“FORT APACHE” (1948) Review

 

“FORT APACHE” (1948) Review

Between 1948 and 1950, director John Ford made three Westerns that many regard as his “cavalry trilogy”. All three films centered on the U.S. Army Cavalry in the post-Civil War West. More importantly, all three movies were based upon short stories written by American Western author, James Warner Bellah. 

The first film in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” was “FORT APACHE” released in 1948. Starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda, the movie was inspired by Bellah’s 1947 Saturday Evening Post short story called “Massacre”. Bellah used the Little Bighorn and Fetterman Fight battles as historical backdrop.

The movie began with the arrival of three characters to the U.S. Army post, Fort Apache, in the post-Civil War Arizona Territory – a rigid and egocentric Army officer named Lieutenant Owen Thursday; his daughter Philadelphia Thursday; and a recent West Point graduate named Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke, who also happened to be the son of the regiment’s first sergeant. The regiment’s first officer, Captain Kirby York, and everyone else struggle to adjust to the martinet style of Thursday. Worse, young Lieutenant O’Rourke and Philadelphia become romantically interested each other. But since O’Rourke is the son of a sergeant, the snobbish Thursday does not regard him as a “gentleman” and is against a romance between the pair. But Thursday’s command style, the budding romance and other minor events at Fort Apache take a back seat when the regiment is faced with a potential unrest from the local Apaches, due to their conflict with a corrupt Indian agent named Silas Meacham. Thursday’s command and his willingness to adapt to military command on the frontier is tested when he finds himself caught between the Meacham’s penchant for corruption and the Apaches’ anger and desire for justice.

“FORT APACHE” proved to be one of the first Hollywood films to portray a sympathetic view of Native Americans. This is surprising, considering that Bellah’s view of the Native Americans in his story is not sympathetic and rather racist. For reasons I do not know, Ford decided to change the story’s negative portrayal of the Apaches, via screenwriter Frank S. Nugent’s script. Although Ford and Nugent did not focus upon how most of the other characters regarded the Apaches, they did spotlight on at least three of them – Captain Kirby York, Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday, and Captain Sam Collingwood. Both Thursday and Collingwood seemed to share the same negative views of the Apaches, although the latter does not underestimate their combat skills. York seemed a lot more open-minded and sympathetic toward the Apaches’ desire to maintain their lives in peace without the U.S. government breathing down their backs. In the case of “FORT APACHE”, York’s views seemed to have won out . . . for the moment.

As much as I enjoyed “FORT APACHE”, I must admit that I was frustrated that it took so long for it to begin exploring its main narrative regarding the Apaches and Meachum. The movie’s first half spent most of its time on three subplots. One of them featured the clash between Thursday and the men under his command. The second featured the budding romance between Philadelphia Thursday and Second Lieutenant O’Rourke. Do not get me wrong. And the third featured scenes of the day-to-day activities of the fort’s enlisted men and non-commission officers. I must admit that I found the last subplot somewhat uninteresting and felt they dragged the movie’s narrative. I had no problems with the Philadelphia-Michael romance, since it added a bit of romance to the movie’s plot and played a major role in Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday’s characterization. And naturally the York-Thursday conflict played an important role in the film’s plot.

The ironic thing about “FORT APACHE” is that the plot line regarding the Apaches does not come to the fore until halfway into the film. Due to this plot structure, I found myself wondering about the film’s main narrative. What exactly is “FORT APACHE” about? Worse, the fact that the Apache story arc does not really come to fore until the second half, almost making the film seem schizophrenic. There were plenty of moments in the first half that led me to wonder if director John Ford had become too caught up in exploring mid-to-late 19th century military life on the frontier.

Many have claimed that “FORT APACHE” is not specifically about life at a 19th century Army post in the Old West or the U.S. government’s relations with the Apaches. It is about the conflict between the two main characters – Captain Kirby York and Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. In other words, one of the movie’s subplots might actually be its main plot. Both York and Thursday were Civil War veterans who seemed to have conflicting ideas on how to command a U.S. Army post in the 19th century West and deal with the conflict between the American white settlers and the Apaches, trying to defend their homeland. Captain York had expected to become Fort Apache’s new commander, following the departure of the previous one. Instead, the post’s command was given to Colonel Thursday, an arrogant and priggish officer with no experience with the West or Native Americans. What makes the situation even more ironic is that while York had wanted command of Fort Apache, Thursday is both disappointed and embittered that the Army had posted him to this new assignment.

The problem I have with this theory is that movie did not spend enough time on the York-Thursday conflict for me to accept it. Thursday seemed to come into conflict with a good number of other characters – especially the O’Rourke men and his old friend Captain Sam Collingwood. York and Thursday eventually clashed over the Apaches’ conflict with Silas Meacham. And considering that a great deal of the movie’s first half focused on the day-to-day life on a frontier Army post and the Philadelphia-Michael romance, I can only conclude that I found “FORT APACHE” a slightly schizophrenic film.

Despite this, I rather enjoyed “FORT APACHE”. Well . . . I enjoyed parts of the first half and definitely the second half. While I found some of Ford’s exploration of life at a 19th century Army post rather charming, I found the movie’s portrayal of the entire Apaches-Meachum conflict intriguing, surprising and very well made. Instead of the usual Hollywood “white men v. Indians” schtick, Ford explored the damaging effects of U.S. policies against Native Americans. This was especially apparent in the situation regarding Silas Meacham. Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent made it clear that both Captain York and Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday regarded Meachum as a dishonorable and corrupt man, whose greed had led to great unrest among the Apaches.

And yet . . . whereas York was willing to treat the Apaches with honor and consider getting rid of Meachum, Thursday’s rigid interpretation of Army regulations and arrogant prejudice led him to dismiss the Apaches’s protests and support Meachum’s activities because the latter was a U.S. government agent . . . and white. Worse, Thursday decided to ignore York’s warnings and use this situation as an excuse for military glory and order his regiment into battle on Cochise’s terms – a direct (and suicidal) charge into the hills. U.S. policy in the Old West at its worst. God only knows how many times a similar action had occurred throughout history. I might be wrong, but I suspect that “FORT APACHE” was the Hollywood film that opened the gates to film criticism of American imperialism in the West, especially the treatment of Native Americans.

Another aspect of “FORT APACHE” that I truly enjoyed was Archie Stout’s cinematography. What can I say? His black-and-white photography of Monument Valley, Utah and Simi Hills, California were outstanding, as shown below:

 

Thanks to Ford’s direction and Jack Murray’s editing, “FORT APACHE” maintained a lively pace that did not threatened to drag the movie. More importantly, the combination of their work produced a superb sequence that featured the regiment’s doomed assault on Cochise’s warriors. Richard Hageman’s score served the movie rather well. Yet, I must admit that I do not have any real memories of it. As for film’s costumes . . . I do not believe a particular designer was responsible for them. In fact, they looked as if they had come straight from a studio costume warehouse. I found this disappointing, especially for the movie’s female characters.

“FORT APACHE” featured some performances that I found solid and competent. Veteran actors like Dick Foran, Victor McLaglen and Jack Pennick gave amusing performances as the regiment’s aging NCOs (non-commissioned officers). Guy Kibbee was equally amusing as the post’s surgeon Captain Wilkens. Pedro Armendáriz was equally competent as the more professional Sergeant Beaufort, who was a former Confederate. Grant Withers was appropriately slimy as the corrupt Silas Meachum. Miguel Inclán gave a dignified performance as the outraged Apache chieftain Cochise. The movie also featured solid performances from Anna Lee and Irene Rich.

John Agar’s portrayal of the young Michael O’Rourke did not exactly rock my boat. But I thought he was pretty competent. I read somewhere that Ford was not that impressed by Shirley Temple as an actress. Perhaps he had never seen her in the 1947 comedy, “THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER”. Her character in that film was more worthy of her acting skills than the charming, yet bland Philadelphia Thursday. John Wayne also gave a solid performance as Captain Kirby York. But I did not find his character particularly interesting, until the movie’s last half hour.

I only found three performances interesting. One came from George O’Brien, who portrayed Thursday’s old friend, Captain Sam Collingwood. I thought O’Brien did a great job in portraying a man who found himself taken aback by an old friend’s chilly demeanor and arrogance. Ward Bond was equally impressive as Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, the senior NCO on the post who has to struggle to contain his resentment of Thursday’s class prejudices against his son. But for me, the real star of this movie was Henry Fonda as the narrow-minded and arrogant Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. I thought he gave a very brilliant and fascinating portrayal of a very complicated man. Thursday was not the one-note arrogant prig that he seemed on paper. He had his virtues. However, Fonda did an excellent job in conveying how Thursday’s flaws tend to overwhelm his flaws at the worst possible moment. I am amazed that Fonda never received an Oscar nomination for this superb performance.

How can I say this? I do believe that “FORT APACHE” had some problems. I found the movie slightly slightly schizophrenic due to its heavy emphasis on daily life on a frontier Army post in the first half. In fact, the movie’s first half is a little problematic to me. But once the movie shifted toward the conflict regarding the Apaches and a corrupt Indian agent, Ford’s direction and Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay breathed life into it. The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by John Wayne and Henry Fonda. I must admit that I feel “FORT APACHE” might be a little overrated. But I cannot deny that it is a damn good movie.

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