Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948)
Hard to believe (or is it?) that this is already the fifth John Ford film in my Westerns marathon, though the man, the master was notoriously prolific, so perhaps it should be surprising that Fort Apache is merely his fifth. John Ford truly is a master, and reason to get excited anytime one of his films comes along in this marathon (I even get the pleasure of another just around the corner with 3 Godfathers). His successes have helped define the genre, from top to bottom. Thus far I have posted favorable reviews of The Iron Horse, 3 Bad Men, Stagecoach, and My Darling Clementine, with a few of those likely to end my westward trek on my list of essentials for the genre. So what might the master hold in store for me this time out, with the aid of Henry Fonda, John Wayne and Shirley Temple?
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) has just been transferred to Fort Apache, in no man's land Arizona, a post he begrudgingly accepts with no other offers on the table. Hoping to move along to greener pastures in the US Army, Thursday believes himself above the post, but still hopes to whip his soldiers into shape and confront the pesky Apache Nation, which seems to want to do anything but accept the terms of their US treaty. Bringing along his daughter, Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), Thursday butts heads with Capt. York (John Wayne) and Sgt. Maj. O'Rourke (Ward Bond), whose son (John Agar) is actually a higher ranked officer fresh out of West Point, who despite treating the military as Thursday expects from his officers, comes at odds with the Col. due to a budding romance with his daughter. Soon though, Thursday's ambition and disregard for the prowess of the Apache comes to a head.
It'd be too easy to simply say this is a film which works because John Ford is afforded the opportunity to work with the likes of Fonda, Wayne, Temple, et al., and while part of that is true, it would be a disservice to what Ford is doing here. Before we get to that though, Fonda, Wayne, Temple, et al.! Seriously, they all give such great performance, especially Fonda and Temple. Wayne feels somehow marginalized in this film, appearing only on the sidelines and when called upon. But Fonda on the other hand shines as an anti-hero. Not quite a villain, he means well, but his ambitions are ill-fated and misdirected. Temple is the real surprise here, having never seen her appear in an "adult" role. She is doe-eyed and charming as the wonderfully named Philadelphia. What a shame that we didn't get to see what kind of career she could have crafted had she stuck to acting.
But as good as the actors are, John Ford is the central force in this film which propels it above just another western and makes it an exciting adventure and tale of folly. Nobody can quite shoot western action like John Ford. The sprinting of horses and beautiful backdrop of Monument Valley allows for an unmatched canvas on which this film can unfold. But with Ford it is always so much more than just the visuals and action flare. His narrative prowess allows plenty of time for the characters to develop, perhaps a slight fault in Fort Apache, which elevates the stakes to untold heights when it comes time for the action to crescendo, as it does here in the final act.
But at its core, this is a film about the arrogance of man, the misstep of underestimating your enemy and failing to give them the respect they might be due. In a marathon full of US Army v. Indian confrontations, it is interesting to chart how these films treat the Native American people. In some early films, there is clearly racism. Even in some of the later films there is an air of superiority between the two. In Fort Apache, Thursday represents the government which underestimates and disrespects the birth rite and natural gifts on the Indians, while York, who has been stationed there for some time, has come to respect them, appreciate them for what they are, albeit different. Ford's treatment of this is to demonize Thursday, to show his hubris and arrogance in a decidedly negative light. This treatment is most assuredly a strength of the film.
I will say that the film feels lengthy, with little to no action for the best part of the film before the aforementioned final act. All of this serves to better suit that sequence, but it doesn't make it any more exciting or particularly intriguing to watch. In retrospect, I appreciate those moments more and more, despite the oftentimes awkward humor which I just can't fully get on board with it seems. It is hard to call the slow pace of the film its greatest fault, but it is. For even in these moments we get the quaint courtship of Philadelphia and O'Rourke, the interplay among soldiers, the look into the life of a soldier's wife (or in this case daughter). These are the moments which keep the film alive, and make Ford one of the most fascinating and capable American film director, especially within this genre where he is able to pair that insight with the thrilling sequences which come at the end of the film, the flashier sequences he is most well known for. Don't sell the man short though, he is a complete filmmaker.★★★ - Very Good