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I think that a list of John Wayne's five best pictures has to include
Fort Apache. It's the first and best of the cavalry trilogy that he did
with John Ford. Oddly enough he has less screen time here than in the
other two, due to the fact that he was co-starring with another big
Hollywood name in Henry Fonda.
It's first and foremost the story of a clash between two men who see the United States Army in very different terms. Fonda is a former general who's seen glory in the Civil War, but has been shunted aside. He wants to get back on top in the worst way. He's exiled to Fort Apache in the Arizona territory while the big headlines concerning the Indian wars are going to the campaign against the plains Indians which was true enough.
Wayne has also seen some glory in the Civil War. But he's a professional soldier and just wants to live long enough to retire. In fact Ward Bond who is the sergeant major at the post has also dropped down in rank, he was a major in the Civil War and a Medal of Honor winner. This was a common occurrence at the end of the Civil War. During the war, promotions came swiftly because of battlefield service. Something called a brevet rank was instituted a kind of temporary promotion. You could be a brevet brigadier general and have an actual rank of something like major. After the Civil War as the U.S. Army shrunk to its pre-war size, soldier reverted to previous ranks. This was something John Ford was keenly aware of when he made Fort Apache.
Ford's stock company was never better. Even minor bit parts are woven nicely into the whole story. And his photography of Monument Valley, it's beauty and vastness was never better even when he used color. Look at the scenes with John Agar and Shirley Temple riding and with Wayne and Pedro Armendariz on their way to parley with Cochise. Really great cinematography.
Ford had a couple of inside comments in the film. In a scene where Henry Fonda is getting an incomplete message from the post telegrapher, the telegrapher who might have strolled in from a Cagney-O'Brien film informs his commander that the message was interrupted "in the middle of the last woid." With both Irish and southern recruits in Fort Apache, a Brooklynese telegrapher would not have been out of place.
George O'Brien and Anna Lee, play Sam and Emily Collingwood who both knew Henry Fonda's Owen Thursday way back in the day. It's hinted that O'Brien had a drinking problem and that's why he's at Fort Apache, but he's looking for a transfer out. It comes as the regiment is moving out against Cochise.
Charles Collingwood was the second in command to Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar. Nelson became a British hero martyr, historians know about Charles Collingwood. When newspapermen at the end of Fort Apache remark about men like "Collingworth"not being remembered, it was John Ford making a statement about the worth of all the men who contribute their lives to defend their nations not just the leader heroes.
That remark by the way is the stage for one of John Wayne's finest acted scenes in his career. A soliloquy photographed through a cabin window about the life of the professional soldier, the camaraderie, the toughness, the bravery required of these men and how they deliver for their nation.
In a later film John Ford uses the line that in the west "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Henry Fonda's quest for martial glory was a blunder, but his story for the sake and tradition of his regiment is whitewashed and he becomes an inspiration.
Of course some of the lowbrow comedy that one expects from John Ford is here aplenty with the four drinking sergeants and their efforts to make soldiers out of the recruits. Led by Victor McLaglen, the quartet rounds out with Dick Foran, Jack Pennick, and Pedro Armendariz. See how they dispose of the contraband they are charged with destroying and its consequences.
Fort Apache also takes the side of the Indian here. Cochise played by an impassive Miguel Inclan is a figure of strength and dignity. Later on Jeff Chandler in another film brought speech to the dignity and that role launched his career. Cochise is the only true major figure in the film. He bedeviled the U.S. Cavalry for over a decade in Arizona Territory with guerrilla tactics Mao Tse Tung would have envied.
Fort Apache is a grand ensemble film and you will not be bored for one second in watching it.
John Ford's FORT APACHE is the first of a three-film cycle chronicling the
exploits of the U.S. Cavalry in the settling of the West, but it is far more
than that; as a thinly-disguised reworking of the George Armstrong Custer
story, it provides insight about a leader so blinded by his own ambition and
ego that his actions nearly wipes out his command, and would have to be
'covered-up' by an Army that always protects its 'own'. Ironically, in
whitewashing his actions, he becomes a national hero, giving him,
posthumously, the attention he'd craved. The story is a powerful one, and in
the hands of a top-notch cast, FORT APACHE is as timely today as when it was
Henry Fonda's Lt.Col. Owen Thursday is a complex, driven man, a martinet who considers his transfer to the western outpost as a slap in the face by the War Department. Accompanied by his daughter, Philadelphia (a grown-up and vivacious Shirley Temple), he arrives at Fort Apache early, and discovers the welcoming festivities are not for him, but for the return of the son of Sgt.Major O'Rourke (Ward Bond), a new second lieutenant, fresh from West Point. The younger O'Rourke, portrayed by John Agar, and Philadelphia are immediately attracted to one another (they were married, off screen), but, displaying a 'class' snobbery, Col. Thursday nixes any chance of an officer's daughter and an enlisted man's son (even if he is an officer) having a romance.
As the new commander, Thursday shows an insensitivity to both his own men (he rebukes former commander Capt. Collingwood, played by George O'Brien, in front of the other officers), and the intellectual and tactical skills of the Indians (drawing the ire of John Wayne, as Capt. Kirby York). He does convince York that he is interested in parlaying with Cochise, however, and soon York, whom the chief respects, is on his way to Mexico, to get him to cross the border for a meeting between the two leaders and the corrupt Indian agent (Grant Withers) whose actions had led to the current insurrection.
Ultimately, Cochise does cross the Rio Grande, and Thursday reveals his true plan; to demand a return to the reservation, or face annihilation. York feels betrayed, and warns Thursday that he's setting himself up for a massacre, especially as the commander intends to bring his entire command to the meeting. Thursday simply sneers at his warning, sarcastically suggesting that York is crediting Cochise as being as brilliant as Napoleon.
The meeting is brief, with Thursday showing no respect, and, sure enough, ends disastrously. Cochise, prepared for a potential betrayal, has lined the canyon walls beyond the meeting place with hundreds of sharpshooters, and, despite York's warnings (leading to his being branded by Thursday a 'coward', and ordered to remain with a rear guard), the Colonel leads his command in a charge, into the canyon...
In an unsympathetic role, Henry Fonda is marvelous, actually making Col. Thursday believable, if not likable. John Wayne, despite star billing, is actually secondary, plot-wise, but is excellent as the officer who learns, finally, what it means to command, by watching the wounded Thursday return to his command, and face certain death.
Major subplots of all three 'Cavalry' films would be devoted to Sergeants, and FORT APACHE offers four truly memorable ones, in Bond, Pedro Armendariz, Victor McLaglen, and Dick Foran.
FORT APACHE is a film that could easily stand alone as a superb drama; as the first of the trilogy, it set a high standard, and is considered by most critics as the finest of the three films.
It is unforgettable!
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.
"Fort Apache" is the movie of respect. John Ford's message seems to be
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".
I know that many consider Red River or The Searchers to be Wayne's
greatest cowboy movies, but for me, you can't get better than Fort
Apache. It is the first of John Ford and John Wayne's cavalry trilogy
and is the best of the lot.
I think the most interesting thing about the film is its rather sympathetic view of the American Indians--they were shown as being decent and 3-dimensional and Wayne repeatedly stressed the importance of our country keeping its word of honor to them as well. In fact, it was very funny seeing Wayne portraying the voice of reason while Henry Fonda was more of a martinet and could have cared less about honor and truth.
Along the way, these two great actors are supported by old familiars like Victor McLaglen and Ward Bond, as well as Shirley Temple and her then husband, John Agar. Despite criticism leveled towards Agar by the media over the years (and to a lesser extent, to the adult Temple), I think they did just fine in their roles and made a positive contribution to the movie.
And finally, the action and cinematography is tops. It's hard to imagine a more beautiful black and white film or one where so much care and effort was given to make a great film.
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
Director John Ford's first entry in his cavalry trilogy is this excellent film about life on a military outpost far from the glamorous theaters of the Indian Wars on the northern plains. The film touches on character development of the officers and enlisted men on the post, family relationships and the class distinctions among the military social order. Henry Fonda is great as a bitter, unhappy colonel who feels unappreciated by the military hierarchy and is displeased by his assignment to the isolated desert areas. John Wayne gives the film just the right balance as a captain who looks out for his men and knows Indians. Ford has his regular cast on board for the film, and John Agar and Shirley Temple handle the romantic clinches. The pace is slowed somewhat by comedy bits that add nothing to the film's substance. The black and white camera work is stunning and the music is reflective and melancholy.
This is one of my top 3-4 movies made by the Duke. It gets better each
time I watch it, and I watch it nearly every time it's on. If you
haven't seen a restored version, you'll be amazed at the
cinematography. Absolutely gorgeous. I don't think it would have been
improved in color, as one of the earlier comments said.
The final scene reminds me of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" as well. In "Valance", at the end of the movie, the newspaperman says upon learning who DID shoot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The same thing happens in Fort Apache, when the newspaper reporters talk about a famous painting of Col. Thursday's bold charge into the face of the enemy, when it was anything but the truth.
One hell of a movie that should be viewed by anyone who likes great entertainment.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In portraying the history of the United States from the Revolutionary
War to World War II, John Ford continually resorted to a deeply
personal, nostalgic form of legend... If there is no doubt of his
importance to the development of the Western, his uniquely sentimental,
poetic glorification of the white American's conquest of the wilderness
is both picturesque and reactionary...
The cavalrymen get a more honorable deal from three films made in succession by him: 'Ford Apache,' 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,' and 'Rio Grande.' These are quite properly referred to as his 'cavalry trilogy' as they deserve to be considered as a body of work dedicated to a particular theme, that of the life of the cavalry and their role as frontier protectors in times of Indian uprising...
'Fort Apache' is about the tensions in an isolated fort-social and military - hierarchy tensions, and, ultimately, the purely military tensions that arise when the commanding officer is transparently ill-fitted for his command...
Henry Fonda is a vain, domineering, and embittered colonel who can't get over losing his Civil War rank as general... He arrives at the Arizona desert outpost to take over from the experienced Indian fighter, John Wayne... He is arrogant, accepting no advice, and further alienates the hard-bitten veterans by refusing to support the romance of his lovely daughter (Shirley Temple) with a young lieutenant from West Point (John Agar) who happens to be the son of sergeant major (Ward Bond).
There are nice touches in the film here about army traditions, and undisciplined troops: Civil War veterans living in noisy harmony; amusing and touching moments with variety of vignettes that deal with the everyday lives of Fort Apache cavalrymen; and pretty Irish drunk humor from Victor McLaglen... The inevitable climax concerns, of course, the colonel's arrogance and ignorance leading his men into an Apache massacre...
Ford consistently finds the most beautiful way to frame a scene, and the black and white photography is stunning... But the best of the trilogy is undoubtedly 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,' which remains for many their favorite Western movie...
Owen Thursday is hardly impressed when his new command is the desolate
Fort Apache, but resolves to make the best of it. When a group of
Indians strike out from the local reserve led by warrior Cochise,
Thursday sees the challenge as being key in winning back the military
honour he feels has been denied him to date. However Captain York
persuades him to allow York to go into Mexico to talk peace and
convincing him to return to the US to broker a resolution but will
Thursday's obsession with honour and glory cause a bloodier ending?
Interweaving this central plot with romantic and comic subplots makes a
standard western into a much better one, even if it sometimes causes it
to feel a bit slow. The story concerns an outlying post and the first
half of the film lays down the characters, their relationships and who
they are in ways that are interesting and produces a mix of funny
moments and rather slower dramatic moments all of them work as well
as one another and it enriches the final section of the film. It is in
this final third of the film where the action starts and it is rather
dramatic and exciting; it also brings out a lot more of the subtext
about the arrogant leadership of Thursday, based on the character
traits that we have already had developed in him in regards his men and
his daughter. It is made to look easy but the script does it well and
even finishes with Ford's oft-touched assertion that the legend was
often printed in favour of the less impressive truth although it
still has a salute to the serving men.
The cast are all pretty strong, although naturally the script favours the men, although having said that Temple is quite good if you can get past her "precious princess" performance. Fonda has the main role and manages to make his character convincing and arrogant at the same time we never hate him so much as just see his failings. Wayne has a straighter role to play and he is as good as ever with it, although it is hardly the most challenging character I've seen him play. Agar is a bit stilted and unsure of himself unsurprisingly his chemistry is good with Temple (they were married at the time) but it is the other parts where he appears overshadowed by the stronger male actors. Support is roundly good, particularly in the comic roles as filled by Bond, McLagen and some of the other NCO's. Direction is good, although I felt that the landscapes were "there" rather than being integrated into the fabric of the film.
Overall this is a worthy film. Perhaps not the best of the ford films but still an intelligent film that delivers the goods just like a standard western would, while also having good writing in the characters and subtexts. The cast are mainly good and the whole film feels professional and entertaining.
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