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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>
When Col. Thursday leads a company "at a striking distance" from a repair patrol lead by Lt. O'Rourke. Sgt. Mulcahey is part of O'Rourke's patrol, but when the action shifts to show Col. Thursday's company in a saber charge against the Apache's there is a clear shot of Sgt. Mulcahey riding next to the flag bearer with his saber drawn. Note: this scene was duplicated from Col. Thursday's final charge against Cochise. See more »
Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday arrives at a frontier fort to take up his new command. His harsh, unbending philosophy of soldiering creates something of a stir in the regiment. His pretty daughter Philadelphia causes a rather different commotion.
The headstrong commander refuses to listen to the advice of his loyal captain, Kirby York, who knows frontier life and enjoys a rapport with the indian chiefs. The two officers are both strong characters, and their differing ideas inevitably lead to a clash.
Cochise and his braves are willing to accommodate the white man so long as their concerns are handled with diplomacy. Unfortunately, the high-handed approach of Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday cause relations to deteriorate, and conflict ensues.
In the course of the 1940's and 50's, director John Ford returned repeatedly to this subject-matter, John Wayne in Monument Valley with the US cavalry, fighting redskins and singing Irish folksongs. The stirring anthem in this movie is "The Girl I Left Behind Me", sung as the regiment rides out in full panoply to meet Cochise - although "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" gets an airing, too.
The cavalry regiment itself is a protagonist in the story, regarded as a living entity by its members. When Captain York is promoted to Colonel and commands the regiment, he makes a powerful speech stressing the continuity and tradition which have made the regiment great. The sense of hierarchy is strong. This is a world of order in which army regulations govern even the way an officer presents his calling-card. Soldiers can quote the regulations by heart. This well-regulated military force will, we feel, impose civilisation on this wild frontier.
Examples of the regiment's rigid code keep recurring. The NCOs' dance has its own elaborate protocol, which not even Colonel Thursday dares to flout. Feelings over the O'Rourke marriage reach boiling-point, but everyone adheres to the rules of military courtesy. Washington's Birthday is celebrated as a regimental occasion. The Irish sergeants are all related by blood and marriage, and as their exuberant fraternal greetings subside, military discipline asserts itself effortlessly.
"I'm not a martinet," protests Colonel Thursday, the most extreme martinet imaginable. He is inflexible in his enforcement of the military code, and too stubborn and wrongheaded to listen to the advice of his officers, who are experienced frontier campaigners. He completely misses the presence of Cochise's war party because he has no combat experience and doesn't know to watch the skyline for dust clouds. In addition, Thursday is a terrible snob. He calls young Michael O'Rourke a 'savage' for a perceived laxity of discipline, and sets his face against the marriage of Michael and Philadelphia because of "the barrier between your class and mine". He is dismayed that the son of a sergeant should have passed through West Point, and needlessly offends Cochise by talking down to him.
And yet even Owen Thursday has a human side. We gather that there is some personal secret between him and Captain Collingwood, and we almost smile when the armchair collapses under him. Most tellingly, Thursday returns to the beleaguered redoubt after he has been rescued. He redeems himself by rejoining his soldiers in the thick of the fighting.
When young Philadelphia Thursday (Shirley Temple) studies Michael O'Rourke in her purse mirror, we know that these two will be the love interest. Also, as this incident illustrates, the womenfolk of Fort Apache tend to run the show in this masculine enclave. The Thursday residence is somewhat joyless, especially when compared with Aunt Emily's cosy quarters. The women brush aside the colonel's seniority and call in Mrs. O'Rourke to refurnish the place. In one of the film's good jokes, no fewer than eight Mrs. O'Rourkes answer the call. There is a touching scene when the regiment moves out and the women are left together. Mrs. Collingwood is torn, because her husband has his safe posting back east and needn't go into battle, but she knows how important it is for him to prove his courage. The womenfolk urge her to call him back, but she reluctantly allows him to ride out.
John Ford laced many of his films with Irish humour, and "Fort Apache" is no exception. The ubiquitous Victor McLaglen plays Sergeant Festus Mulcahy, and he and the O'Rourkes run the fort - that is, whenever they are not in the jailhouse on charges of drinking and brawling. Outrageously, Mulcahy promotes a raw recruit to corporal, simply because he's Irish. Quincannon virtually lives in the jailhouse, but he has a fine tenor voice, so he is released from custody in order to serenade the young lovers with his rendition of "Genevieve". When the dishonest trader Meacham has his whisky stock confiscated and marked for destruction, the sad faces of the sergeants make a comical picture, and the subsequent 'destruction' is even funnier.
Ford is a master of composition. York rides out to parley with Cochise and is engrossed in dialogue, leaving Thursday stranded and excluded. We hear the thunder of hooves offscreen before we see the charge, and its impact is magnified accordingly. In the sequence where York and Beaufort ride to negotiate with Cochise, the screen is filled with stunning images of rock and sky. The charging cavalry are cleverly 'lost' in their own dust, which closes behind them like a curtain, ending the scene.
Wayne is curiously subdued in this film. This is partly because he plays a conscientious subordinate, and partly because the confrontation with Fonda is eclipsed by other plot developments.
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