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FORT APACHE(director: John Ford; screenwriters: Frank S. Nugent/from the story “Massacre” by James Warner Bellah; cinematographer: Archie J. Stout; editor: Jack Murray; cast: John Wayne (Capt. Kirby York), Henry Fonda (Lt. Col. Owen Thursday), Ward Bond (Sgt. Major O’Rourke), Shirley Temple (Philadelphia Thursday), John Agar (Lt. Michael “Mickey” O’Rourke), Dick Foran (Sgt. Quincannon), Pedro Armendariz (Sgt. Beaufort), Victor McLaglen (Sgt. Festus Mulcahy), Miguel Inclan (Cochise), George O’Brien (Capt. Sam Collingwood), Jack Pennick (Sgt. Schattuck), Irene Rich (Mrs. Mary O’Rourke), Anna Lee (Emily Collingwood), Grant Withers (Meacham); Runtime: 125; RKO; 1948)
“This one is a reworking of the Custer myth, in a film that over sentimentalizes Army life and chivalry.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz cavalry

The first of John Ford’s trilogy of US Cavalry films (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in ’49 and Rio Grande in ’50). This one is a reworking of the Custer myth, in a film that over sentimentalizes Army life and chivalry. It also puts Ford’s liberal spin on the treatment of Indians on display, as he believes unnecessary conflicts could have been avoided if the white man didn’t break his word to the Indians and treated them with respect in their confinement to the reservations. That is not to say that Ford rails against the Army establishment, as to the contrary he goes out of his way at the end to have the John Wayne character give a speech praising the self-aggrandizing, rigid disciplinarian, inexperienced Indian fighter and racist Henry Fonda character (a loose reflection on General Custer) as a true American hero. It is mixed messages he sends like other ones from Ford that have always made me wary of him, and despite how layered in complexity the plot and character development this western is and how tight Frank Nugent’s rich script is in pointing out traditional Army customs for those who gave their lives in defending America’s frontiers–it is still a film that loves war and finds killing to be necessary.

The film is also just as interested in all the formal ceremonies of Army life as it is in the fighting scenes, as even in a frontier outpost in Arizona, the Army men act with civility honoring the dance and all the formal rules of courtesy. These social rituals seem to be just as important as learning how to shoot a rifle. That the Fonda character dances stiffly and sees himself as an elitist not sharing the democratic values of the community, that alone is enough to make him an outcast and a divisive force. The film also has a half-baked romance that was not only dull, but made the film feel longer than it should have.

The film opens with the arrival of two new officers to the frontier outpost: Lt. Mickey O’Rourke (Agar), he’s the son of Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke (Bond), who just graduated from West Point, and the other is the new commanding officer, the uptight Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Fonda). He is resentful that he has been demoted after the Civil War and sent to such an unimportant outpost. He’s a widower who brings his radiant, doll-like young daughter with him, Philadelphia (Temple). She smiles and coos and Mickey responds, as their romance starts the film on its way to all the predictability that romance will bring to the story.

Ford takes his sweet time getting to the main story, as he takes delight in showing how the fort was one big happy family when Captain York (Wayne) was running it but how the new commanding officer upsets things with his stuffiness for regulations and his vain desires. As in all Ford westerns, there are his stock characters and scenes devoted to humor about the Irish being both heavy drinkers and gallant fighters. Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Mulcahy does his usual drunken binge scene and represents the Irish cause, while the women on the outpost are made into saints. Emily Collingwood (Lee), the wife of Captain Collingwood (O’Brien), is a picture of an ideal wife, who makes Philadelphia feel at home, while the sergeant major’s wife, Mary O’Rourke (Rich), is the perfect Army wife and whatever she does is seen as noble.

The film reaches its climax when Captain York is forced to break his word to the honorable Apache leader Cochise, who took the Apaches out of the reservation and made war because the corrupt Indian agents sold them liquor and exploited them. He was such a formidable warrior, that no one could capture him. Under orders from Thursday, York invites Cochise to talk about returning to the reservation. But Thursday breaks his word and leads a suicide attack against the Apaches, which results in him and his men being needlessly slaughtered. This ‘Last Stand,’ a reminder of the blunder Custer is known for, is covered up by the surviving York. Wayne shows he’s a ‘team player’ and makes Fonda out to be a hero, as the press obliges with heroic stories.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”