece, a gunfight in the midst of much character and emotion and tragedy and joy.
That’s what kind of a movie this is.
This post has been part of the Build Your Own Blogathon. Click here to see the whole series of movies and how they’re connected.