John Ford’s Unspoken Law (Essay)

>WARNING: Very formal, Read at your own risk.

In John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), two forms of law exist: expressed law and implied law. Expressed law is governmental law, written law that formally dictates how society in the grandest sense should operate. Implied law, a less clear but more heavily respected and represented form of governance throughout Clementine, is treated differently by different people, but in general reflects an unspoken code of honor, one that may be upheld by vengeful and sometimes seemingly underhanded tactics.



The newly appointed marshal of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, uses his form of implied law, which includes strong-arming and an eye-for-an-eye ideal, to exert Ford’s sentimental view of justice over a city out of control. Earp’s ironclad reverse-bullying technique employed in a scene opposite the Clanton brothers (00:31-00:36) and his treatment of Chihuahua, the sympathetic tramp, in an earlier scene (00:17-00:21) define the marshal’s sense justice as inevitable and brutal, but personal and forgiving—the kind of justice that Ford maintains is the only answer to a world in conflict.

The Clanton family, a father and four sons, is depicted as a sinister group from an early point in the film. In the very first scene, father Clanton offers to buy Earp’s cattle herd for what is expressed as a cheap offer, illustrating both his greed and willingness to swindle others. The tension between the Clantons and the marshal reaches a boiling point later in the film, when Earp goes on the hunt for a visiting actor, Granville Thorndyke, who has gone missing, and finds him shortly thereafter amongst the Clantons at a bar. The scene illustrates Earp’s sense of implied law when it comes to violence. Violence, to him, is an instinctive means to solving disputes, and an especially necessary reaction to violence from another source. The only way in which to deal with thugs (i.e. the Clanton brothers) is to teach them with violence. As Earp moves to return the actor, one Clanton grabs Thorndyke and makes a move for his gun. Earp quickly smashes the man in the face with his pistol and shoots at a second Clanton who also reaches for his weapon. This decisive act of violence is committed with the utmost confidence and sense of righteousness, as if Earp already knew he was going to have to exert violent rule over this family.



Like Ford’s angel of America, Earp was crafted with the perfect sense of the strict implied law—how to react when someone threatens you—which serves as a cure-all to what plagues society. As the tension settles, father Clanton offers a short apology, which Earp answers with, “Sure, I figured they were just having themselves some fun” (00:35). He then leaves, making no arrest or collecting no one’s weapon, accepting in how justice has been served in his brutal display of violence. In Earp’s actions, the film advocates for a sense of personality within the law, the idea that each crime is personal and must be dealt with between the involved parties, but mediated by someone with the perfect ideology of right and wrong. In this case, Earp decides best how to solve the problem as both marshal and as a personally effected party, resulting in the best way to cleanse the society of thugs: violence.

In how he deals with the trouble-making Chihuahua, Earp continues to define and enforce implied law, which, in its practice, is represented by the film as the best way (or at least the most effective way) to deliver the city from evil. Earp’s willingness to act outside of expressed law to meet a justified end is, the film argues, what makes him fit to “save” society. When Chihuahua helps another man cheat in poker against Earp, the marshal drags her outside. Chihuahua refuses to listen to his threats and slaps him in the face, to which Earp responds by dunking her in a trough (00:20). Once again, Earp does not arrest her or even see that she returns home for the night, instead he reacts brashly and childishly, but he effectively shows her what kind of law he abides by and what he intends on doing to those who land on the other side of it. The personal vendetta he holds with those who break the law, especially when the case involves him personally, is most evident in this scene. It is this subjectivity in practicing the law—specifically in Earp’s case alone—that the film advocates.



Without one who understands not only right from wrong, but more importantly, how to deal with those who do not know right from wrong, society is doomed. Earp’s form of tough-love governance is the answer to cleansing the entire city, just as he soaks Chihuahua with no hesitation. What motivates Earp to treat Chihuahua in such a way is developed earlier in the scene, when she tries the marshal’s character, first with flirtation and sex, then with a hidden threat, a suggestion through song that she knows about his missing cattle and slain brother (00:17). Earp, in his ability to resist both temptations and to recognize where justice needs to be righteously exacted (it is suggested that previous marshals have gone through the same test and failed), is the clear candidate for the city’s savior and the model of civilization’s (inside and outside the film) path to decency and goodness.

My Darling Clementine depicts Wyatt Earp as a man not above the law, but a man among “certain gifted persons in a society…who carry the law with them” (Mast and Kawin 302). His subjective view of how society should run, the film argues, is the only way in which evil can be detached from good, and disposed of accordingly. Whether it’s by violence or mere unexpected recognition and coequal punishment, the film charges that the way Earp does away with wrongdoing is indeed our own solution—as citizens of today—to a happier, healthier, more united civilization.

Works Cited

Mast, Gerald, and Bruce Kawin. A Short History of the Movies. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.



My Darling Clementine. Dir. John Ford. Perf. Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Cathy Downs and Linda Darnell. 1946. DVD. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007.

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