TSPDT Greatest Films #920 Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948)
The first chapter of John Ford's heroic trilogy on the American cavalry, Fort Apache represents everything about a classic Fordian offering. With his two favorite lead players; guy next door Henry Fonda and the ultimate American father; John Wayne. It's very interesting to see a film where Henry Fonda portrays the antagonist. Once Upon A Time In the West is probably his most famous performance as a bad guy. In a Ford picture, supporting roles are very important, here you have Shirley Temple as Colonel Thursday's daughter Philadelphia, and many Ford regulars like Pedro Armendariz, Ward Bond, and John Agar to name a few. These roles played by regular Ford players are important because they all have a very distinctive mission in the community that cavalry reprensents. The community and the strenght of the people together is the central theme of John Ford's entire oeuvre. The cavalry itself represents this concept and its success relates on the bond, the gentleness of the entire group and the order of this fellowship.
The new Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is sent to Fort Apache to reinstore peace with the tribes living on the reserva near the border of Mexico. He is dreading this assignment and on his way there he says to his daughter that the War in Europa was more interesting. This stubborn character is fueled by a thirst of military honour. His arrival marks the interruption of a dancing night (recurring Fordian mise-en-scène sign of civilized community) illustring his inability to have human relationships and to represent, the strict but, comprehensive leading "father" figure this group diserves. His hate towards this assignment leads him to demand "strictness of military procedure that the men have never found necessary" (Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness).
The second dance of the film is a long musical sequence that serves the narrative of the film in many ways. First, it holds our breath on the return of Captain York from his encounter with the Indian chief. But also, the evolution of the dance represents the symbol of unity and how the cavalry community should hold together and move on the same rythm and music with synchronized footsteps and tight order.
The characters in Fort Apache all have Irish names, Ford was a proud Irish man and he widely populated his films with Irish people. We found many other recurring aspects Ford's films in Fort Apache, the humouristic supporting cast parts, whiskey drinkers, splendid Monument Valley shots, heroic music, and the sad but realistic racism towards Indians. Realistic because it was the perception Ford had about Indians and sadly many Americans had too. Later in his career John Ford will correct this situation with another Western that tries to replace these errors: Cheyenne Autumn.
In John Ford's filmography, Fort Apache represents one of the many great films he directed. Like Robert Kolker wrote in his book A Cinema of Loneliness; Fort Apache was one of the films that inspired the form of Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. I recommend both films even if their conclusions differ from one another: Ford vision of life was that humans must live in community to reach for a perfect society and everyone must participate. On the other hand, Kubrick's vision is way more nihilistic and he concludes with the inevitable impotency of Colonel Dax in his request in front of the Generals and the heaviness of these buffons. Kubrick's film is more based on antimilitarism in a time of the Cold War. His film tries to denonciate the State, the Army, and how it litteraly uses young men has cannon flesh (chair à canons).