DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Fort Apache

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Fort Apache

Fort Apache (1948) dir. John Ford
Starring: Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen


By Alan Bacchus

This is the first film in John Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy'. It’s a story of the frontier wars from the point of view of the special military regiment set up for the mobile protection of America's frontiersmen. Henry Fonda is the stuck-up Colonel Thursday, who is put in charge of a ne’er-do-well Cavalry division on the outskirts. The group comes into conflict with soldiers and officers used to policing the frontier with a different and more nuanced set of rules.

As with many of Ford's westerns, it's a lengthy film (128 minutes), which takes time to get going. The first hour or so, in repetitive fashion and without much subtlety, sets up a ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ scenario between Thursday and his soldiers. As an officer of privilege forced out of his previous and respectable posting in the civilized East, Thursday is introduced as a bitter old warrior who is set in his ways about military conduct. When he arrives at Fort Apache he discovers a group of soldiers without the traditional whip-cracking discipline he's used to. Most of the first half of the film establishes the stubbornness of Thursday with respect to the men, as well as his disapproval of his daughter's courtship with a young and less refined Lt. O'Rourke. John Wayne is also underutilized standing quietly in the backdrop for most of the first half while Fonda controls the stage.

After the hour mark when the Apaches enter the story the stakes are raised with more complex conflicts, not to mention some solid action scenes. When an Apache threat emerges after a period of an agreed-upon peace, John Wayne's character, Captain York, investigates and discovers that the peace was broken by the hubris of an American settler. York becomes torn between his loyalty to Thursday, who wants to go to war, and his admiration, respect and word given to their chief adversary, Cochise.

Here we soon realize this is not a traditional cowboys and Indians picture. Cochise is aggrandized and given much respect and admiration from the American cavalrymen, and York's devotion to Cochise's honour becomes a deeper, more resonant point of conflict than the mere blowhard stubbornness of Thursday. Thus, Fort Apache admirably challenges America's place as imperialists and policemen of the North American frontier.

Fort Apache is also a story of manners and the examination of class in America. Colonel Thursday speaks to his troops with the barrier of military rank, but also the barrier of class, presumably born from his eastern upbringing. This prevents him from earning his troops' true respect. Fonda's performance is on the mark. He's characterized in the extreme, but we sense in Fonda's soulful eyes an insecurity and honourable conviction at odds with his chosen profession.

Of course, Ford once again shoots the picture in the majestic Monument Valley locales. The landscape under the crisp B&W cinematography is magnificent if not taken for granted given the vast number of times we've seen the backdrop. We're treated to some of the best of Ford's classic compositions, often filling up the majority of his frames with the dreamy cloud formations high above the actors.

Despite a laborious opening, Fort Apache evolves into one of the more challenging and exciting Western action movies in Ford's filmography.

Fort Apache is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

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