(1948) dir. John Ford
viewed: 05/10/09 at the Stanford Theater, Palo Alto, CA
Part two of the John Wayne/John Ford double bill at the Stanford Theater was Fort Apache, one of Ford’s many films that I hadn’t seen before. Certainly, I wouldn’t classify it as one of his masterworks, but a solid film through and through, starring Henry Fonda alongside Wayne and Shirley Temple and John Agar. Not purely a Western, I would suggest, because it’s also a bit of a military film or war movie to an extent, with the nearly ever-present refrain of “You’re in the Army Now”, reminding the audience of some of the more comic asepcts of military life. It also seems significant in that this film comes only a couple of years out of World War II, and the miliatry dignity is a key issue at the film’s heart.
Roughly based on the legendary fiasco of Custer’s Last Stand, the film centers around Fonda, a Civil War hero who, brought into the army is shifted out to the outskirts of civilization to the post at Fort Apache, which he deems to be well below him. The camp is populated heavily with Irish-Americans, who drink heavily and offer much comic relief. At times, in fact, the film almost seems more comic than dramatic. When Henry Fonda’s Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday sees an opportunity at glory on the range, bringing back the Apache tribesmen who’ve abandoned the reservation due to mistreatment, he starts a battle that he cannot finish, much against the recommendations of well-respected Captain Kirby York (Wayne), who sizes up the situation accurately.
The film actually is quite poignant regarding the plight of the Native Americans, a noble groups of tribes, who have come to agree to peace, yet will not be crushed or insulted. The life on the plantation has been far from positive for them, in which they are lead to alchoholism (a somewhat ironic comment given the giddy, good-nature of the drunken Irish-Americans), and the Apache refuse to be exploited more. But Thursday, against better judgment, leads his cavalry to decimation and a highly symbolic insult to the leadership of the Native tribes.
It’s interesting to see this in 1948, and while it’s far from bleeding-heart liberalism, it shows a greater humanity toward the Native Americans than one might anticipate. It’s Thursday who is the foul-mouthed racist, despite his West Point background and stiff, military rigidity. Of course, it’s that very rigidity that turns out to be his weakness, rigidity and pride in search of glory. Wayne is the pragmatist, who speaks “a little Apache” and who understands their plight and dignity. The film tends to blame their exploitation more on an individual capitalist rather than the American government, and the ending suggests a cover up of Thursday’s death to translate him into a hero for the recordbooks, something that will be good for the country, the goverment, and the military. An oddly ironic contrast with the tonality. Wayne clearly grimaces at the fabrications but justifies it nonetheless.
As always, Ford is a master at the landscapes and the character, imbuing the Western with great depth and social criticism, despite his denials that he put too much into them. And it’s just plain awesome to see these films in the cinema.