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USA 1948
Directed by
John Ford
127 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Fort Apache

Fort Apache was the first of John Ford's trilogy of US Cavalry films and was followed by She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in 1949 and Rio Grande in 1950. It established many of the elements of the classic Western - a mixture of heroism, romance and outdoor adventure action. The most iconic screen frontiersman of them all, John Wayne,  provides the first element, John Agar and a grown-up Shirley Temple the romance (the pair were  married in real life at the time though shortly to divorce in an acrimonious break-up)  and a gaggle of Ford regulars, including Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen, fill in the support roles in what is a sentimentalised but compelling portrait of life in a US army frontier post  in the latter part of the 19th century. Above all, however, the film is an exploration of male pride and sense of moral duty.

A reworking of the Custer myth, the film has the ambitious, inflexible and vain Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda in a stand-out performance) arriving to take command of the dust-bowl outpost of Fort Apache on the US-Mexico border, accompanied by his daughter, Philadelphia (Temple). Feeling unfairly side-lined by his superiors and keen to demonstrate his military chops, Thursday finds in the Apache’s railing against the deplorable conditions on their reservation the opportunity to make a name for himself. The results are however, as they were for Custer and his men, disastrous as Thursday has no real tactical skill and refuses to recognise the situation for what it is, being hell-bent on what today would be called a “shock-and-awe” approach to the situation.  John Wayne as Captain Kirby York is the level-head, field experienced soldier who tries to temper Thursday’s by-the-book approach without success.

The fine script by Frank Nugent, quite unusually for its time, presents the points of view of both the women on the post and the Indians whose way of life was decimated by the arrival of the white man. However whilst the central message - that established authority is sacrosanct - may have seemed desirable in the immediate aftermath of WWII when the film was made it is hardly so today. This affirmation of dedication to duty goes to the extent of having Wayne’s Captain York, both stoically watch the destruction of his fellow-soldiers and friends and, even more incongruously, partake of the media mis-representation of Thursday’s folly and uttering the kind of patriotic homily which we know in hindsight has had disastrous results for America subsequently. 

Whilst for some the film will be deeply compromised by its compliance with the forces of authority, Ford is not blind to the shortcomings of this position and the issues raised certainly provide food for debate. Ford’s direction is first class with many superbly staged scenes and Archie Stout’s black and white photography of the Montana buttes provides a magnificent backdrop to the action which is realized with what in its day was no doubt an impressive sense of realism.




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