This film is the beginning of me completing a small John Ford Marathon. Feel free to continue along with.
Every so often we get to see a movie that’s set in the 40s, 50s or even 60s, but not of that time. Within that film more times than not we’ll be able to witness popular culture as it existed and was being sold to the characters then. We get glimpses of old TV shows, but more times than not they’re purposefully made to look cliched and aged in a manner that seems either nostalgically endearing or vindictively critical. So when we move from those glossed perspectives to the source it’s hard to not be thinking about these preconceived ideas that we’ve already had put in our heads from first or even second hand parties who’re giving us their memories of these type of stories that were told in ‘the good old days’.
Fort Apache follows the story of Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar), a young man who recently graduated West Point and has become a 2nd Lt. in the Army. He’s been posted to Fort Apache, where he reunites with his mother and father. At the same time however Fort Apache has received a new commanding officer, Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), who believes the position is beneath him but still commands it with the aptitude you’d imagine any man of his stature would.
This, like many films like it, is about characters and how their differences shine a light on societal shifts at the time. Michael is a man who while inexperienced in command is naive and open minded to what he sees around him, Thursday is a hardened commander who never finds excuse to stray from the letter of the law, and Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne) is the man who sees reason in taking cases as they come. Michael O’Rourke being the youngest CO that has recently been added to the ranks of the fort he’s constantly shown to be between his two commanding officers, obeying Thursday’s strict nature while at the same time obviously finding a lot of pragmatism in Kirby’s approach to life on the ‘front lines’ as some people would make it seem.
While the film definitely makes Kirby the more attractive character in his ideals and how he’s able to communicate with people — even the Apache — it never denigrates Thursday for his idealized belief in commanding to the very end. This is something I respect, because it’s all too easy to quickly claim that Thursday was bad in how he negotiates with the Apache, but that’s the same thought process which makes people who view films such as Das Boot with only a surface level discussion as a story about horrible characters. There are things which the film allows for us to agree or disagree with, but never does it definitively claim that these ideas are poor decisions, which keeps the conversation open in a way that I feel films of this time didn’t do often enough.
This movie however is not without it’s failings. As I mentioned in the opening this film is one of those movies. It’s a film that feels aged. It feels stiff. Like many films as old as this the style of filmmaking and acting of that generation was too focussed on some soap operatic style acting where every character displayed emotions in the most extreme version as opposed to any middle ground that could ever exist.
Regardless I’m going to go ahead and shut my stupid face as I say I loved this movie and you should too.
Have you seen Fort Apache? What do you think?