Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Fort Apache


Director John Ford

John Wayne

Wayne and Fonda on the set with Shirley Temple and John Agar

Pedro Armendáriz

FORT APACHE          B                                                                                                           USA  (128 mi)  1948  d:  John Ford

Theirs not to reason why,                                                                                                               Theirs but to do and die….

The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1854, The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord… | Poetry ...

The first of Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and RIO GRANDE (1950), all starring John Wayne, this is an unadorned war picture, filled with plenty of flag waving along with the pomp and circumstance of military life that includes drills, drinking bouts, dressing downs, punishments, riding lessons, misadventures, dinners, dances, and even serenades, depicting life at a desolate outpost in the middle of Apache territory in Arizona, utilizing the great expanse of the Monument Valley, yet concerns itself with the myopic vision of a disgruntled East coast army officer who feels exiled to the wilderness, Henry Fonda in one of his most repellent roles as Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday, whose arrogance and ruthless ambition gets the better of him, itching to fight with the Indians, wanting to make a name for himself, emulating the role of General George Armstrong Custer and his ill-fated stand at Little Big Horn.  Resentful of his loss in rank and transfer to the West after serving gallantly as a General in the Civil War, Thursday insists upon imposing a rigid, imperious authority to a lackadaisical frontier setting that goes by its own rules, never ingratiating himself into the community, remaining a highly visible outcast, alienated from his own troops, who he believes are beneath his lofty stature.  Standing in stark contrast, Wayne is Captain York, already experienced with the ways of the West, surprisingly presenting a sympathetic view of Indians, familiar with their history and mistreatment, seeing the wisdom of making peace with Apache chief Cochise (Miguel Inclán), who poses a threat by removing his tribe off the reservation south to Mexico due to starvation, rampant corruption, and disease, largely from the dubious role of corrupt Indian agents motivated by greed who’ve been profiteering by pilfering food and selling bad alcohol to Indians.  With Indians depicted through a white man’s view, mythologized here as noble savages, the Apaches are given no backstory or historical perspective, mostly remaining silent stereotypes, showing no distinct character or culture, and are largely absent from the screen, so what we know about them comes entirely from white interactions with them, with John Wayne, the everpresent white savior cowboy, appearing as a heroic Indian expert, something akin to an Indian whisperer.  Using Mexicans and Navajos as Apache Indians, yet given the distinct appearance of Plains Indians, the film was shot in black and white by Archie Stout, who had his own issues with Ford while shooting in 100 degree heat, where the iconic opening shot is a cavalry bugler framed against the horizon, while dramatic skies were achieved by using infrared film stock.  While the film gets bogged down in displaying the ordinary rituals of everyday life, the overbloated midsection tends to meander, easily getting sidetracked, postponing the inevitable confrontation with the Apaches until the latter stages.  What’s perhaps most surprising is the post-climax denouement, which foreshadows what might be Ford’s best work, the self-reflective film essay The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), as we see how a mythical legend replaces the truth, as history is filled with quasi-heroes, men whose public image and persona have been beefed up to hide and obscure the far different private lives behind the image, where suppression of the truth is a natural byproduct of the mythmaking process.  In this manner, the nation’s confidence is propped up by political lies and distorted exaggerations, where one assumes this is preferable to hearing the unvarnished truth.  That historical argument rages on today, with battlegrounds drawn over how to best teach the touchy issues of slavery and Indian atrocities, long suppressed and glossed over in an attempt to present a more favorable view of Manifest Destiny, which is at the root of protecting white privilege, one of the fundamental pillars of white supremacy and racism.  In the march for social justice, it’s hard to overcome generations of imposed racial bias without identifying the barbarism of these historical atrocities, which were major turning points in history, turning a blind eye to the truth and projecting a more patriotic and heroic version that essentially whitewashes history.    

Adapted by New York Times film reviewer Frank S. Nugent from James Warner Bellah’s series of cavalry stories that were being printed in The Saturday Evening Post, specifically a story entitled Massacre, where it should be pointed out that Bellah was an overt racist for whom Indians were filthy savages.  Nugent worked with Ford on 11 films, yet they had a difficult working relationship, as did nearly everyone who worked with Ford, credited with introducing greater complexity in the way he portrayed women and relationships, altogether missing in other scripts, while minimizing the enduring legacy of Ford’s racism which had such a profound influence on the western genre’s portrayal of Indians.  Fonda had worked with Ford before in My Darling Clementine (1946), yet easily the biggest surprise is the presence of Shirley Temple in one of her first adult roles as Thursday’s teenage daughter Philadelphia, who brings an uplifting female spirit and wild-eyed optimism to the role usually absent in Ford films.  Her blatant sensuality out in the open frontier in an outpost manned by battle-hardened men is a humorous diversion, where you wonder why Thursday would even bring her out there, as she’s sure to attract attention, so we’re not at all shocked when he forbids perspective suitors from seeing her.  Of course, that only intensifies male interest, pulling Dick Foran out of the guard house to sing an Irish serenade, Oh, Genevieve YouTube (2:00), working here with her real-life husband John Agar as the officer fresh out of West Point, Lt. Mickey O’Rourke, who develops a romantic interest with Temple, who was pregnant at the time, though not recognizable, where she was worried about wearing those tight corsets.  They went through a highly publicized divorce just a year later, after which she retired altogether from making films, working in television briefly before embarking on a highly successful diplomatic career.  Still, it’s something of a shock to see her in a John Ford film, as she is everything John Ford is not, innocent and radiantly beautiful, showing great empathy, demonstrating a rare ability to work well with people from all walks of life, even working with Ford earlier in WEE WILLIE WINKIE (1937).  But despite an early presence, Ford abandons all the female characters, turning this into an all-male adventure on the high frontier.  Making things interesting, Lt. Mickey O’Rourke is the son who now outranks his father, Sgt. Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond), a former officer and recipient of the Medal of Honor (which completely blindsides Thursday), where family life emphasizes the presence of near saintly women steadfastly offering their support of the men while providing maternal love and care, providing a domesticated home life out in the middle of nowhere, embodying a family ideal that redeems the frontier’s harshness.  As the telegraph lines are cut, the Fort had no knowledge of Thursday’s arrival, so he catches them completely offguard by uprooting the existing chain of command and immediately implementing his own strict authoritarian regimen, contrasted by the drunken buffoonery of Victor McLaglen’s Sgt. Mulcahy, showing deferential treatment towards any Irish recruits, where the initial Army drills and cavalry riding lessons go haywire, turning into a slapstick physical comedy.  The social divide between the officer corps and the regular enlisted men couldn’t be any deeper, accentuated by Thursday’s own condescending views, putting himself and his own disdainful arrogance above all others, barking out orders, refusing to listen to the cautionary advice of his fellow soldiers who actually know the lay of the land, in effect keeping him isolated from reality, living in his own deluded world where Indians showing any resistance to Western expansion are viewed as bloodthirsty savages, ignorant and contemptible creatures living like animals who are completely subhuman, incapable of logic or reason, little more than children requiring paternalistic supervision under the Army’s control.  Any infractions of the rules are subject to punishment, which he intends to inflict with impunity.   

In military thinking, the higher-ranking soldier is always in authority, implementing the chain of command throughout the ranks by privileged status, where duty and order always come before the individual, with authority superseding any other existing morality.  Sounding dubious at best, showing little wiggle room for demonstrating flexibility under changing circumstances, this is the death knell for those serving under Thursday’s command.  York on the other hand, plays his hand beautifully, establishing a trustworthy relationship with Cochise (communicating in fluent Spanish), one of mutual respect, as he understands there are bellicose young warriors who urge military confrontation, refusing to buckle under the Army’s command, yet the revered older Apache chief commands greater respect, having inflicted and received plenty of damage, yet his tribe has never been defeated militarily.  He knows all too well, however, the cost of perpetual engagement, never having any peace, while regularly incurring traumatic losses.  This earned wisdom is what makes him a formidable leader and a great chief, as he’s been there and seen it all.  York shares that acumen, having been through the slaughters of the Civil War, while also knowing the heavy cost of Indian skirmishes, knowing full well their treacherous history, as their agreements with the American government have routinely been dishonored, while they’ve continually been underestimated and devalued by the Army.  One common thread throughout all John Ford westerns is how Indians are depicted as less than human, yet soldiers fighting for the Confederacy are honored and revered.  It was not unusual for career soldiers in the Confederacy to join the Union army after the war, although at lesser rank, yet they are always viewed with distinguished service records.  Thursday in particular shows utter disdain for the Apache military prowess or strategy, despite being outnumbered four to one, thinking one cavalry soldier is worth ten Indians.  So when Thursday uses York as a peacemaker to lure the Apaches back to American soil, that’s the break Thursday was looking for, intentionally violating his promise of peace and subjecting them to a treacherous attack under a flag of truce, seething with contempt when questioned by York who gave his word, “Your word to a breech-clouted savage?  An illiterate, uncivilized murderer and treaty-breaker?  There’s no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise.”  What follows is inevitable, disregarding York’s advice, sending him back to the wagons, as he runs headstrong into the teeth of the enemy, driven by a racist belief in genetic superiority, in his eyes all but assured of victory and glory, sabers raised, remaining defiant even when whittled down to a small embattled group on the ground, having abandoned their horses, FORT APACHE | Charge into a Trap YouTube (4:19), basically sitting ducks encircled by larger forces that surround them, completely swallowing them up in a cloud of dust, FORT APACHE | Col. Thursday's Last Stand YouTube (3:35).  Disgraced by his own arrogance, showing no regard for the advice offered or an appropriate reading of the land, calling Cochise “a recalcitrant swine without honor,” it’s a foolhardy mission driven by egotism and blind prejudice, needlessly taking his own men with him, refusing to give the enemy (or his own men) the respect they deserve.  Yet the newspapers paint a picture of Thursday leading a heroic charge, fighting gallantly to the bitter end, displaying valor under fire, his painted portrait hanging on the wall, creating a jingoistic portrayal of a new American hero, that rare caliber of leader that commands legendary respect, a martyr finally accepted into the cavalry ranks as part of their inherent character and tradition, but only with this elevated depiction of his death.  Inventing a mythical narrative is a byproduct of American journalism desperate to sell a story, willing to sell their soul for a fabricated lie, which becomes read in storybooks across the land, an example of American ingenuity and enterprise and a paean to American imperialism, constructing a hero out of utter stupidity and disgrace.  Altogether violent and grim, this film offers a glimpse of what could have been had history played out differently and Indians were actually accorded some degree of respect.      

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