Fort Apache, 1948
Dir: John Ford
This is another Ford film that can be easily skewed into a negative experience, and I'm sure a lot of people who have watched this ended up hating it. But there's just something about the earthy simplicity of Ford that is so easy to cling to, even in it's hokey trappings (though by the end of this, it starts getting into pretty heady stuff). One reason why people might never want to watch this is because it pits Henry Fonda and John Wayne in the same film, two personalities that are pretty polarizing. I have to say again though that Ford knew what he was doing with these guys, never letting them fall into their "persona." I mean, as movie stars, they pretty much play themselves, and what little acting they do only helps flesh out character. I say this is a good thing. Believe me, I just watched a John Wayne film (non-Western) from the 60s and it is embarrassingly atrocious.
The story is about Fort Apache, a backwater U.S. fort in the Arizona desert. A bitter colonel (Fonda) is sent out there to take command, though he feels slighted by the assignment. A widower, he brings along his daughter (Shirley Temple) to keep his house. Most of the men there feel like the more personable Captain York (Wayne) should have taken control of the fort, as he is well acquainted with the Indians of the region and is much more malleable with the fuddy-duddy broham shenanigans of the lower ranked soldiers and non-commissioned officers. Problems within the fort begin happening concerning the mingling of class and ethnicity, especially the fondness that Temple is starting to display towards a young lieutenant (John Agar) who is the son of an NCO. Of course, the real trouble starts to happen when the Apaches come into the picture, and where Fonda and Wayne start to see things differently.
Firstly, this film proves Ford's sensitivity for the complex ethnic structure which America is built on: Irish, French, German. Hispanics, Natives and the racism of the dominant white Anglo Americans, here represented by Henry Fond's character, are treated with equal sensitivity, and Fonda's character's military cadence hides particularity well all of the emotions he is brimming with: hate, sadness, and an overprotective compassion for his daughter. This is evidenced well during the NCO dance, which is just as haunting and subtle as the bizarro ho-down in My Darling Clementine (1946). And here again, women sometimes ridicule the whole military hierarchy. The ending seems like a proto-salvo to the bombshell of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), but Ford was always interested in American myth and it's construction (or deconstruction). Knowing that many of the hero myths of our country were built upon men, extremely fallible men, and showing it, is just more proof that Ford was one of the most sensitive American directors ever.