The seventh collaboration between Ford and Fonda, Fort Apache is an extraordinarily rich proposition. US historian Richard Slotkin views it as “a seminal work of mythography”, in Michael Herr’s Dispatches it represents the “mythopathic moment” that the Vietnam War would re-enact two decades later, and for the filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub it illustrates his argument that Ford was “the most Brechtian of filmmakers, because he shows things that make people think ‘Damn it, is that true or not?’ – instead of presenting them with images that tell them what to think”. At the end of Fort Apache, this balancing act – the ability to see and know the sad facts of Col. Thursday’s demeanour while also advocating for a dissemination of his legend as a heroic warrior – reverberates even more strongly than in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford’s later and more famous version of the same dialectic. Here, it is the culmination of several transformative oppositions: a postwar combat movie, dressed up as a cavalry western; a deeply racist short story, adapted into a film that contemplates not only a path towards peace with the Apache but also their exploitation by government-backed criminals; domestic life in a semi-matriarchal Fort community vs a stiff, authoritarian protagonist from the East (Fonda as Thursday) whose disgust at his new posting is clearly based on class conceit and ethnic hatred. In Fort Apache, “[the] celebration of the frontier as the cradle of American democracy is held in check by an incisive critique of American imperialism. This is a remarkable turn for a work of popular culture made at the height of the American empire in the genre that gave America its national epic. Ford’s films are perhaps the most sophisticated political works of art America has produced because they understand, with a lucidity that has no time either for cynicism or for moralizing, the way myth and rhetoric, image and ideology, function in a society and a polity. They know that a community needs myth for its cohesion and that a democracy needs to bring myth under light of critical reason” (Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost). As the soldiers leave the Fort for what will be their ‘last stand’, three women watch from the distance, trying to identify their loved ones. Captain Collingwood’s wife says, “I can’t see him – all I can see is the flags”.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: freely inspired by the short story Massacre (1947) by James Warner Bellah. Scen.: Frank S. Nugent. F.: Archie Stout. M.: Jack Murray. Scgf.: James Basevi. Mus.: Richard Hageman. Int.: John Wayne (capitano Kirby York), Henry Fonda (colonnello Owen Thursday), Shirley Temple (Philadelphia Thursday), Pedro Armendáriz (sergente Beaufort), Ward Bond (sergente maggiore O’Rourke), George O’Brien (capitano Sam Collingwood), Victor McLaglen (sergente Mulcahy), Anna Lee (Emma Collingwood), Irene Rich (Mary O’Rourke), Dick Foran (Tim Quincannon). Prod.: Merian C. Cooper, John Ford per Argosy Pictures Corp. 35mm. D.: 127’. Bn.
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