Fort Apache (1948): Classic Movie Review

Fort Apache starring John WayneMovie Review of the 1948 classic Fort Apache:

Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, James Warner Bellah
Photography: Archie Stout, William H. Clothier
Editor: Jack Murray
Cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Ward Bond, Pedro Armendáriz, George O’Brien, Victor McLaglen, Miguel Inclán, Hank Worden

My self-rehabilitation project re: John Ford took a decided turn for the better when I came across Fort Apache. It’s nicely effective, perfectly enjoyable, and Ford to the core, a western with John Wayne set in Monument Valley.

Monument Valley, even shot in a harsh dusty black and white, remains imposing as ever, its wide open spaces and the alien shapes of its mountains and rock formations establishing a backdrop that keeps one off balance, identifying with the isolation of the characters. In a way it’s a distraction—yet in another way as much a character as anyone walking around on two legs. It’s oppressive, bearing down on the story more and more as the story develops, the characters for the most part eventually just lost in it, as at least one of them simply becomes just lost.

The film features a terrific screenplay from Frank S. Nugent which patiently gives over most of its first half to developing the characters and conflicts and laying the foundation of the thing before proceeding to a nicely realized climax at the onset of the action scenes, whose battles thus become all the more effective. With the stakes fully defined, the viewer is left simply to gape at the magnificent spectacle as it unfolds, and for once I felt like Ford’s reputation was earned, that I could relax in the hands of a masterful storyteller and just give in to it.

In many ways it’s a very typical Ford picture. The Civil War is still a recent memory, and it sometimes seems that as many characters fought on one side as the other, which creates more tension in the viewers (at least this viewer) than it seems to in anyone inside the story. Instead, there’s just a lot of the usual high-spirited high-jinx going on, so beloved of Ford and his followers—no end of Irish blarney, hearty guffaws, and unseemly pratfalls, particularly when men are all dressed up for an event. Drunkenness is taken for granted, a way of life for some, for better and for worse. And, of course, the elaborate rites of male camaraderie are presented as generally superior to more constricting relationships with women.

In fact, as a class, women tend to rank only somewhat ahead of horses—and a bit behind good whiskey. But that’s not unusual for Ford, nor westerns, nor indeed for the times. As always (just ask Peter Bogdanovich), “the times” is less excuse than explanation in these matters, and in any event simply must suffice. Ward Bond addresses his wife as a matter of routine as “Woman” (as in, “Woman, don’t be concernin’ yerself with things that don’t concern ye”). Yet Bond, a supporting player, also happens to own one of the very best performances here of many, and part of that includes an obviously profound esteem that his character has for his wife. The pride and humility he evinces simply in his bearing, the way he holds himself and moves with such quiet, pained dignity, is one of the real marvels to see here.

The real star of the show is Henry Fonda as Colonel Owen Thursday, a 19th-century military martinet (who explicitly denies exactly that at one point) seething with resentment at being assigned to an outpost on the fringes of the Western frontier. But there’s a lot of complexity to his character—he’s occasionally capable of being fair when it would be more convenient for him not to be, he appears to deserve his commission as arguably the smartest person at the fort, and if his displays of courage veer too often toward the foolhardy, they are no less courageous for that. His character succeeds as a result of both Fonda’s neatly controlled performance and Nugent’s fine screenplay.

John Wayne gets top billing over Fonda but it seems to me that he plays much more of a supporting role, which I think actually suits him well. This could be artifact of my reflexive distaste for him, but at least I’m starting to see with this performance that he does have some tonal range and can play more than a surly lout. He does a nice job of projecting the struggle that his proud and defiant character suffers under Thursday’s command. He’s a good soldier in a difficult position and Wayne is better than adequate at staying within that.

There are a number of such surprises from the cast—Shirley Temple as Thursday’s daughter (oddly named Philadelphia), an adolescent determined to marry against her father’s wishes, is charming. John Agar as her suitor is decent as the usual awkward earnest young man in a John Ford picture. Troupers such as Hank Worden (and Ward Bond) are always a pleasure. And it’s refreshing to see Native Americans cast to play Native Americans, particularly in a picture from this period (aka “the times”).

As usual, Ford’s musical interludes go right to certain hearts of American experience under the burden of a good deal of corn. Yet somehow they work particularly well for me here. There’s a dance sequence that occurs just before the third act that I really love—stiff, mannered, even rather silly, it nonetheless conveys better than perhaps anything else how intent these pioneers were in establishing and preserving their ideas of civilization in an environment hostile to them—both the dignity of the effort, and the benightedness of it, too.

JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.