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Fort Apache

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Fort Apache

Starring: Henry Fonda, John Wayne
Director: John Ford
Rated: NR
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: March 1948
Genres: Action, Classic, Western


*Also starring: Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, John Agar, Victor McLaglen, Pedro Armendariz Sr., George O'Brien, Anna Lee, Irene Rich



Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

People who like to classify movies according to their quality are often reminded of a phenomenon called "guilty pleasures" - films that are bad, but still liked, even by those filmophiles who should know better. On the other hand, we might encounter quite the opposite phenomenon - films that should be viewed as masterpieces, but are actually not very liked. The author of this review encountered such phenomenon very often in the case of John Ford. The reason for that probably lies in first impressions which weren't very favourable towards John Ford's work. In my early years I used to like westerns very much, but westerns by John Ford, who had been often referred as the best and most important director of the genre, looked somewhat "too artistic" or not attractive enough to be actually liked. Those impressions stuck with me in latter years, even after my taste in films became evolved. Such was the case with FORT APACHE, 1948 western by John Ford, first in his US Cavalry trilogy.

The script of the film, written by Frank S. Nugent is based on the story called MASSACRE by James Warner Bellah. Fort Apache is small, desolate garrison of US Cavalry, populated by rag-tag bunch of Civil War veterans, many of them former officers and now reduced in rank and pay. The garrison gets the new commander - Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (played by Henry Fonda), accompanied by his lovely daughter Philadelphia (played by Shirley Temple). Thursday sees his new post as humiliation and desperately seeks ways to reclaim his honour and prove himself as capable military leader. His arrogance would cause conflict with his subordinates, and his class snobbery would make a rift between him and Philadelphia, when she falls in love with young Lt. Michael O'Rourke (played by John Agar), son of Sergeant O'Rourke (played by Ward Bond). The biggest conflict arises when Thursday, against the advice of his much and experienced subordinate, Captain York (played by John Wayne) decides to betray Cochise, legendary Apache chief, in order to start war that would bring him long-desired fame. At the end, Thursday would reach his goal, but not in a way he had anticipated.

Since the plot of this film bears more than small resemblance to the legend of Custer's Last Stand, John Ford uses this opportunity to explore the reality of Old West, and it the same time keep the mythical distance towards this popular subject. This film indeed deals with the darker pages of Old West history - the ways in which US government dealt with the Indians and its own war veterans, and the rigid class system that existed in US Army at the time. Those motives are used in variety of vignettes that deal with the everyday lives of Fort Apache cavalrymen. Although many of those vignettes slow down the pace of the movie, making it two hours long, some of them are very amusing, and sometimes even touching; John Ford obviously liked his characters and thanks to the actors of his legendary "Stock Company" they appear as the most memorable element of this film. This is not the case with the romantic subplot involving Philadelphia and young O'Rourke - it seems forcefully introduced into to the movie only to satisfy Hollywood formula.

The acting in the film is, on the other hand, very good. Henry Fonda, who plays arrogant and self-obsessed militaristic maniac, never slips into over- acting and paves a way for the role of the true villain role in ONCE UPPON A TIME IN WEST twenty years later. John Wayne, who is overshadowed by his performance, has a rather thankless role of a second fiddle. That role is even more compromised by the sudden and rather unexplained change of heart in Wayne's character - Captain York, who was portrayed as a man of integrity is following the party line at the end. Wayne was probably less responsible for that than Ford himself, who had rather ambiguous feelings about military while making this film. On one hand, he clearly deplores militaristic folly, while, on the other hand, sees the military as one big family. That ambiguity is probably the biggest weakness of this film, with the rather forgettable musical score by Richard Hageman being the close second. So, this film isn't among the best westerns ever made, not even among the best films by John Ford. Despite all of its imperfections and despite the fact that it isn't the must-see or cult classic material, FORT APACHE is still a very good piece of cinema, essential for those who want to see expressions of American myths in Hollywood movies.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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