Review: Fort Apache (1948)

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Reason number one why I could never be in the military, I have major problems listening to stupid people, especially stupid people in charge!

Screenplay By: Frank S. Nugent
Directed By: John Ford

I hate stupidity, and even worse is stupidity hidden behind the veil of smugness and class. Fort Apache takes America to task for much of its stupidity that was unleashed upon the old West behind the veneer of smugness and class. It does this in the form of Col. Thursday as portrayed brilliantly by Henry Fonda. How can you not think of a man who says he doesn’t believe in the popular theory of Robert E. Lee as a brilliant tactician as anything but stupid? But, Col. Thursday isn’t just stupid, he is arrogant, full of himself and a few shades beyond “Danger, People Will Die” on the smug-o-meter (TM & CR Bill Thompson, 2009). But, Fonda brings an assured attitude to the role that is absolutely necessary. Anyone can be smug or stupid, but only a truly dangerous person can be those things and also be completely sure of what they are doing. Henry Fonda is terrific in Fort Apache as the representation of every wrong ever committed by American forces in the old West.

The antithesis to Col. Thursday is the character of Capt. York, played by John Wayne. York is also sure of himself, but he isn’t smug and he takes the time to think and ration what is going on so that he is always in command not just of himself but of the situation and his surroundings. He is also a very mythic character, probably not many men like York existed on the plains, that I am sure of. But, he provides the moral compass to the film and Wayne delivers a very subtle and quiet performance that shows what man can be capable of when he looks beyond himself and sees humanity as a whole. This all leads to a very believable character, no matter how mythic he may be. York’s tolerance towards the Indians helps to transcend Fort Apache beyond most Westerns, and even beyond most of the work of John Ford. John Wayne has never been better than in Fort Apache, he may have been as great, but he has never had another role where he has so effectively toned down his over the top bravado to deliver a serene performance.

In most of Ford’s work Indians are portrayed as evil next to the saintly cavalry men. In the modern Western a lot of times Indians are portrayed as a perfect society, somehow better than the war like white man. Fort Apache finds that perfect balance that most of cinema misses the mark on. The Indians aren’t good, they aren’t bad, they are just people living their lives and doing what they must to survive. The same holds true for the white man as portrayed in Fort Apache. They aren’t evil or even good, they are led by people who may share those attributes but at no point does Fort Apache fall into stereotyping either side of the conflict as a whole.

There is also a minor romance in Fort Apache, and it works. With the seriousness of the rest of the movie the brief flirtation with a romantic story provide a respite. This is accompanied by some truly comedic moments, like many truly great movies Fort Apache doesn’t have to confine itself to one genre, it has suspenseful moments, dramatic moments, epic moments, romantic moments and moments of true hilarity. Fort Apache is the best of Ford’s cavalry trilogy, the other two being She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. Fort Apache isn’t as technical as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in regards to how the cavalry works nor is it as whimsical with romance as Rio Grande is. Fort Apache meets somewhere in the middle and is all the better film for it.

There are plenty of Westerns you could see, and in a lot of ways Fort Apache doesn’t offer anything truly original to the audience. But, it is a well crafted story with both likable and unlikable characters as well as the usual enticing scenery, great acting and direction people have come to expect from a John Ford picture. If you are a fan of the Western in any way, or a fan of John Ford, Henry Fonda or John Wayne you owe it to yourself to see Fort Apache. Heck, like I say a lot, I am repetitive after all, if you are a fan of great movies period then there’s no reason you shouldn’t make time to experience Fort Apache.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

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