Tuesday, July 19, 2016

2016 Blind Spot Series: Fort Apache

Based on the short story Massacre by James Warner Bellah, Fort Apache is the story of a cavalry officer who is asked to help his commander from preventing a war between the cavalry and the Native Americans during the Indian Wars. Directed by John Ford and screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, the film is the first of a trilogy of films devoted to the cavalry in the American West during the late 1800s where it explores two men with different views and tactics trying to work together to avoid conflict with the Native Americans. Starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Victor McLagen, Ward Bond, Pedro Armendariz, and John Agar. Fort Apache is a riveting and thrilling film from John Ford.

Set in the late 1800s after the American Civil War and during the Indian Wars between various Native American tribes and the American Cavalry. The film revolves around a lieutenant-colonel who arrives to Fort Apache to command a cavalry as he deals with his role as well as trying not to mess with a treaty involving the Apaches. Still, he finds himself having to deal with the way the fort is run as well as those trying to adhere to his rules where a captain finds himself at odds with his commanding officer but doesn’t want to stir trouble. It’s a film that isn’t just about two men who have different ideas of how to run things but also what to do from preventing a war. Especially as it relates to dealing with the Apache where Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) knows very little about while Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) is someone that sees the Apache as just people wanting to live in peace.

Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay doesn’t play into the conflict of ideologies in Lt. Col. Thursday and Cpt. York but also how would affect the way the fort is run as the latter is trying to play nice and not question the former. Among those living in the fort is Lt. Col. Thursday’s daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) who takes a liking to the young Lieutenant Mickey O’Rourke (John Agar) whose father Sgt. Major Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond) is a leader of the regiment that also includes men he fought with in the Civil War as part of the Irish Brigade. Lt. O’Rourke’s attraction towards Philadelphia makes her father uneasy not because he’s protective but also due to class prejudice that would eventually upset Sgt. Major O’Rourke at one point as he had tried to do what his superior officer had said much to the chagrin of some of his men. There is also some unique complexities to the characters where Lt. Col. Thursday is seen as egocentric and arrogant but is also a man that is aware of what he has to do despite his reluctance to lead this regiment.

The script also shows complexities in Captain York where despite being an officer that is often friendly with his fellow soldiers while sometimes having dinner with the O’Rourke family. He is still a man of duty and does what is asked without question where he does have to take the criticism of the men who revere him. When it comes to dealing with the Apache following an incident that left two soldiers killed as it relates to the actions of a corrupt agent in Meacham (Grant Withers). The ideologies of Captain York and Lt. Col. Thursday start to go at odds where the latter sees the Apache as savages while the former sees them as real people who don’t want conflict. The film’s third act is about this conflict between the cavalry and Apache where there is an air of respect when they meet before battle but it also show the flaws of Lt. Col. Thursday in dealing with someone like Cochise (Miguel Inclan) as Cpt. York made a deal with him as it also leads to the concept of honor which is something that starts to be questioned during the film’s climatic battle.

John Ford’s direction is truly mesmerizing for the way he captures the American West where he shoots the film largely at Monument Valley in Utah with some of the locations set in California. The locations definitely have a grand look to it as Ford takes advantage of the locations to play into its beauty as there’s a lot of depth of field in the wide and medium shots as well as creating compositions that are just gorgeous. The attention to detail in the wide shots from the way the clouds look above the desert to a wide shot of the entire regiment ready for battle with the wives looking on the balcony in the background. It’s all part of the world that Ford creates as it says a lot to what was happening in those times where it was this uneasy conflict where the American government tried to instill their own rules towards the natives as Lt. Col. Thursday is a representation of that ideology. There are these moments that are intimate as the first scene involving Cpt. York has him in a dance with the officers and soldiers along with their wives as it shows him as someone who is very open and friendly to the soldiers.

It’s a very interesting way in how Ford introduces a major character as opposed to Lt. Col. Thursday and his daughter as they’re introduced when they’re riding on a stagecoach on their way to Fort Apache. It’s among some of the intriguing moments in the film while Ford isn’t afraid to put some humor as it relates to some of the soldiers and how they found some whiskey that they’re supposed to get rid of. The film’s climatic moments involving the cavalry and the Apache are quite intense with its sprawling usage of the dolly tracking shots to capture the chases as well as the wide shots to play into the scope of these battle scenes. The way Ford was able to present the climax is nothing short of astonishing as it has a lot of what is happening but also destroy some of the mythical aspects that is the American West. Overall, Ford crafts an exhilarating and compelling film about two cavalry officers dealing with their different ideas of conflict while dealing with the Apache.

Cinematographer Archie Stout, with un-credited work from William H. Clothier, does brilliant work with the film‘s black-and-white photography from the beauty of the daytime exterior scenes as well as some unique lighting for some of the interiors set at night. Editor Jack Murray does excellent work with the editing with its usage of dissolves and fade-outs for structural reasons along with some rhythmic cutting for the action. Art director James Basevi does amazing work with the design of the fort as well as some of the houses and such in the desert to play into the look of the West. The sound work of Joseph I. Kane and Frank Webster is superb for some of the natural elements in the locations along with the way the bugles sound and some of the more broad elements in the action involving gunfire. The film’s music by Richard Hageman is fantastic for its bombastic orchestral score with its usage of string arrangements and brass section to play into some of the moments of action along with the usage of traditional music for some of the more intimate moments.

The film’s incredible cast include some notable small roles from Irene Rich as Major Sgt. O’Rourke’s wife, Anna Lee as Captain Collinwood’s wife who knew Lt. Col. Thursday’s wife, Movita as Lt. Col. Thursday’s cook Guadalupe, Guy Kibbee as the surgeon Captain Wilkens, and Miguel Incan as the famed Apache warrior Cochise. Victor McLagen is terrific as Lt. O’Rourke’s godfather Sgt. Mulcahy who likes to drink and have fun as he doesn’t like Lt. Col. Thursday while Pedro Armendariz is superb as Sgt. Beaufort as a former Confederate who aids Captain York in talking with the Apache. Grant Withers is wonderful as the scheming agent Silas Meacham who had caused trouble with the Apache as he’s disliked by many though is protected by the government much to Cpt. York’s dismay.

George O’Brien is fantastic as Cpt. Sam Collinwood as an old friend of Lt. Col. Thursday who tries to deal with what his superior wants as well as making the move to transfer to another company. John Agar is pretty good as Lt. Mickey O’Rourke as a young lieutenant, who like Lt. Col. Thursday is a West Point graduate, who is trying to find his footing while falling for Philadelphia much to her father’s dismay. Ward Bond is excellent as Major Sgt. O’Rourke as Lt. O’Rourke’s father who was part of the revered Irish brigade during the Civil War as a man who is proud of his duty as a soldier only to find himself at odds with Lt. Col. Thursday over class. Shirley Temple is brilliant as Philadelphia Thursday as Lt. Col. Thursday’s daughter who falls for Lt. O’Rourke while trying to understand the ideas of duty as she is just fun to watch.

Henry Fonda is great as Lt. Col. Owen Thursday as this officer who is trying to do his duty and do everything he is asked where he is also arrogant in his ways as it’s a very chilling role from Fonda who intentionally plays a man that looks stiff in the way he looks and does things but it is one of his finest performances. Finally, there’s John Wayne in a phenomenal performance as Captain Kirby York as this man that has encountered and knows a lot about the Apache as he tries to help Lt. Col. Thursday every way he can while swallowing some of his pride to do his duty unless he knows something isn’t right as it’s Wayne at his best.

Fort Apache is a sensational film from John Ford that features top-notch performances from John Wayne and Henry Fonda. With a great script, a superb supporting cast, and gorgeous visuals, the film isn’t just one of Ford’s great westerns but also a study of ideologies and myths surrounding the American West. In the end, Fort Apache is a tremendous film from John Ford.

© thevoid99 2016

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