This movie is director John Ford's lyrical love poem to the Old West. He manages to convey both simplicity and complexity at once, showing empathy and admiration for the courage of the Western pioneers, but also standing back and watching, from an almost god-like, uninvolved distance, as bad things happen, sometimes to good people. My Darling Clementine is willing to portray the gray areas of human nature, but still promotes a sense that despite those inherent complexities and ambiguities, right and wrong are distinct and knowable. The challenge for first-time viewers is setting aside experiences with the movie's many imitators and trying to watch it as if it were new. Ford's Old West is dusty and dirty, a place where everyone drops their final g's and the big sky shrinks men down to small, indefensible creatures who are no match for nature's power and harshness. He makes the connection between the West's cruel terrain and what it did to the men and women who survived in that world. Those survivors whoop it up in saloons wild with drunks, prostitutes, and cheap tunes. In mythologizing the heroic Earp, and casting a tough yet boyish Fonda, Ford urges that such men are the only hope for establishing civility and decency, as men like Doc, who have gone bad under the Western influence, need to be shown the way back toward righteousness.
Setting aside its many historical inaccuracies, the movie has its weaknesses. "What kinda town is this?" Wyatt keeps asking when he arrives in the disreputable Tombstone. But Ford is being cutesy and dishonest here because Wyatt has already cleared out other outposts just as demoralized -- surely he knows exactly what kind of town he's in. The sweeping visuals approve of the West's stark beauty but do so with a tinge of sentimentality and nostalgia for a simpler time that wasn't really that simple. Clementine's timely arrival is a creaky and obvious device designed to reiterate what we already know, that Doc was once the kind of educated and cultivated man such a lady would fall for. Clementine's presence also sets up an unnecessary rivalry between the fallen Doc and the romantically timid Wyatt. That the movie is named after her feels at once like overkill and also a distraction from the movie's central story. But it also speaks to Ford's romanticization of the period famous for its villains and heroes, especially in light of the fact that it's the director's first film after he served four years fighting fascist villains overseas during World War II. In a courtly manner, Wyatt tells Clementine, "I sure like that name." Ford certainly knew that names are representations of things. What's important is that Wyatt liked the kind of "good," marriageable woman Clementine represented.