For Marshall – Whose Unprompted Discussion on this Film Played a Huge Part in Considering the Complexity Behind John Ford, The Man.
Between How Green Was My Valley in 1941 and My Darling Clementine in 1946, America entered World War II and subsequently John Ford served in the Navy Reserve during that time as well as in the OSS, photographically capturing The Battle of Midway (the film he made out of the footage being among the 4 winners of the very first Best Documentary Oscar*), D-Day on Omaha Beach, and the conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. And based on his account of how these men he came to personally know and photograph began to die before him, Ford was shaken by the experience and the memory of his fallen comrades for the rest of his days.
I can’t help thinking that his famous Cavalry trilogy was something of an attempt to tribute the memory of these fallen men while also grappling with what his personal objections with both the history of the United States and its fascination with valorizing itself for even the most craven or dishonorable military actions on the part of men who decide the fate of people beneath them solely on the justification of rank. Maybe I’m just playing dimestore psychologist a bit too much and Ford’s longstanding memories of documenting the battlefield is seldom connected with his later reevaluated outlook on life and subsequent probing of the Western genre’s attempt at mythologizing US history are completely unrelated. But one thing that is undeniable is that Ford’s 1948 film that opened the Cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, is the most morally complex film that I have seen out of his films yet. Even moreso than The Searchers, which is a whole lot more pure in its cynicism, and even moreso than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which walks where Fort Apache ran.
The script – the first written by film critic-turned-screenwriter Frank S. Nugent as well as the beginning of his long working relationship with Ford – adapts James Warner Bellah’s Saturday Evening Post short story “Massacre” which in turn takes inspiration from Lieutenant Colonel George S. Custer’s infamous Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn. And if there’s one punch Ford and Nugent pull, it’s that their Custer stand-in is not nearly as repulsive a human being as Custer appeared to be, though Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is never anything less than an antagonistic figure among his peers with an undisguised resentment at his sending off to the Fort Apache cavalry post. This is no less disappointing to the men already stationed at Fort Apache as everyone was expecting command to be taken by Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) who is significantly more relaxed in his handling of the troops than Thursday’s obsession with image and dignity.
A good amount of the film watches York and Thursday quietly joust on what genteelness matters when it comes to treating others, where Fonda projects an elitism that is satisfied more with its façade of properness and in the meanwhile we see the ease with which York may handle responsibility with men he understands whilst making room for something like a hang out picture within the cavalry (embodied particularly by John Agar’s square-jawed Lieutenant Mickey O’Rourke and Mickey’s father Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, played by Ward Bond but given even more ease by the presence of Ford favorites Victor McLaglen and Hank Worden as well as Pedro Armendáriz and particularly George O’Brien as the one true bridge between Thursday’s decorum and York’s principles), where Ford and cinematographer Archie Stout keep a clear awareness of which between the two major cinematic icons Fonda and Wayne are favored in their shared coverage and the men of cavalry are covered from chaotic early sequences of indiscipline to later developments of visual pageantry with their organization within the frame.
And yet the biggest clash between York and Thursday comes about halfway through the film when they are to investigate the remnants of a ravaged supply wagon and uncover corruption on the part of government agent Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). Meacham was responsible for the supply of the Apache people on the reservation but York is pretty quickly able to illustrate to Thursday how Meacham was, knowingly and possible even with the US government’s approval, neglecting and betraying their trust. This is a betrayal and mistreatment severe enough to facilitate the wide-scale death of the Apache people and necessitate their defiance of the United States government by fleeing to Mexico. At which point, Thursday shows his true colors by addressing Meacham with his gentleman manner despite showing almost as much contempt for him as York while York speaks freely of the way the United States government betrayed and displaced the Indigenous people for its entire history. And I mean FREELY, York’s monologuing leaves no room for misunderstanding when makes clear that the United States is responsible for the near-eradication of Native Americans and continues to maintain this violence in passive-aggressive ways.
Thursday’s demeanor and posture to Meacham will particularly have its foil when the cavalry inevitably comes face to face with Cochise (Miguel Inclan) as Thursday refuses to favor even the slightest compromise with the Apache people or consider them on equal footing, calling them “savages” as the favored term of many anti-indigenous racists. A treatment of the indigenous that York outright declares to find dishonorable and potentially lethal. And those who know what happened to Custer can probably guess where Fort Apache is going with this, yet nevertheless I think I will give the courtesy of SPOILER WARNING as it’s impossible to discuss the power of Fort Apache without discussing its landing blows. But suffice it to say that the ending moments are where Fonda’s rigid arrogance and combativeness with anyone beneath him gets at its most tragic and what was already an excellent usage of Wayne’s screen soulfulness to depict a man who will find ways to bend his duty serving everyone as they should be served becomes richer and his career best performance, even beyond the obvious need to be convincing as someone who believes the Apache people were wronged and should be treated with honor**.
For one thing, the finale portrays much of Thursday’s strategically inept commands in the final battle with some detached ambiguity. We are aware that Thursday is leading men to their deaths for the “glory” of it and the refusal to accept the Apache as people but that’s specifically because York gives lip service to it. And yet Ford shoots the cavalry’s preparations and marches with no less the sort of painterly iconography as any other piece of art that rhapsodizes history, particularly taking advantage with Stout of the horizontal axis with the frame. It is the tinge of fatalism, only explicitly delivered at the very last moments of the fight in a pair of shots that is outright chilling in its desolation, that determines the dark disenchantment with how the Cavalry builds these men up only to have them die very avoidable deaths. And even in that fatalism, Thurday’s arc as a character gives just the slightest tone of nobility to his final decision when an opportunity is offered to him to return back alive to his daughter Philadelphia (former child actor legend Shirley Temple, Agar’s wife at the time, who is a perfect screen partner for Fonda’s few times where he reveals Thursday’s heart***).
And before I move on from this sequence, it is the moment where the extra textures in the infrared film with which Fort Apache was shot pay off magnificently, showing off the crags and lines of Monument Valley with more intimacy than Ford’s previous films shot there and particularly with a heart-stopping final wide shot to the scene where York marches into a miniature sandstorm kicked up by Cochise’s horse with a pregnant tension for us to watch all that grain swallow the entire frame before settling into an image that is shattering in its firm punctuation.
And then there is the true final scene – the one that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would later absolutely remake in its own context – and Wayne’s muted responses to the reporters’ questions regarding and the neutral tired face of his when he confirms the most romanticized stories of a fight we saw Thursday lose hard with a stony two-shot close-up that just leaves me numb when I see it, insisting that there’s nothing that can be done to salvage the truth about what Thursday did. And then he moves on to take his command in a similar fashion as Thursday but not before delivering one last accolade regarding the bravery of the less-decorated men in the cavalry and a hope that York will use his power to bring the Apache back as the government orders under terms of decency and regained trust of his own accord, with a final sequence returning to that pageantry in a more optimistic tone that manages not to undercut all we just watched 20 minutes ago.
This is a movie with a lot of unexpected relevance up to the year 2020: Thursday’s actions reflecting the manner in which the oppressors are treated as opposed to the oppressed so that the cries are never heart and the status quo remains the same. The final sequence reminding us of how even to this day, the United States will pat itself on the back for accomplishing nothing except so many graves (and I almost forgot to mention how this one of the few John Ford movies where the comic relief works, specifically because of how the amicability of the characters contextualizes the horrors of watching some of them die). The maintained ego of the nation in expecting that their most disenfranchised will take their meager supplies and like it as well as how it will twist any fact to make itself took good.
One last note for what is turning out to be a much longer review than I anticipated. You have seen above myself refer to Wayne’s personal disagreements with what Fort Apache posits regarding the Native Americans and the unnecessary nature of war (which is ironic given that unlike Ford, Wayne was a draft dodger). Ford is probably a bit more complicated to claim: he has long held good relations with several Indigenous Nations (indeed, that’s how he was able to shoot in the Navajo country of Monument Valley for most of his career), used his military connections specifically to supply food and resources to Native Americans, while also fighting and enforcing equal pay among his Native American and Black actors during his career, but I also just can’t help being dubious of anyone who was even cursorily involved in The Birth of a Nation (in which an uncredited Ford was an extra as a klansman!).
Nevertheless, this feels more than anything like his reckoning with the mythologizing that the Western brings to some of this country’s darkest historical acts with an evidently immortal positive light, ostensibly for the founding of the nation but realistically at the cost of summarily killing the Indigenous people. And it’s not a straightforward reckoning – Fort Apache is pro-cavalryman but somehow anti-cavalry and certainly indulges in some classical cowboy on the horizon imagery for the heroic – but it is nevertheless a reckoning most aware of the casualties and enraged by the institutionalized and historical dishonor on the part of the United States with Ford’s willingness to indict himself. Because I don’t think it’s for nothing that the very same people Ford portrayed as stereotypical barbarity in Stagecoach are the ones that are given a much clearer light as civilized men fighting back against blatant injustice and persecution with this film. Ford did not choose the Apache people to be in this movie by accident anymore than he chose to craft a massive tragedy to reflect in scope off of what may be his sharpest auto-critique against the Western genre he had a hand in building to the esteem it was in 1948.