Fort Apache (1948)
The first in Ford’s cavalry trilogy is one of his best movies.
Restrospectively derided as ‘sentimental’ by modern critics, I think this film is much deeper than that. It doesn’t paint a glorified picture of white settlement in the West, in fact it addresses the flawed mythology and legend of the West which Ford would follow to fruition in the stellar THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962).
FORT APACHE is essentially a tale of a pig-headed and rather depressing character,Lieutentant-Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda) who botches his much-maligned posting at the Fort by leading his men on a suicide mission. John Wayne plays the ‘good guy’, close to all at the Fort and the apaches who attempts to dissuade Thursday from his course of action. Thursday’s daughter (played by Shirley Temple) has a love-interest with the lower-class officer O’Rourke as a side-piece intended as an obvious allegory for the changing times and social mobility.
The film has more than its fair share of golden moments, nearly all of which are built on the beautiful black and white visuals on the screen. Two sequenes in particular stay in my mind and both involve dust clouds. The first is the cavalry charge which saves the wagon from indian assault – the camera’s focus on the groups of men interwining amongst the swirling mist comes off a treat – and the second is the final shot of the battle scene. Here the Apache chief places his lance straight in front of a stationary John Wayne standing almost submerged in dust. There’s also the close up shots of the Apache leaders, faces emotionless and stern as hawks, set against the harsh and stormy Arizona skyline. These are timeless images and I’d wager they are worthy of a place in any art gallery.
The cast is a patchwork of character actors who add gutsy humour and relief to the steely-heartnedness embodied by Henry Fonda’s cold Thursday. The juxtaposition of Wayne is his usual hero-amongst-men but those looking for a ‘Wayne movie’ best look elsewhere as the duke doesn’t get that much screen time actually. Wayne is more of a moral compass than a protagonist in this picture.
In the closing moments, we see Wayne eulogizing the bravery of Thursday – despite Fonda’s dogged refusal to heed advice and thus lead his men to certain suicide – in a manner befitting of Ford’s “print the legend” line from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). The ablity of men to rewrite history is a strong theme in Ford’s movies and I just don’t understand why critics ignore it so brazenly.
Lastly, you simply can’t comment on FORT APACHE without talking of the fantastic score. But just watch it for that, you don’t need an armchair critic like me to tell you much more.
One hell of a movie.
Note: Notice how many people lose their hats in the film; it’s an incredible amount.
hotdog rating: 9/10