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Fort Apache Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 4, 2012

    Fort Apache Review

    “This isn’t a country for glory, Owen.”

    “I’ll take my risks. I always have.”

    “Well then … all I can do is wish you good luck. And I wish you that sincerely.”

    A mate of mine used to always say that a situation looked like “Fort Apache” when things seemed decidedly dodgy or ill-fated … and I loved the analogy, especially as we would tend to enter into it even knowing we might not be victorious. In fact, just to hear him say it meant that there were probably some exciting times ahead, and that we should probably circle the wagons and draw sabres.

    Like his little catchphrase, you always hear the epithet “John Ford’s celebrated cavalry trilogy” and it is certainly true that his three Boots ‘n’ Saddles oaters – commencing with Fort Apache and continuing with She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and culminating with Rio Grande – are classics of their kind, iconic testaments to the rugged heroism of the old frontier, and sure-fire foundation stones upon which the entire genre of the American Western was built. Yet Ford never set out to create a trilogy. But once he’d gotten the taste for long lines of troopers snaking across the horizon, and for depicting the tense danger of life at an isolated garrison, he couldn’t get enough of it. It also helped that he found his ideal location and his perfect leading man so early on. Quite simply, for Ford, nothing else was going to even come close. With his horse soldiers patrolling the badlands, the exacting filmmaker was totally at home.

    For my money, though, and I’m saying this as a great admirer and fan of Ford’s work and of his horse operas in particular, the trilogy begins and ends spectacularly, amid flurries of jingoistic re-evaluation, bantering bravado and dutiful, character-based humour, but suffers from a lax, surprisingly action-free middle section. Both She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande were a whole lot of fun, especially the latter which has Wayne on robust form, plenty of comedy and, most importantly, lots of rootin’-tootin’ set-piece mayhem and a strong, darkly emotional narrative, but I always got the impression that after Fort Apache Ford was just kibitzing in the environment of his bugle-calling, yellow-striped heroes in blue rather than actually exploring anything wild or exciting. This is just me, of course, I know a lot of people who totally adore and cherish She Wore A Yellow Ribbon for Wayne’s terrific performance and for Ford’s visual splendour and military sentimentalism, whilst I just thought it was a something of a letdown, all build-up and no pay-off. I wanted the big battle that had been looming over Monument Valley like a storm-cloud … and to have seen it in glorious Technicolor would have been the perfect evolution to a cycle that began with a big battle in lustrous black and white, and would end with one in Rio Grande.

    What I always have to remind myself of is that Ford was far more interested in dissecting the idealistic myth of the West and the type of people who found themselves out there, than with hurling two creeds against one another in gun-blazing, sabre-slashing, tomahawk-thudding savagery. For him, the very people, themselves, were the West and he wanted to test their civilised ways and rituals with the heat, the dust and the danger of the frontier. For me, however, this seemed to result in merely the same stew of emotional dilemmas, familial disputes and military honour that could have happened anywhere and at any time in history, which sort of establishes the point that the Old West wasn’t as unique as other filmmakers and writers were wont to claim, and that the characters who rode through it still faced the same issues that everyone else did. Which is fine. But, such is the legend of John Ford that you come to these pictures expecting, well, a little bit more of the conventional Western action that you would typically get elsewhere.

    I know it may sound strange coming from such a fan of the genre as me – and I’ve written very extensively about it, and John Ford especially, many times now – but I’m always a touch underwhelmed by this “classic” trilogy. Flinging the US Cavalry against the Indians in the scorching deserts of Arizona is the stuff of celluloid legend, but Ford is too preoccupied with the antics back at the fort to fully deliver on such a promise. Do not forsake me (oh my darlin’) because I still love the whole ambience and style with which he textures these adventures, and I cannot fault a director who favours character and plot evolution over relatively simple action. Yet I still come away from the first two entries in the trilogy wanting.

    But, returning to Fort Apache, the show that started the wagon-wheel turning, I feel that everything I could want from a vintage Western is here … and it should come by the bullet-riddled, arrow-quilled saddle-full. Here we get what could possibly have been the biggest battle that Ford ever fought between his bluecoats and those pesky redskins, plus one of the better realised inter-personal conflicts being waged between two fiercely opposed individuals who are supposed to be on the same side, just separated by class, morality and experience.

    The film was adapted by Frank S. Nugent from the short story “Massacre” by James Warner Bellah, whose stories would also inform the rest of the Cavalry Trilogy. It would be Ford, though, who would entrench the social comment and the dissection of military pride and acumen.

    Blue-eyed wonder-boy Henry Fonda famously turned bad guy for Sergio Leone as the villainous Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West, but his arrogant, egoistical Lt. Col. Owen Thursday was actually a much earlier foray against the tide of what would become his usual stock-in-trade characterisation of righteous altruists. His stuffy, glory-seeking martinet is clearly based upon the similarly boastful and headstrong George Armstrong Custer (wow – he was headstrong and Armstrong! How on earth did he lose?), and the battle that he eventually leads his doomed men into must surely be a tweaked depiction of the calamity at the Little Bighorn in June 1876. Seven years before, Raoul Walsh had made the magnificent, though massively inaccurate Custer biopic with Errol Flynn as the heroically self-sacrificial last man standing in They Died With Their Boots On … and that had “printed the legend” in the famous journalistic vernacular and not the truth. Thus, in many ways, Ford’s film seeks to unearth the human pride and vanity that led to the shocking disaster and, in so doing, paints a more accurate picture of Custer’s defeat than most people, including scholars, were aware of. Now, personally speaking, I adore Flynn’s version – alongside King Kong, the film is one of my first actual memories, and it had a profound effect upon me – and I sometimes wonder how John Ford would have handled that more authorised story. Not as well, I wouldn’t have thought … and that’s because he knew the truth that Custer wasn’t the bonafide hero that Flynn portrayed him as being, and that he didn’t have the admiration and respect of more than just a handful of his NCO’s and men.

    Ford understood the frontier spirit and the nobility of the men who embodied it – at least in cinematic terms. His depictions, usually in the swaggering form of John Wayne, were larger-than-life, rough ‘n’ tumble and valiantly romantic … but he loved his military with a passion. A retired Rear Admiral (Honorary) in the Naval Reserve, he loved the customs, the lifestyle and the lore of the military … and this explains the innate fascination he has for the vibrant and colourful minutia of the ranks and their squabbling, but dependable interaction with one another and their stoic courage under fire. The real 7th Cavalry were a shambles of rivalry, grudges, bitterness and discontent. In Ford’s world, the ass-in-the-saddle lower ranks were solid, reliable curmudgeons and it was the officers with their conflicting ways and their opposing post-Civil War ethics who were the ignoble and juvenile blunderers. Fort Apache, then, is very definitely his approximation of Custer’s debacle with the Sioux, just relocated and waged against the Apache.

    Thursday is a decorated and renowned hero but, despite his victories in the Civil War, he has been shunted-out to the extremity of the frontier to a ragtag command that offers him no chance for further glory. But he is not someone to just sit back by the fire and reminisce about his heady days of valour for all those who will listen. He refuses to be put out to pasture. So, infused with European standards of military strategy, he intends to take the fight to the Apaches who, under the leadership of Cochise (Miguel Inclan), have been causing trouble for the settlements since jumping the reservation. Pockets of truth regarding Cochise and the Jeronimo campaign lend authenticity to Thursday’s crusade but this is still Ford’s under-the-radar dissemination of the single event that led to the destruction of the Native American tribes.

    Thursday arrives at the fort with his teenage daughter in-tow. Called Philadelphia and played by Shirley Temple, she is not quite the anachronism that you may expect. The officers of the fort have their wives and families living with them in the garrison, and Philadelphia is afforded every comfort possible and takes to the place … especially one of the bluecoats, John Agar’s 2nd Lt. Shannon O’Rourke. Thursday, however, seems hell-bent on disrupting the smooth running of the outpost. He demands results right away and intends to get them by swapping and changing the roles of his officers, countermanding the sage advice of his newfound comrades who have had many years more experience in the field than he ever will, and stepping up a callous campaign against Cochise that, in effect, becomes a metaphor for the US Government’s whole method of dealing with the Indians on a national scale. Playing cat-and-mouse with the Chief and his renegades does not suit his quick, deliberate mind and his iron fist, especially not whilst training a batch of raw recruits. Frustration eventually leads him to take policy into his own hands and to betray the Indians in a confrontation out in the desert that will seal his fate and ensure that Ford can take a left-field swipe at the mythical notion of heroism … and our eagerness to bedeck fools with glory.

    The Duke, looking good here as the younger and more vital Captain Kirby Yorke, is really just a supporting character, but he supplies so much charisma and weight to the role that you come away thinking that he was in it much more than he actually was. What this performance proves is that Wayne was a fabulous ensemble-player as well as a star. Here, he does not hog the limelight, does not over-egg his lines, and does not wrestle with Fonda in anything other than how his character, who will end up at loggerheads with the commander, would naturally do under the circumstances. Yorke is a genuinely likeable man. You expect that, of course. But say you had Randolph Scott in the role, and you’d have a vastly different and quite wooden performance. Wayne had enough charisma to fill Monument Valley from the dirt to the sky, as well as the rugged air of a seasoned soldier, and this acts as the glue that cements the many group scenes. Even when he and Sgt. Beaufort (Pedro Armendariz) make the peace-keeping dash across the deserts to meet with Cochise, there is a sense that Wayne is doing just enough to keep our attention, and even underplaying the tense situation. Sharing some whisky to help Beaufort get over his ferocious, sun-blighted hangover with the hair-of-the-dog, and then cautiously pow-wowing with the Apache chief without ever milking the situation for his own ego only makes him all the endearing and convincingly practical. Screenwriters and directors down the line would actively urge him to over-sell such scenes as this.

    His interplay with Fonda is delicious without being contrived and shoehorned into showboating exercises in melodramatics. Lots of scenes take place in the Lt. Col’s office in which the hardnosed commander basically rides roughshod over reason, ignoring the advice of battle-worn veteran such as Yorke. That it will be Wayne who makes the closing statement to a gaggle of reporters is Ford’s wry knife-twist in the guts of national pride because Yorke will lie in defence of honour and bravery and seal the lid down on the Custer/Thursday catastrophe. Although the speech sounds corny it is, in fact, one of the cleverest elements in the film and guarded, but searing indictment of a misplaced legend.

    If you know Ford, then you know Ford’s cinematic family. Part of the joy of watching one of his films, especially one of his horse-operas, is being reacquainted with a roster of familiar faces. Ford’s stock cast of grizzled veterans, boisterous immigrants and loveable rogues usually assume exactly the same sort of role they had in the previous film, and would do so again in the next one. But far from being a cliché, this template fits like a well-worn glove. When the devoutly cinematic faces of Ward Bond, who plays John Agar’s father, Sgt. Maj. O’Rourke at the fort, Victor MacLaglen, Dick Foran, Jack Pennick and Pedro Armendariz, who all portray the resident rascal-parade of oat-faced sergeants, and regular comedy-loon-of-the-West, Hank Worden, appear, we know we are in Ford’s chunk of celluloid territory. These guys, as well as Wayne, of course, are just as much landmarks as the alien landscape of Monument Valley, itself. Their banter and repartee is beautifully etched with the cosy twang you get when listening to your uncles and cousins bickering jovially at a family get-together. On the one hand, they convince as tough, whiskey-swilling NCO’s, but on the other they are too comical and downright amusing to be taken seriously as anything other than knockabouts.

    Ex-rodeo star and future Academy Award-winner, Ben (The Wild Bunch) Johnson was a horse-wrangler and stuntman for Ford’s picture, tumbling from galloping steeds as though in love with death. The director knew talent when he saw it and he cultivated Johnson for a much bigger roles in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and then later in Rio Grande, in which he is superb as the redemptive hero Tyree, giving the stand-in the taste for acting.

    Future icon of SF/Fantasy John Agar (The Mole People/Tarantula/Journey to the Seventh Planet) makes his big screen debut here as the newly appointed 2nd Lt. O’ Rourke who returns to the fort from West Point and pretty much falls for Philadelphia from the word go. With her feelings mutual for him, the class divide is broached and Thursday sends a few broadsides across it to ward the underling away. Considering that Agar was actually married to Temple at the time, this makes for an interesting dynamic that is sadly undercooked for the all the screentime that it chews up. They may make doe-eyes at one-another, Temple even adjusting her pocket-mirror in a bouncing stagecoach so that she can see him riding as her escort. But there’s no emotion there. You want to see emotion, then look at the choked-up pride on Victor MacLaglen’s face when his son comes home after four years at West Point, or from Wayne when he realises that his commanding officer has broken his word and set Cochise and his people up. The romance, though, is flatter than the dirt on the parade ground.

    The visual scale of the film is huge. Experimentally, infra-red cameras were used to lend depth and scope to the location shoot, giving the terrain and sharper, vaster reach, and this meant that the cast had to be smothered in darker makeup so that they could stand out better. Certain shots look breathtaking as a result. Although nowadays it is quite easy to see how the same ranges, the same mountains, the same plateaus and gorges have been used over and over again in the same general area of Monument Valley, this familiarity does not hinder the epic feel of the battleground. Ford also recruited real Native Americans to play the Apaches, something that he would do throughout all of his Westerns. They may have been from the Navajo, who lived around the Monument Valley, but this still lends enormous authenticity to their appearances.

    Composer Richard Hageman was no stranger to Westerns but, sadly, he was not very accomplished and his scores were steadfastly generic and all-too typical of the brash Hollywood oater. Max Steiner or Dimitri Tiomkin he was not, although he clearly lifted many of their ideas. His score for Fort Apache struggles to be rousing and Hageman, under the instructions of Ford, resorted to throwing-in lots of well-known traditional ballads and hymns and marching songs. He would be recruited by Ford for She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, for which he would perform the same style of anthem-variation. But the film was exceptionally well lensed by Archie Stout and classy genre-veteran William H. Clothier, who would become semi-synonymous with the capturing the Duke during his more turbulent years as star and director. The imagery is sublime. A mounted bugler atop a high ridge, fluffy white clouds as his backdrop. The column marching out of the fort and towards a date with destiny. Fantastic old school ensemble shots in which these great character actors sound-off at one another all the way across the frame as though they were on stage. There is also a profound sense of deep focus to the film, which was glorious considering that much of it was set against symbolic mountains of Monument Valley, but perhaps even more interesting in the smaller locations of the fort, itself and even within the walls of the offices, the mess and the family quarters. Clothier had worked on King Kong for Merian C. Cooper, who also produced Ford’s movie, so he had learned an awful lot about framing and composition to provide the audience with a vivid sense of depth and immersion.

    A terrific scene reveals the true villainy at work in the territory – that of the corrupt government agents who ply the Indians with cheap and volatile liquor and rifles. Both Thursday and York finally agree on action, although York’s methods are more immediate and cathartic – he smacks the smug, Grizzly Adams-like trader (Silas Meacham), whilst Thursday tries to keep within the remit of the law. It is a good sequence that establishes the hypocrisy of the treatment of the natives and the uselessness of trying enforce the political hard-line so far away from Washington. It also explains, in one small, but detailed measure of intrigue, anger and even brevity, how this no-win scenario for anybody, but especially the Indians, came about. Although, in reality, the problems of the gun-runners and the lousy exploitation of the tribes was much greater and, even then, only a small part of the much more genocidal fervour of the US Government’s doctrine, this scene is an essential milestone in how Ford integrated the Indians into his partial revision of history. From here on in, we know that they are not just the bad guys. That they have been pushed from pillar to post, lied-to and systematically abused and eradicated by the white man. Ford would always make this point clear and would never demonise the tribes, even in The Searchers, which stems from Comanche atrocity. There is a scene in this when our romantic couple of the young lieutenant and Philadelphia go out for a rather foolhardy ride through the bad lands in which they discover the aftermath of an Apache raid – the tortured and charred bodies of two troopers who had been sent out to repair the damaged telegraph lines. Even in a film of this vintage, there is a real frisson of dread at the half-glimpsed corpses tied to the blackened wheels of a shredded wagon and a sense of fear that the perpetrators might still be around.

    It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that while Thursday may be appalled at this illegal and immoral opportunism by the traders and the agents he still believes that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that the problem can only eventually solved with the subjugation of the tribes … or by simply wiping them out altogether.

    “Get to Fort Grant. Tell ‘em where we are. Tell ‘em we may still be alive if they hurry. Move! And marry that girl!”

    The two big action sequences are superb. The first has Agar’s small detail going out to retrieve the roasted bodies of the two troopers and getting chased by a band of warriors. This is electrifying stuff. The things that Ford and his stunt-team had learned on Stagecoach, from cameras speeding right alongside the wagon and the horses to riders taking incredible punishment during their falls, are more evolved here, more streamlined. The set-piece is thunderous and genuinely exciting. The wagon-covering comes adrift and trails behind the vehicle, billowing like an angel of death. Soldiers pivot in the saddle to fire over their shoulder at the pursuing Apaches at breakneck speeds. When Indians are brought down, they tend to do so right in the path of others, the stuntmen really putting their lives on the line. One even gets a full-on clout from his own horse’s hoof that makes you wince. The wagon, itself, is pitching so violently from side to side that that it must surely go over … and there’s guys inside the thing! After so long without any physical aggression, this sequence comes as a blessedly gung-ho relief of startling adrenaline.

    The finale is the misguided and treacherous confrontation between a distrusting Cochise and the vainglorious and cocksure Thursday who charges his men into a trap that Yorke could see coming as far back as last year. If I’m honest, I would have preferred this battle to go on for longer – and you certainly believe that you are going to be in for treat of charges and vigorous hand-to-hand combat – but there is a realistic duration to the melee that startlingly reveals just ineffective a huddle of dismounted men are against a rush of mounted warriors who outnumber them ten to one. Very interestingly, the last stand is almost a re-run of how Walsh handled the last desperate moment in They Died With Their Boots On – a quick war-whooping charge that simply hurls itself over the last few survivors and doesn’t stop.

    But it is not all glory in FortApache.

    Ford understood that being in the Army wasn’t something that affected the soldier alone, it involved his family as well. Which is why his Cavalry films occupied so much of their narrative with the wives, the sweethearts and the mothers of these brave boys in dust-caked blue. On the whole this is a wise move. I mean without this devotion to family, we would never have had the sheer brilliance of The Searchers. However, all three of these films devote too much time to such things, in my opinion.The girlie stuff that may be important to the sub-plotting … is sadly just boring. Of course, tales of this ilk need the melodrama of romance to keep the balance with the warring side of things, but here the movie softens so horribly with contrived dialogue whenever we are in the company of Temple, and this twee-ness infects all those around her too, that it is tempting to just skip ahead to the next macho moment. Lt. O’ Rourke’s burgeoning romance with his commander’s daughter is certainly important, and makes for some seriously crushing exchanges between Agar and Fonda, but the story would have had just as deep an impact without such a formulaic development.

    So is the training of the new recruits, which doesn’t really serve much purpose other than to introduce comedy and to provide MacLaglen with further excuse to be roisterous. In this trilogy, Ford couldn’t always resist the temptation for indulgence, and it is during these scenes when his predilection for simply having us spend time with the cavalry and the fort environment is at its most obvious. We have dances for the officers and their ladies, we have drill, we have etiquette, boozed-up carousing and we have dressing-downs. Ford almost wants us to feel as though we have been drafted-into the Army. As I mentioned earlier, this is great for getting to know the gaggle of sergeants, but the cumulative effect is almost that of a soap-opera. Although I much prefer Rio Grande, that one had its fair share of customs and army culture too, and even a few dreadful song-filled interludes courtesy of the Sons of the Pioneers!

    For all of its softer and more cosy, even cheesy moments, Fort Apache can never be called dull or bland. It takes us out onto the frontier and provides high drama and excitement with a fort-full of inspired characters with a complex set of relationships and gruff, stand-to ethics. There’s no mistaking the love that John Ford has for the mythology of the US Cavalry, but what is remarkable is how he entwines this infatuation with revisionist observations that were way ahead of the contemporary historians. Fonda and Wayne are both marvellous, as you would expect, but the subplot of Temple and Agar is stifling and neither performer seems well-suited to the dust and grit of the setting and the theme of desperate glory-seeking doom.

    Wayne and MacLaglen would appear in the following two filmsalong with several others in the ranks, with Wayne playing Kirby Yorke again in Rio Grande, and MacLaglen playing in Quincannon (virtually the same character as the one he plays here) in the second two entries, but the series of films is actually only connected by setting, style and by the timeless device of cavalry shooting at Indians rather than any through-narrative. Fort Apache remains an essential addition to any fan of either Ford or the Duke, or of American Westerns.