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Fort Apache (Blu-ray Review)

12 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, George O’Brien.

Like “film noir,” the term “John Ford Cavalry Trilogy” took a while to get coined and then become part of general usage, though it didn’t take all that long following the bunched-up release of two outdoor beauties the director filmed at RKO and then a third at Republic, all between 1948 and 1950. Given the instant familiarity sparked by this Western trio’s early release to TV (I had already seen them all in my home by the time I entered my teens in 1960), Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande have been pretty well regarded as a unit for more than a half-century.

When I was growing up, Ribbon probably had the best rep of the set due to Winton Hoch’s Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography and the majesty of John Wayne’s performance, in which he convincingly portrayed a character considerably older than Wayne was in real life. But Apache was always my favorite, an opinion with which the always enjoyable writer/historian F.X. Feeney (a possible Ford cousin from the old country) seems to agree in his bang-up commentary for this spectacularly sharp black-and-white Blu-ray rendition. The price is right, too.

With a hard-case Henry Fonda cast as a thinly disguised George Custer against John Wayne’s warily rank-respectful subordinate pro, Apache is one of my ten favorite Fords (out of seven decades’ worth) for a couple reasons. For one thing, it was the first movie to team the director with Frank Nugent, Ford’s best screenwriter (apologies to Dudley Nichols). For another, it might be the richest single showcase of the director’s famed stock company. And for another, it pretty well launched that later period of Ford’s career when, in addition to having become reflective, he began to indulge in broad comedy relief (not that 1941’s Tobacco Road had been anything like an evening of chamber music). Of course, an appreciation of Ford’s slapstick is what separates a lot of his disciples from his detractors — though what the latter regard as exaggerated or stereotypical has always came off to me as character behavior patterns credibly akin to those of all the drunks and jesters I witnessed and enjoyed in high school and college. And for that matter, to the cast of rambunctious rowdies from my father’s old Marine Corp anecdotes — the kind who’d gleefully punch you through a barroom window if you got too mouthy or out of line.

In what turned out to be Fonda’s last film for seven years due to his subsequent Mister Roberts stage glory — and upon his return, an alcoholic Ford famously took a swing of his own at the actor during an altercation that occurred when they were shooting the 1955 screen version — the lieutenant colonel Fonda plays claims that he isn’t a martinet. Yet he clearly is. Assignment to the boondocks represents some sort of career malfeasance on his resumé, and he’s all too willing to take it out on anybody (especially Cochise, with whom he’s happy to break a treaty as Wayne’s captain looks on with a barely concealed turned stomach). Feeney quotes the anecdote where someone asked Peter Fonda what his father was like in real life, and the younger actor replied, “Have you ever seen Fort Apache?” (Wow. You think that would have kept any teenaged guy taking Jane out honest?) 

Softening Fonda’s character (some) is a daughter named Philadelphia, played by a grown-up Shirley Temple with a smile that would make even Henry Daniell’s evil schoolmaster in Jane Eyre want to give her a cuddle. Apache was filmed near the end of that relatively brief period when the previous decade’s most famous child was trying to make it as an adult actress — an attempt that didn’t pan out despite the irony that Temple’s three best and most durable movies (Since You Went Away, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and this) were all made after the onset of physical maturity. (Interestingly, her finest movie as a child was 1937’s Wee Willie Winkie, directed by Ford.) In Apache, the women’s roles as civilizers of the outpost are keenly fleshed out here by Temple mentors Irene Rich and Ford regular Anna Lee — but the movie is foremost a “guy” cornucopia for anyone who has ever followed the male members of the Ford regulars the way they do favored utility infielders.

For one thing, good old Jack Pennick and his A-team crag are a little more in the forefront here than they usually are — and on a purely personal fan’s note, I have spent most of my life measuring the degree to which any downstairs rec room has that essential “lived-in” look by yard-sticking it against the lived-in look of Pennick’s face. We also get Victor McLaglen (hung over at least once, it goes without saying); Pedro Armendariz (who shines in one key scene, and a great one, playing a translator who tries to repress his rage); Warner Bros. singing cowboy Dick Foran (15 years before Ford would bring him back for some of the climactic chair breakage in Donovan’s Reef); Ford silent lead George O’Brien (also the male star of Murnau’s Sunrise), who gets a lot out of a small role here; screen-debuting John Agar (then Temple’s real-life husband and later the lead in the baby boomer essential, Tarantula, which also gave Clint Eastwood some early work); The Searchers’ Hank Worden as an ex-Confederate numbskull who’s one of the new recruits; and real-life Wayne pal Grant Withers as a crooked Indian agent (the movie also implies that he smells bad) who instigates a lot of bad blood. In one superb scene, a crate of what Withers claim are Bibles turns out yo contain rotgut whiskey — sparking Fonda to order one of his men to “pour me some Scriptures,” one of my favorite lines in all of movie history.

The ending, somewhat controversial, clearly anticipates the famous “print the legend” advice from Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance because it turns the public Fonda into a journalistic legend. Well, maybe it was better in those days (before more sophisticated communication devices and better reportage mandated warts-and-all full disclosure) to advance myths that created heroes or at least role models. And as Feeney points out here, the first scene between Fonda and O’Brien (whose opposite career trajectories have been affected by their “official” but not necessarily accurate military histories) shrewdly sets up the story’s final payoff, which leaves an ambiguous taste.

I’m always struck here by the way that Wayne underplays against perceived type with dignity, something the movie also displays toward Native Americans (and this was before Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway). Not everything about Wayne’s career, at least in his middle period, was what it seemed (speaking of official but not necessary accurate perceptions). Nor is this movie all that easy to type: it establishes its characters and lets us get to know them via lowbrow yuks — then turns around to shower them with professional honor amid ultimate tragedy on both sides of the conflict. I love movies that know how to change moods, and this is one.

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