Fort Apache Review

John Ford's Westerns are some of the greatest films of the American cinema, most of them far more enduring and likeable than his more "respectable" works like the multi-Oscar winning The Grapes of Wrath and the cringe-inducing How Green Is My Valley. The Western genre allowed Ford space and time to indulge his love of tradition and history and are therefore much more personal works than the literary adaptations which were honoured at the time.

Fort Apache is the first of his Cavalry Trilogy, three films which celebrate the history and rituals of the US Cavalry troops who took the responsibility of policing the Union and the frontier after the Civil War. Each of the films takes a slightly different point of view but Ford's sentimental attachment to the Cavalry is evident in just about every frame. Fort Apache features a relatively early usage of one of the most familiar cliches in modern cinema - the by-the-book newcomer clashing with the hardbitten veteran - but it's done so well that the familiarity isn't a problem. What is surprising is how intelligently the film deals with both the central clash between the two heroes and the predicament of the Native Americans. This is not a simple "Cowboys and Indians" picture, it's a grim, moving study of compromise and betrayal, one so affecting that not even the horrible "love interest" and heavy handed comedy scenes can spoil it.

Henry Fonda, in a surprisingly unsympathetic performance, plays Colonel Thursday the new CO of Fort Apache, a defensive military base on the borders of a major Apache reservation. He arrives to find a relaxed and lazy group of soldiers who rely on the reputation of veteran Indian fighter Captain York (Wayne) to keep the natives at bay. York is an archetypal Wayne character of the period (i.e. pre-"Searchers"); trustworthy, endlessly courageous, thoughtful and the kind of guy you'd want on your side in just about any situation. Thursday, on the other hand, is vain, foolish and snobbish. He objects to his daughter Philadelphia (Temple) marrying the second lieutenant O'Rourke (Agar) because of the class division and demands that the men under his command are well turned out - "The uniform is not a subject for whimsical, individual interpretation. We're not cowboys". Indeed they are not - this is one of Ford's main points. What separates his cavalry pictures from his other Westerns is that they are as much about rules and traditions as about action. But he also makes a distinction between rules which bind men together and rules which sometimes need to be broken by the strong individual - York is a better soldier than Thursday because he uses his initiative and reacts to situations intelligently rather than placing all his faith in the rule book. He and Thursday clash on the subject of military strategy - Thursday believes in strict adherance to the principle that the Apaches should be met with full force, regardless of the situation, while York's knowledge of recent events leads him to believe that the rulebook is wrong and will only lead to unnecessary bloodshed.

Along with this clash of personalities, Ford deals directly and intelligently with racism. Thursday has no respect for the Apaches, referring to them as "digger Indians", incapable of reason or negotiation. York believes differently and decides that the only way to tackle the renegade Apaches - who have taken over the local reservation and are raiding the Fort's supply wagons - is to persuade the great Apache Chief, Cochise, to return and restore order. Ford is clearly on York's side here and brings out one of the great tragedies of American history in showing how Cochise was ripped off by the American government when the Indian Ring began to infiltrate the reservations through corrupt Indian agents and stir up dissent against the peace treaty with the chiefs of the tribes. In other words, while showing the murderous actions of Diablo and his apache war party, Ford also acknowledges the grievances of the Apaches which gave rise to such events. Interestingly, a scene where O'Rourke encounters two men whose have been tortured and killed and strapped to their wagon was repeated much later in the best film ever made about the Indian wars of the late 19th century, Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid. Meachum, the Indian Agent, is as near to a villain as the film contains, selling contraband to the Apache rebels and profiting on the resulting chaos. By contrast, Cochise is allowed dignity and is given the most starkly realistic message of the film; "It is not well for a nation to be always at war. The young men die. The women sing sad songs. The old ones are hungry in the winter." We're heading here towards the more complex approach to racial prejudice that is found in The Searchers and the Autumnal redemption of Cheyenne Autumn.

Most significantly, the film embodies Ford's most persistent theme in his Westerns - the force of history. Like that other great twentieth century artist James Joyce, Ford understood that "History" is more than just a list of events. It is deeds, intentions good or bad, old lies, loyalties, betrayals, broken men, courage, redemption, sadness, despair and death. A man is the sum of his history and so is a country - in Fort Apache, people die because of Thursday's inability to understand this. In his later films, Ford brings this theme into the foreground, most significantly with the towering character of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers and finally in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a film which is all about history, written and remembered.

However, rest assured that if such serious thoughts aren't your thing then Fort Apache is still a damn fine Western. The action scenes are brilliantly shot with some wonderful camera angles and immense energy, and the presence of Wayne is as magnetic as ever. He has a relatively secondary role here though, with Fonda taking centre stage for much of the time. It's a very impressive performance and Fonda carefully shades the Colonel so that he isn't simply prissily uptight throughout. Towards the end as Thursday begins to lose it, Fonda makes him pitiable and, ultimately, courageous. Weighed against these virtues, however, are the comedy and romantic scenes. To be fair, the comedy isn't as obnoxious here as it is in some of Ford's other films and the scene with Sgt Mulcahy (MacLaglen) training the new recruits is genuinely amusing. But there's too much horseplay for this viewer. The love interest is even worse. Shirley Temple has lost any vestigal appeal that she had in the thirties and is just another bad actress and John Agar performs with all the charm and charisma of a dead buffalo. But we should be indulgent - Ford puts as much effort into recreating the jokes and songs of the Cavalry as he does into the more serious elements of the film and even the flawed aspects of the film are recognisably the work of the same director who creates such beautiful moments as the arrival of the Apaches signalled by sound, and the scene where Wayne walks into the mist to greet the Apache messenger.

This is not really the best place to start if you want to discover the Western films of John Ford. I'd suggest Stagecoach or Wagonmaster as a good beginning from which to explore the way he expanded the genre, followed by My Darling Clementine, then the Cavalry Trilogy followed by his two late masterpieces The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, both of which I will be reviewing in the next few days. Ford was quick to deride any suggestion that he was an artist, considering himself a jobbing filmmaker, but unconscious artistry is just as valid as any other kind and part of Ford's genius is that, like Howard Hawks, he created great cinema because he couldn't help doing so. Intention has nothing to do with it.

The Disc

Ah, the joys of getting discs from Universal UK. That trembling feeling as you put the disc in the player, wondering just how bad it's going to be and whether there are further depths this company can sink to in their treatment of great films. I'm delighted to be able to report that Fort Apache lives down to the record set by King Kong. It's a poor transfer in terms of both picture and sound and the extras are, well, non-existent.

At first, the picture quality is appalling, but later becomes merely very bad. The black and white cinematography is reduced here to murky greys. There are vast swathes of grain on display throughout and it is generally ugly to watch. Towards the middle of the film, things improve slightly with a better level of detail and contrast, but it's still a very poor example of how DVD should look. There is a lot of minor print damage too and the film is clearly in dire need of proper restoration. The picture is fullscreen, as it should be for a film of this vintage.

The sound quality is slightly better but still not good. There is a lot of crackling and hiss and the dialogue is sometimes indistinct. In particular, there is some horrible distortion in chapter 12. Again, a remastering would have been a great improvement.

The only extra is a "Synopsis" with two stills from the film. There are a rather miserly 18 chapter stops and a nice menu picture.

This is a film that cries out for a properly remastered special edition and Universal's R2 disc is not good enough. If you really love the film, this might just about be worth buying if you can get it cheap. Otherwise, stay well away.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 19:04:53

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