Fort Apache (1948)

“I’m not asking your opinion, Captain York. When you command this regiment — and you probably will — command it!”

Synopsis:
Lieutenant Thursday (Henry Fonda) is sent to a remote outpost in the west, where he attempts to impose strict military discipline on a troop of cavalrymen. Meanwhile, his teenage daughter (Shirley Temple) struggles to adjust to life outside the city, while Captain York (John Wayne) tries to maintain peace with Cochise (Miguel Inclan), leader of the local Apaches.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
John Ford’s classic western (the first in his “cavalry trilogy”, followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949 and Rio Grande in 1950) is well-acted, beautifully photographed (by cinematographer Archie Stout), and deals sensitively with difficult issues. Ford effectively shows the tensions — and fatal mistakes — that can occur when seasoned veterans such as Wayne’s Captain York are forced to follow the ill-advised orders of proud yet clueless leaders (who are later lauded as heroes). As Peary notes, “Ford detractors won’t like his sentiment, Irish humor, chaste romance, and musical interludes, but if you’re a Ford fan you’ll love it all and be inexplicably choked up.” Interestingly, this is a rare early western where the audience is meant to feel sympathy for Indians, rather than viewing them as automatic enemies. Captain York’s respectful liaison with Cochise hints at the alternate history that could have emerged in America, if only we had taken more time and care when interacting with its original settlers.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Shirley Temple in her best “adult” role
  • Henry Fonda playing against type as a surprisingly unsympathetic leader
  • John Wayne as the intelligent, diplomatic Captain York

Must See?
Yes. As the first in John Ford’s famed “cavalry trilogy”, this movie is required viewing for any film fanatic. Peary nominates it for an Alternate Oscar as one of the best pictures of the year.

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One Response to “Fort Apache (1948)”

  1. ‘Fort Apache’ is described well in the assessment and, yes, DP Stout’s work is, indeed, remarkable. (A number of shots are actually stunning.) I’m not at all a “Ford detractor”; I recognize all too well his stamp on this film and actually appreciate many of his fine touches in it (esp. some of the humorous ones).

    Ford is a top American director and many of his films are quite wonderful and memorable. My problem with this film – and why I don’t consider it a must – is that I think it has one terrific idea in it (Fonda’s foolishness and the price men pay for it), but the screenplay is generally serviceable. Of course, Ford rises to the occasion, giving it his all. But because the bulk of the script leans toward ordinary, the performers can only do so much with it – and, overall, the performances don’t particularly leave a strong impression as a result.

    Some do a bit better than others: though I’m not a huge fan, Fonda registers admirably as someone difficult to like; Wayne manages some interesting nuance; Victor McLaglen (as Sgt. Mulcahy) and Pedro Armendariz (as Sgt. Beaufort) lend some much needed energy.

    As much as I admire both actors, Ward Bond and Anna Lee were hired here to be on automatic pilot. And, to me, John Agar (in his first role) and Ms. Temple aren’t asked to do much of anything either.

    The whole last section of ‘FA’ – the missed opportunity of proper, civil communication with the Apaches – is a compelling addition to what is generally offered in this type of film. If only the rest of the script offered better preliminary support.

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