Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 28, 2012)
Over their long, legendary careers, John Ford and John Wayne worked together multiple times. For a collaboration smack-dab in the middle of this run, we go to the 1948 western Fort Apache.
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) gets assigned to Fort Apache, a location in “middle of nowhere” Arizona. He takes his teen daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) but doesn’t feel happy about this job, as he thinks the remote spot is beneath his talents. He needs to fight off incursions with the Apaches, a tribe he feels can’t offer much of a battle, though Captain Kirby York (Wayne) disagrees and believes the Apaches demonstrate greater strength.
Thursday finds a crew that he feels has gone soft, so he attempts to enforce greater strictness and discipline. He also tries to use the post to his advantage; while Fort Apache looks like a nothing assignment, Thursday desperately seeks glory and greatness, so he’ll aspire to make what he can out of this job.
When the troops encounter Apache leader Cochise (Miguel Inclan), Thursday pounces on the chance to achieve his desired “glory”. He launches a campaign to kill Cochise and thereby prove his supposed greatness – even in the face of warnings from subordinates and the potential of dire consequences.
For the modern viewer, one potential attraction here comes from the sight of an adult Temple. This wouldn’t have been as interesting in 1948, as moviegoers would’ve seen Temple grow up on camera. I doubt most of her post-childhood flicks have gone viewed by many since the 1940s, though; when I looked at the films she made, the only one I recognized was 1947’s The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Since I never took in that one, I thought it was fun to get a look at a grown-up Temple.
Alas, her role becomes the movie’s weakest link. Much of the film devotes itself to the exploration of Philadelphia’s chaste romance with 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (Temple’s one-time husband John Agar) and these sequences couldn’t be less interesting if they tried. While Temple turned into a lovely young lady, she didn’t demonstrate much skill as an actor. Without her kiddie cuteness and spunk to rely on, she seems pretty but bland, and she shows little to no chemistry with Agar; whatever zing they enjoyed in real life, it doesn’t translate to the screen. Anytime we see Philadelphia and/or O’Rourke, the movie sags.
Unfortunately, they’re not the only drag on the flick, as Apache spends far too much time with character elements not connected to the overall plot. Had these developed Thursday and/or York, they’d help embellish the film, but instead, we find plenty of unessential material with secondary roles. While these aren’t bad in their own right, they cause the movie’s first two acts to meander. Perhaps they were meant to convey a feel for life on the frontier, but instead, they simply seem unnecessary and distracting.
Which is too bad, for when Apache stays on target, it’s quite good. It’s certainly more ambivalent about its subject than most westerns. While Ford occasionally indulges in standard shots of “heroics” when US soldiers attack Indians, these are strongly tempered by a more civilized view. We clearly see York as the most rational and logical of the bunch, and he’s the one who shows the most respect to the Apaches.
I suppose York could’ve been painted as some sort of mealy-mouthed appeaser, but Ford doesn’t do so – and with Wayne in the role, such an interpretation becomes even less likely. Wayne gives the part the necessary “manliness” but also allows us to see his intelligence and desire to avoid battle.
Thursday’s brainpower seems unclear; I don’t think he’s a dope, but he’s so arrogant and concerned with personal glory that he ignores all logic. Thursday plays like the “ugly American” stereotype: he blunders into a foreign circumstance but never attempts to understand and adjust to the native mindset. With his own rampant biases behind him, he makes stupid decisions that endanger his men.
I’m glad Fonda took on the part, for just as Wayne prevents York from coming across like a coward, Fonda adds warmth to a potentially cold, dense character. Fonda still keeps Thursday as arrogant as he should be, but he manages to create a nearly three-dimensional personality, one who doesn’t seem as stupid and self-destructive as he otherwise might.
I wish Apache had better developed the Thursday and York roles during its first two acts. While they receive ample screen-time during the last third, they occasionally feel like afterthoughts in the preceding moments. I think the film could’ve built up the characters and their relationship in a more satisfying way; the ending pays off quite well, but it can be a tough slog to get there.
And that leaves Fort Apache as a good but flawed Western. It enjoys a solid story with uncommon depth in its portrayal of the military mindset, but it strays off-topic too much of the time. It’s close to being a classic but doesn’t quite get there.