Victor Mature as Doc Holliday confronts his destiny in My Darling Clementine directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp.
Let’s start out with this statement of fact or, to put it another way, let’s start out with this unshakeable prejudice of mine:
The best Doc Holliday of all the movie Doc Hollidays is Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine.
Val Kilmer in Tombstone is very good. Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is, well, Kirk and Kirk being Kirk was almost never a bad deal. Dennis Quaid was all right in Wyatt Earp, although too bad for him he’s corralled in the weakest of the movies, paired with Kevin Costner, the weakest of the Wyatt Earps. Then there’s Jason Robards in Hour of the Gun and I’m going to get to him in a minute.
But Mature’s Doc Holliday---romantic, soulful, introspective, self-destructive, terrified of death and despising himself for being terrified, lonely in his suffering, pushing away all offers of love and friendship that would comfort him because they would comfort him---is the only heroic Doc Holliday, which makes him the most historically inaccurate Doc Holliday but also the most dramatically compelling in his own right.
All the Docs are sick and dying from TB. In the other movies their imminent deaths are ironies---the dangerous gunfighter is not going to die with his boots on. That irony provides Val Kilmer with one of his best moments in Tombstone when the joke fate is playing on him is brought home to Doc and there’s no one there for him to share the laugh at his own expense with.
None of the other Doc’s are mere sidekicks to Wyatt Earp. although Quaid’s comes close. But Kilmer’s definitely the second male lead and while Douglas gives Burt Lancaster as Wyatt a challenge, in the end Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a stand-off, with Douglas burning up the scenery but Lancaster holding his place as the movie’s lead and star.
Dan Leo calls Doc Holliday the Hamlet of movie westerns because so many fine actors have found their own particular and intriguing slants on the role. And one of Mature’s best scenes in Clementine is when he takes over Hamlet’s To Be or Not to Be speech from the befuddled and frightened traveling Shakespearean actor. Of course the point of the scene is to underline Doc’s suicidal recklessness, but it also suggests a narrative parallel. In Clementine we’re being told Doc’s story from the point of view of the survivor, Wyatt, as if Hamlet had been written from Horatio’s point of view.
Fonda understands that while Earp is the story’s center and provides its point of view, Doc is its main concern. Wyatt is the hero, but Doc is the tragic anti-hero and it’s the playing out of Doc’s tragedy that gives the movie its emotional weight. In this My Darling Clementine parallels something director John Ford did in his other great western starring Fonda from the same period, Fort Apache, in which John Wayne steps back to let Fonda’s anti-hero play out his tragedy.
In the end, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t matter because the Earps triumph over the vicious Clantons. It matters because it brings Doc’s tragedy to its inevitable and unhappy end.
Now, about Jason Robards.
Duncan Shepherd, wrapping up his long career as a film critic, has written a long goodbye to all that for the San Diego Reader. In it he writes mainly about the frustrations of being an analog writer in a digital age and the ways criticism and movies have changed since he first sat down in a darkened theater with a penlight and notepad. He makes some points that I think are going to give me a couple of posts of my own over the next week or so, but he includes this aside:
With the flow of foreign films down to a dribble, the legion of independent filmmakers keen to sell out, digital talking-heads documentaries a dime a dozen, I’m more and more inclined, induced, inspired, to pursue some solitary line of inquiry such as why Jason Robards in the role of Doc Holliday doesn’t in my eyes damage or diminish Hour of the Gun, doesn’t dislodge it as my preferred version of the Wyatt Earp legend despite the better Hollidays in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Tombstone. Why (or when) is it that such an apparent weakness doesn’t weaken?
I hope Shepherd puts off his retirement long enough to write about what he thinks is weak about Robards’ performance in Hour of the Gun, which alternates with Clementine as my favorite Wyatt Earp movie, depending on my mood.
I can tell you what I like about Robards’ Doc.
He’s a ghost.
All the Docs are dying, but Robards’ Doc is the one who seems to have accepted the fact and to understand what it means, which is that he has no time left to redeem himself in his own or history’s or God’s eyes.
Hour of the Gun begins with the shoot-out in the street outside the O.K. Corral---which is where it actually happened. That was Doc’s big chance, the moment that should have made him a hero alongside Wyatt Earp. It didn’t, and not only didn’t it, but it may have marked the end of Wyatt Earp as hero.
Robards’ spends most of the movie watching James Garner’s Wyatt with a disapproving wariness. He seems to be searching for what it was in Wyatt that made him think putting himself on the Earps’ side was putting himself on the side of the angels and, as Hour of the Gun is a revenge tragedy, what Doc sees is that whatever it was that made Wyatt one of the good guys is leaking out him.
As good as dead and damned in his own eyes, Doc speaks to Wyatt as if from beyond the grave, trying to warn him off the path to hell Wyatt’s determinedly following. But Doc doesn’t have the strength or the heart left to speak as sternly and as forcefully as Marley’s ghost warning Scrooge that he still has a chance and hope of escaping Marley’s fate. All he can do is offer himself up as a bad example. In a number of scenes, dressed all in black, hunched up against a perpetual chill that is as much spiritual as tubercular, he looks raven-like, glaring down on Wyatt and croaking his variations on “Nevermore.”
This is a Doc Holliday who has felt whatever he had of Victor Mature’s romanticism, Val Kilmer’s dash and humor, and Kirk Douglas’ barely restrained fury draining out of him. He has nothing left but Dennis Quaid’s sadness and pain and his own guilt and regret, and if director John Sturges had overused him I think Robards would have been a dark and gloomy smudge on the movie.
But here’s how I summed it up in a review of Hour of the Gun I posted here four years ago:
The nicest thing about Robards' performance, though, is the calmness that comes over him when he realizes that it didn't matter that he couldn't stop Wyatt.
It's Robards, not Garner, Sturges gives the last scene and the last lines to.
Before leaving him at the sanitarium, knowing that this is the last time, it's the end of the line for Doc, Wyatt has told Doc a lie about himself, a charitable lie, meant to leave Doc with his illusions about Wyatt's heroism. Doc pretends to believe it, but he doesn't and there's a heartbroken look on Robards' face as he watches Wyatt ride away.
But it doesn't last. He turns his attention to a card game he's playing with an orderly and finishes the game and the movie with a rueful but sincere grin.
"Aces," he says as he lays out his winning hand. It's a description of his mood as well as of his cards.
In Wyatt Earp, Sturges is showing us that the seeds of our moral self-destruction are in our own hands.
But in Doc Holliday he is showing us that the corollary is true too. The agent of our redemption is our own self.
You can read the whole review here.