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In John Ford's sombre exploration mythologising of American heroes, he slowly reveals the character of Owen Thursday, who sees his new posting to the desolate Fort Apache as a chance to claim the military honour which he believes is rightfully his. Arrogant, obsessed with military form and ultimately self-destructive, Thursday attempts to destroy the Apache chief Cochise after luring him across the border from Mexico, against the advice of his subordinates. Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
"Fort Apache" is the movie of respect. John Ford's message seems to be that everybody deserves respect. First of all, as natural in Ford's poetic ideology, the simple, low-class horse soldiers, with their sense of community, their sober courage, their stoic dedication to duty. Also the veteran officers Capt. York (John Wayne) and Capt. Collingwood (George O' Brien) share these plain but strong feelings with lower ranks, and have a deep friendship towards them. Then the Indians, here the Apaches, are represented as noble, brave, fair warriors, forced to war only by patent injustice. Important is the scene in the finale, when the winning Apaches nobly spare John Wayne and the other soldiers of the supply lines.
But Ford in not yet satisfied: even the arrogant, dumb, haughty colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda) deserves respect. His problem is that he's stupid, that's all. Actually, Thursday is a pathetic figure: he is the unique miserable character in the film, mainly because he is alone, an out-cast in the tight community of other soldiers. Moreover he is frustrated in his ambitions of career, and he is, in some sense, constantly humiliated in his pride by the veterans of Fort Apache. For instance, Thursday arrogantly wonders why the son of Sgt. O' Rourke (Ward Bond) was admitted to become an officer; but he readily realizes that the sergeant got this privilege from his outstandingly heroic actions on the battle-field, something that Thursday probably had always dreamed and never got. The priceless experience of the veteran officers is always understated by Thursday, in a somewhat childish, whimsical way. But perhaps he has a guess that he's wrong, and his reaction is to close himself into an armour of upper-class-pride, scorning the love of her daughter for the sergeant's son.
However, the movie develops through magnificent images of the Monument Valley, subtle psychological touches, sense of humor, moments of emotion, action, suspense. Then we get to a great scene that proves how cinema can be deep art. The horse soldiers are ready for the final attack; everybody is perfectly conscious that they will be slaughtered by the Apaches... everybody but the dumb colonel. They accept their fate quietly: well, their job is to face death, possibly to die in the most idiotic way, why not? This seems nonsense nowadays, but here Ford gives us a perfect representation of the spirit of the Nineteenth Century. Then, suddenly, Thursday accuses York of cowardice and commands him to the supply line, together with the reluctant Lt. O' Rourke (John Agar). Then York, in a plain way, informs Sgt. O' Rourke that his son will not participate to the suicide attack. These news immediately raise the spirits of the soldiers: not caring their own deaths, they roar an hurrah. The boy (their son) is safe, he will marry his girl, they will have children, the life will continue. Here Ford touches an extremely profound chord, something even deeper than our human souls, the core of our animal essence. Here we have the instinct of the mammal which offers itself to the predator, in order to save its puppies.
The remainder of the finale, with the ambush and the partial redemption of Thursday, is superbly filmed and crowns a timeless masterpiece of cinema: "Fort Apache".
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