Fort Apache Review

I first reviewed Fort Apache way back in August 2001 and what follows is largely a reprint of that review of the film. I've made some additions where I felt embarrassed at my naivity or felt I had something new to add. Needless to say, my comments on the DVD are all new and I should say upfront that the Warners R1 DVD is a vast improvement on the horrible Universal R2 release.

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 resolutely 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.

It's interesting to note the casting here which seems to be deliberately and ironically skewed. At the time, John Ford was still a Democrat, albeit a right wing one, who volubly supported Harry Truman while John Wayne was equally vociferous in his support for the Republican party. Knowing Wayne's politics, it must have delighted Ford to cast him as the liberal, unprejudiced officer in thrall to a racist, conservative superior. Equally, Ford obviously found it highly amusing to cast Henry Fonda, arch-liberal, as the ultra right-wing Colonel Thursday. This casting against type works very well - Fonda was very interesting when playing against his image as he did here and, notably, in Once Upon a Time in the West. Ford's politics, incidentally, were far from clear cut but what is very clear - and never changed from this point on - was his sympathy and support for the Native Americans who lived around Monument Valley. They appreciated his efforts for them so much that he was given the name 'Natani Nez' meaning Tall Leader.

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. It's appropriate to find this a film which deals implicitly with an American legend; the figure of General Custer upon whom Colonel Thursday is based. Joseph McBride points out that this is actually a fairly accurate representation of Custer's Last Stand at the Little Big Horn and Ford's attitude to Custer is one which mixes disgust and a certain admiration for his lunatic bravado.

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. 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

Thankfully, this new R1 disc from Warners is a damn sight better than the Universal R2 abomination from 2001. The fullscreen monochrome picture is pin-sharp with loads of detail and exquisite shadow definition. Quite a lot of grain in places but nothing seriously amiss. The mono soundtrack is also excellent with no hiss and very clear dialogue, in good balance with the strong music score.

There is, sadly, no commentary track and the only extras are a trailer (in poor condition) and a brief featurette about Monument Valley which is interesting but necessarily superficial.

The film is accompanied by optional subtitles but the extra features are not.

Fort Apache is a wonderfully rich film and probably the most interesting and complex part of the Cavalry Trilogy. It has a compellingly double-edged attitude to its subject - the rituals of the military are enshrined and celebrated while the blind stupidity of some of its officers is equally evident. Despite the romantic subplot, which threatens to destroy the film every time it appears, Fort Apache is an endlessly rewatchable piece of work.

9 out of 10
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