Film Review:Fort Apache,
John Ford, 1948
"salty, sizzling visualization of regimental life at a desert fort, of strong masculine personalities and of raging battles beneath the withering sun."
Bosely Crowther, New York Times
"Fort Apache was the first of Ford's valentines to the US cavalry....through which he venerated his own sacred trinity of family, community and nation". ( Coyne, 60)
"Ford's sharp critique of military leadership". (McBride, 450)
"here is a picture glorifying the Indians and debunking myths of the 7th Cavalry; yet it is incessantly cited as a typical example of exactly the opposite and of everything wrong with John Ford."
Tag Gallagher, (quoted in McBride, 459)
"The filmmaker Jean- Marie Straub once called Ford the most Brechtian of filmmakers because he lays bare the contradictions, He never pushed it further than in Fort Apache, where the final scene sanctions vain glory and senseless death because it serves the need for a uniting myth."(Eyam, 340)
"(Fort Apache) simultaneously reveals the deceit behind the ideals of the classic Western and reinforces the need for such ideals."(Simmon, 282)
Film Review:Fort Apache,
John Ford, 1948
Fort Apache was based on Saturday Evening Post story "Massacre" by James Warner Bellah. The story was "full of vivid images, but hampered by Bellah's ....... blatant racism that seriously invoked phrases like the 'white man's burden' as late as 1947". His own son characterised him as " a fascist, a racist and a world class bigot."(Scott Eyam, 328)
Thankfully Ford hired the liberal ex New York Times film critic Frank Nugent to write the script and he changed the racist bigotry in the story and altered the villains from Bellah's lurid dime novel portrayal of Indians to blame individual White American profiteers. This device has often been used by Hollywood to avoid the hazard of challenging the heroic myth of the frontier and replacing it with the much less romantic but historically grounded imperialist expansion.
In Fort Apache Ford created a community which, despite its military intent, was bound together by the women. Both the community spirit and the importance of women and social functions to it are common themes in Ford's work and strongly reflect his values which in turn were rooted in his Irish background. Edward Buscombe notes that "dances signify social cohesion and the celebration of fellowship; those who disrupt them are threats to the community. Twice Thursday is responsible for breaking up a dance, thereby alienating himself from all at the fort." (Buscombe, 56) It was this social bonding aspect of the frontier myth with which Ford felt empathy, and it is unclear whether or not he was buying into the myth or like most contemporary Americans he was blurring the edges between myth and reality.
As his biographer Joseph McBride points out, Ford used ethnic humour to introduce a populist element which elevates the importance of ordinary folk and cuts through the pomposity of the leading characters. McBride sees the antics of Sergeant Mulcahy ( Victor McLaglen) as falstaffian: on the one hand 'low comedy' which entertains, but also bringing the serious portrayal of the military down to earth: "Sergeant Mulcahy mock(s) the form of military rituals while giving Ford's military its true core of humanity, expressed with oblique wisdom and heartfelt emotion" ( McBride, 454). "To Jean Mitry, ..........in 1954, Ford explained that he liked ' to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic. Sometimes tragedy is ridiculous.'". (McBride, 455)
John Ford's depiction of the soldiers in all his cavalry films was inspired by the action paintings of Frederic Remington and Charles Schreyvogel, while the sweeping vistas and portrayal of native Americans often had their origin in the work of Charles Russell. As early as 1918 Ford used these works to guide his direction in the Western 'Hell Bent', his son Pat recalled that he pored over them to gain inspiration for the action sequences.
Painstaking research provided 'backstories' for the main characters, including interestingly, Cochise. Interestingly because most contemporary films did not develop the characters of native Americans. True Ford's Cochise is very much the White Man's Indian,: the noble savage:
"highly intelligent.......... in our story his name will strike terror into the hearts of men (sic) but when we meet him, he will prove to be an impressive and dignified man, no mere vengeful fighter, but a man who has suffered much at the hands of the whites, and has, in fact, right on his side." (Eyam, 332)
As Eyam elaborates, the film turns on the very different views which the two leading US Officers have of native Americans in general, and of Cochise in particular:
" 'Colonel Thursday, I gave my word to Cochise. No man is gonna make a liar out of me sir.' Captain York
'Your word to a breech clouted savage? An illiterate uncivilized murderer and treaty breaker? There's no question of honour, sir, between an American officer and Cochise. Colonel Thursday"
Jim Kitses sees this as an indication that Colonel Thursday is "uncivilised, despite a surface elegance and culture", but for once I think Kitses has this wrong, for Ford is exploring the whole notions of civilised and savage behaviour, and we are led to conclude that "elegance and (high) culture have very little to do with integrity and honour, and everything to do with providing a smokescreen for self seeking careerists to hide behind. Certainly, for me this is the best by far of the three cavalry films, although that could be damning it with faint praise.
Although superficially based on the Battle of the Little Bighorn the complete change of location undermines it and the characters are not drawn from history but are constructs which are starkly counter posed in that one represents the easterner with no understanding of the frontier or the Indian while the other is westerner who is sympathetic to them. Despite an otherwise excellent biography Joseph Mc Bride's misunderstanding of History leads him to claim that it was ironic that the film's fictional characters acted out as historically accurate depiction of events. Sadly not even the characters were accurately formed, it was much more likely that an easterner would be more sympathetic not less sympathetic to the Indians, since westerners' familiarity with the Indians generally bred contempt.
Overall the strength of this film is in its ability to provoke such thoughts, it is weighty in that it raises issues and does not seek to answer them simplistically in the manner of some of John Ford's later work.
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009