29 June 2007
My entry for this week's movie club selection -- John Ford's FORT APACHE
FORT APACHE is at both a prototypical John Ford western and an atypical one. It contains all of his familiar tropes, but there is the beginning a chance in his outlook on the West and the men in it.
In the picture, you can see many of the things that were a hallmark of the John Ford Western:
* The Stock Cast -- This starts with John Wayne (captain york) and Henry Fonda (Lt Colonel Thursday), the two protagonists of the film, but also much of the supporting cast. Ward Bond (Sgt. Major O'Rourke), Victor McLagleb (Sgt. Mulcahy), George O'Brien (Capt. Collingwood) and Pedro Armendariz (Johnny Reb) were all regulars for Ford.
* The Irish -- Ford's films are chock full of Irish men and women, with names like O'Rourke.
* The Family -- This ties into the whole Irish/Catholic culture present in the film. There is also the contrast between the O'Rourke family and the Thursday family.
* Monument Valley -- FORT APACHE is one of nine John Ford films that was shot in the Arizona desert. This piece of land is now called John Ford Point.
* The Blend Of Genres -- Although a western, there are many genres present in the film, including comedy (mainly involving the Irish sergeants, or the clash between eastern and western culture), romance (between Lt O'Rourke and Philadelphia Thursday), action (two extended fight scenes) and drama.
* The Pagentry of the Military -- This is the first of Ford's "cavalry trilogy" and Ford revels in showing the daily life of the Cavalry Troop -- the uniforms, the dances, the training, etc. Also, we see an extended picture of what it's like to be a military wife and the travails that entails.
More importantly, FORT APACHE is one of the first films that shows Ford's evolving relationship with the Western genre.
* Depiction of the Indians -- We see in the movie the shabby way the Apache are treated by Meacham, the representative of the government. Cochise says, before the battle, ""He is worse than war. He not only killed the men, but the women and the children and the old ones. We looked to the Great White Father for protection. He gave us slow death. We will not return to your reservation while that man is there or anyone like him."
* The Arrogance of the Easterner -- Lt. Colonel Thursday (a clear analogue for General Custer) has no respect for the West or the Apache. An Easterner who views this assignment as being "shunted aside" by "an ungrateful war department." He of course pays for his disrespect. Thursday also shows disrespect for his men, typified by being unable to correctly remember Lt. O'Rourke's name. (he calls him O'Brien and Murphy early in the picture.)
* History vs Legend -- We see what happens at the battle, yet Lt Colonel Thursday is remembered, by both the journalists and Captain York, as a hero. This obviously foreshadowing Ford's latest treatise on the subject in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE, where the reporter says "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
* Western tropes. We see "the cavalry" make one save in the movie, but they are unable to do the same for LT. Colonel Thursday and his men, who make a last stand before succombing to the Apache.
There are many great parts of this movie -- The NCO Dance, the first Chase scene between the Cavalry and the Apache, the relationship between the sergeants, but my favorite scene is the one between Lt. Colonel Thursday and Sgt. Major O'Rourke, discussing the young Lieutenant.
Lt. Col. Thursday: This Lt. O'Rourke - are you by chance related?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: Not by chance, sir, by blood. He's my son.
Lt. Col. Thursday: I see. How did he happen to get into West Point?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: It happened by presidential appointment, sir
Lt. Col. Thursday: Are you a former officer, O'Rourke?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: During the war, I was a major in the 69th New York regiment... The Irish Brigade, sir.
RSM Michael O'Rourke: Still, it's been my impression that presidential appointments were restricted to sons of holders of the Medal of Honor.
RSM Michael O'Rourke: That is my impression, too, sir. Will that be all, sir?
Admittedly, FORT APACHE is not a perfect film. The romantic sub-plot, between Shirley Temple and then-husband John Agar, seems a bit rushed. They meet in a dusty shack and are quickly in love? O'Rourke seemingly proposed to her after just meeting her. And the end can, in these cynical times, seem hokey.
All in all, FORT APACHE is a great piece of filmmaking, well-deserving of being ranked with Ford's other legendary westerns (THE SEARCHERS, LIBERTY VALENCE).
let me also throw in a great book about John Ford and his Western pictures, JOHN FORD ANS THE AMERICAN WEST, by film critic Peter Cowie and a book on the western genre< THE SIX-GUN MYSTIQUE SEQUEL, by John Cawelti.