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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>
near perfect Cavalry Western with Fonda splendidly cast against type
In Fort Apache Henry Fonda, often the kindest but strongest of the kind figures in the movies, plays the General Custer-esquire Colonel Thursday, and John Wayne, often the one in the movies who will shoot Indians first and maybe (if he feels like it) ask questions later, plays the more level-headed/friend-of-Apache-Cochese Captain York. In any other Western the roles would be reversed, but John Ford trusted his stars as actors to not be type-casted, and particularly with Fonda he strikes some really rich ground. Part of that is in his direction (maybe some of Ford's stern and sometimes bull-headed self could identify somewhere in Thursday), but it's also Fonda being able to find certain beats or pauses or inflections that add dimension to what is a mostly stiff and unmovable Cavalry Colonel who is a gentlemen second and a military man first. Wayne is also very good here, as he often was for Ford more than any other director save for maybe Hawks, as he's more-so apart of the ensemble as opposed to a full-blown star, and there's even some subtlety where it's usually not seen by him.
The story itself is also ripe for Ford's wonderful blend of all-American warmth and critical-while-embracing of American West themes, and there's a lot of extra entertainment with the supporting cast (mostly a who's who of genial drunks and weathered first-timers and ex-Civil War soldiers). And with one exception- a poetically ironic but unnecessary scene with Mrs. Thursday getting the telegram of his transfer right before the climactic battle- there's barely a scene that doesn't register as something worthwhile for the story, or for some interesting characterization, or even something in as simple as a dance between Thursday and O'Rourke that reveals how good Fonda could be at staying in character while in a formal bit like that. We're also given the proverbial 'good' young-actor performances from John Agar as the West Point graduate young O'Rourke who's after Shirley Temple's daughter of Col. Thursday.
Fort Apache allows for all of the thrills and curiosities of watching an 'old-fashioned' Western, but there's more than meets the eye for Ford. It's all so deceptively simple; it's not quite as masterful as the Searchers, but it's very close, at deconstructing the myths of strong American men going to kill Indians and win the day inn honor to reveal the savagery underneath where logic is thrust aside. But at the same time, Ford still celebrates the valor in men in the old west, and there's something of a forerunner to the message of Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: when legend becomes fact, print (or film) the legend - albeit with some truth sprinkled here and there. Surely one of the better Ford and Wayne Westerns, and one another in the equally (or even more-so) rewarding collaboration with Fonda, here revealing a whole other side than a Lincoln or Tom Joad. 9.5/10
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