That’ll Be the Day.

For Marshall

“Which movie is the hardest to discuss in this week-long John Ford series?” is a question with a lot of answers, but I think his 1956 picture The Searchers might edge through for the individual reason that – as the film widely considered Ford’s best – it seems like every single thing worth saying has already been said by far more intelligent and articulate film people than myself. It doesn’t help that – as I’m sure you’ve guessed with this being a series exclusively dedicated to what I consider Ford’s masterpieces – I’m not really set to go against conventional wisdom. It’s also the case that The Searchers has been getting the mildest drop in reputation over the past few decades, some of which is understandable if also ungenerous.

Understandable on a thematic sense that is, but we’ll get back to that. On an aesthetic sense, however, I don’t get how anybody couldn’t find it overwhelming. It is Ford’s EPIC in a way that no other picture by him could be, with cinematographer Winton Hoch given the expanse of the VistaVision widescreen film to capture the most out of the Western horizon and then make it feel tired on the part of the washed-out coloring without losing one detail of that rocky and sandy expanse. And this matters all the more so when Jack Murray cuts the sequences with every bit of slack to stress that we are feeling the years pass the characters by on a journey that feels… OK, maybe this is something lost once you have seen the movie but it’s a journey that doesn’t promise any particular satisfaction at the end of it.

I’m getting ahead of myself. What is this journey that the scope in structure and image is in service of? Frank Nugent’s screenplay – adapting the 1954 novel by Alan Le May – begins with Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into the Texas homestead of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). This arrival is certainly to the pleasure of the children Lucy (Pippa Scott), Debbie (Lana Wood – played later in the film by her sister Natalie), and Ben (Robert Lyden) but less so in the case of Aaron and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) for some unspoken reason. It might be because Ethan did not reach out in three years since the Mexican Revolutionary War he was fighting in ended, it might be the romantic tension between Ethan and Martha, it might be the quiet hostility Ethan shows to their adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) specifically because he resembles his Cherokee descent*. In any case, the elders are not jumping for joy to see Ethan back and when the Law shows up in the form of the Reverend Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) and his posse, there’s even further a friction between Ethan and authorities that are mostly there to recruit help for investigating a cattle theft.

That theft – which Martin accompanies them on as well as Ethan after making a point to NOT swear in – turns out to be a trap, not for the men but for one of their unsuspecting homes. And unfortunately that turns out to be the Edwards’ home, desolated in the wake of a raid and leaving the bodies of Aaron, Martha, and Ben with Debbie and Lucy missing. Something which enrages the already hardened Ethan to go on a search for the two girls with Martin in tow, but it takes very little to scratch the surface and see he’s mostly looking for blood and not for the girls.

In any case, this is a journey that spans over a decade for the two searchers and that timespan takes its toll on both of them, Ethan much more severely as he grows bitter and nastier to Martin in denying him his relationship to the Edwards’ and holding him at a distance compared to the rest of their companions that hop on and then drop off throughout the film (some of whom drop off violently). Which is where Murray’s editing does the most work to slow the flow of momentum. The Searchers doesn’t stop completely but it’s more of a grind under Nugent’s structure and the story’s shape. Certainly one can already call to mind how the iconic opening and closing shots of the movie involving the long empty desert behind a moving door, but there’s also how much of the middle is taken up by a fragmented frame narrative involving the one letter Martin sends to his beau Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) as well as how cyclical the movie’s treatment of hot yellow summers crossfading into soft white winters at least twice before it feels like the few clues Ethan and Martin have (a Comanche Chief named Scar has been seen with Debbie) are finally leading them somewhere. The Searchers is not a very long movie – just a minute shy of 2 hours – but it makes it all felt and then some.

And then there’s still the fact that we are spending it in the company of Ethan, a role embodied by Wayne’s single most caustic performance, not above smiling or having a laugh when he’s under the roof of someone (there is a lot to be said about the dichotomy between Ethan’s domestication and savagery) but whose default manner appears to be a firm scowl under the bright desert sun or the shadow of his brim (this particular rewatch having a close-up round the middle of the film truly catch my eye as a moment where Ethan looks so very vicious, not to mention being a great example of what the VistaVision 35mm does to close-ups as it brings out all the stubble and lines on an old face like Wayne’s). His antagonism towards all the many people he will encounter in that long journey within Hoch’s vista (and particularly being dwarfed by those vistas in pointed ways, just as Ford loves to do to his drama visually) is a big part of what makes The Searchers feel so dark as a story without having to try so hard.

Ethan as a character is only one such way that the movie introduces a cynical attitude about what the Western as a genre yields. Conventionally speaking, The Wild Bunch is considered the first revisionist Western and being that The Searchers was still made in the later end of the 1950s, there was only so much violence that the movie could portray. But the implication of the brutality feels so much stronger than any bloodbath could provide: just look at the wide shot revealing what’s left of the Edwards home, the blackened smokey fire in the middle of nothing. It’s not gruesome but it gives us a chill down our spine just the same in its dark fatalism. Violence is what sobers The Searchers most, whether from the things the characters refuse to say or let others see or how three instances an off-screen death that brings further exhaustion to the mission. And particularly in the manner it frames Ethan’s meting of his own violence. One of his earliest moments on this search is to desecrate a found Comanche corpses as a low-angle shot, deliberately in a manner most offensive to the Comanche beliefs. Later, we have a middle shot witnessing Ethan about to commit a heinous act of desecration mirroring an taunt displayed to him just before by Scar himself (Henry Brandon).

Which brings us to the matter of racism and The Searchers. It seems to be a continuing question brought up by both apologists and critics of the film alike: Is The Searchers commenting on racism or is it just plain racist? Not to be too flippant, but I feel the movie makes itself explicitly clear on this matter: Ethan Edwards is a bad person who does not belong in any sort of society (a hell of a reversal on the first big Ford and Wayne collaboration Stagecoach condemning society). But even the Comanche is given the sense of civilization from their organization once we see them and the part-Cherokee Martin plays as a voice of reason and understanding against Ethan’s brutal tactics and philosophies, most often when the possibility of Lucy and Debbie’s miscegenation among the Comanches is brought up and Ethan determines death is a preferable fate for the girls. When they finally meet Scar face-to-face, Scar turns out to be very eloquent and has no trouble communicating his anger towards Ethan and his people with an attitude that feels rather of a kin to Ethan’s rancor (this is maybe the only area where casting a white man as Scar feels like it pays off, otherwise one of my only two issues with the movie besides the intolerable wise fool character giving undeserved comic relief). In nearly every aspect of Ethan’s characterization, he is wrong and the manner with which the film makes the shape of shadow (from the cowboy hat) on Ethan’s face more solid than any other movie Wayne made with Ford is impossible to ignore.

But Ethan is still not just some two-dimensional surprise villain and I think it’s the ending of The Searchers that most appears to complicate its tone as well as Ethan’s character logic in a major final decision, where Max Steiner’s previously weighty score (another area of projected exhaustion from The Searchers) makes a 180 over to this soft idyllic cue that transforms to melancholy in the final moments. And it just all fits, even despite giving us no indication to expect The Searchers to go that route and if anything preparing us for the opposite by having it play as the aftermath of one of Ethan’s most vicious actions. But it still effortlessly swings into those tones of relief and sadness in the last few minutes in an emotionally consistent way before we watch that famous shot of Ethan looking through the doorway but turning around and walking away from us as it closes. Maybe it’s that humane complexity about Ethan that causes everyone to feel like it undercuts its pessimism up to that point. I don’t agree though…

… Because it still marches towards the same final observations The Searchers about the Western and its place in the world anymore. That it idealizes a lone hero who is in fact just a violent bully, that it romanticizes a landscape that has no blatant feeling of the drama within it (Hoch’s cinematography being more realist in its mythic iconography than anything Ford made before or since), that it vilifies a race and enemy that has its own pain and its own establishment and agency. Not too long ago, I was faced with someone dismissing The Searchers with the claim that “I’m sure it was subversive for its time” but I absolutely don’t subscribe to liking movies for being “subversive for their time”. The Searchers is still subversive now in 2021 deconstructing and critiquing elements of storytelling mythology that is used to this day (plus I mean… I love The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but it’s not like we stopped having movies portray Native Americans as “savages”) and it’s a wonder that even if you’re not willing to accept how insightful it is as an amalgamation and examination of everything Ford accomplished in his career to that point, you can’t help surrendering into the shadow of a never harsher vision of that long surviving horizon in the American Southwest.

*Which like… Jeffrey Hunter, even with his tan here, resembles a Cherokee about as much as I resemble Bruce Lee. But if I’m going to meet this movie halfway…

Only an American Would Have Thought of Emerald Green

When I began this writing project on John Ford’s 7 masterpieces in Marshall’s memory, I knew that I wanted to revisit his 1952 film The Quiet Man despite having already given a review a couple of years ago that I still stand pretty well by. For the continuous momentum, for the blunt fact that 6 reviews over a week does not look as good as 7 reviews, for the fact that it WAS a movie Marshall loved, and most of all just to give myself an excuse to rewatch it the way I am always looking for an excuse to rewatch my old favorites. But of course, that comes with wanting to talk about The Quiet Man without really knowing what to talk ABOUT. And then a few hours before I was freed up to pop my blu-ray in and revisit that beautiful green land of Innisfree… I found myself scrolling through a few of our old facebook messages together and found this…

An angle of The Quiet Man that I didn’t even feint towards in my past review and so – with thanks to Marshall directly for guiding me here – my rewatch occurred looking at the ways in which The Quiet Man is very much about this. Which should be obvious in its authorship – John Ford being an American with Irish ancestry born John Feeney or, to his claim, Sean Aloysius O’Fearna – as well as in its premise. You could just read the back of your DVD or blu-ray case to identify this in its plot summary. Sean Thornton (John Wayne, also of Irish descent and did you know his real name is Marion?) returns to his birthplace of Innisfree, Ireland after a hard life in Pittsburgh trying to bury his past in America with this idealized version of his homeland. But let’s go a bit deeper into how A Quiet Man is about this…

Everything we learn about Sean’s life in America is of hardship and most of that established from the beginning. His grandfather died in an Austalian Penal Colony, both of his parents dead before he was 12 years old, grew up in destitution next to a “slag heaps” (a piece of dialogue that calls back specifically to the imminent coal rundown future of How Green Was My Valley). It’s important to note that two of the figures that raised him ended up dying outside outside of their homeland – Sean’s mother and grandfather – and his father of a “bad accident” before America, implying Sean’s barely has memory of him. And so he is brought to feel like what little memories and stories his mother told him of Innisfree and his childhood home White O’Mourn, he recognizes Innisfree as “another word for Heaven”, something instantly shot down by the local Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) as “Innisfree is far from being Heaven, Mr. Thornton” as well as her immediate assumption not that Sean wishes to live once more there but that he seeks to create a monument or memorial of the shack.

Nevertheless, Sean tries to build his own heaven and it’s a little bit more of the fantasy version where he reconstructs White O’Mourn with rusticity that is greeted not necessarily with condescension but with some amount of surprise. His choice to paint his home door green at one point is treated as a charming perculiarity – “Only an American would have thought of Emerald Green”, as this review’s title quotes – and there is a later scoffing at his choice of things to plant once he makes to create a garden on the lands. Which is to say that Sean is trying very hard to fit with an image of Ireland that might be more in his head than in the land before we even reach the major conflict of the film, where Squire “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen, for this is obviously Ford’s most Irish film since The Informer and that of course means McLaglen will be front and center)’s deep grudge at Sean for claiming his birthright of White O’Mourn just before Danaher was aiming to purchase the home and the complications that ensue when Sean and Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara, returning among other actual Irish Ford regulars like a never-better Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields) court and marry.

But this is talking more explicit narrative evidence and if there’s one thing I hope I’ve indicated John Ford does, it’s how he says things a whole lot better through aesthetics. The primary one being that Sean – despite our noting that he very much born in Ireland – does not have an Irish accent. And it can be safe to say the reason is practical, as Ford and Wayne’s earlier collaboration The Long Voyage Home indicated that accents are probably not Wayne’s strongest suit. Regardless, the result is strong: when even Ward Bond is able to put on an Irish brogue in his delivery, Wayne is going to look plenty out of place amongst this otherwise friendly company (let alone when it’s actually antagonistic to him like Red and Mary Kate).

Beyond that, The Quiet Man still feels somewhat an autocritique of Sean’s mindset returning home as it appears to be Ford’s mindset making the movie, being born in Maine and to my knowledge this being the first time he was in Ireland, creating his own image of how the land should look. I’ve never been to Ireland (though Odin help me, I will try to make that not the case* before I die) and it is sad to say I know very few Irish people, but I think it’s safe to say that the manner in which Ford presents the land and its people is… shall we say animated? It indulges in a multitude of stereotypes about drinking and impishness and throwing fisticuffs (which of course we will get back to) and fiery redheads of the sort, but it doesn’t lack one bit of sincerity and it seems as better a home for that loving jabbing at Ford’s ethnic background. Besides which, I can’t imagine that mindset also didn’t inform Ford and returning cinematographer Winston Hoch to make green by far the most saturated of the colors in The Quiet Man, though plenty more are prevalent with one we will particularly note.

Back to the complications of Sean and the Danahers. Those complications are the basis of when Sean starts to recognize that Irish customs of domesticity don’t exactly match up to his expectations and to deal with that. Red particularly is spending most of his appearance trying to goad Sean into a physical fight but this is something Sean is adamant on preventing, but it’s more Mary Kate whom he has to look out for. In a movie full of greens, Mary Kate is almost exclusively set in blues and reds, normally the former when she’s at her most agreeable and red when she’s at her most confrontational with Sean and a balance of both the scenes that require the most complexity out of O’Hara’s performance. Either way, her visual color palette cuts particularly through the greenery (including and especially her introductory wide shot) in a manner that interrupts the exact sort of Irish landscape that Sean was looking for when he arrived. Eventually, this becomes more or less a visual struggle between green and blue – when Sean tries to adapt to Irish customs of courtship is where we see him most in blue and outside of the third act, it is an outright fish out of water look. Just consider this hilarious two-shot of them in marriage…

Later on a mixup causes Red to be so infuriated that he refuses to provide Mary Kate’s dowry and that’s the real kicker in Sean and Mary Kate’s marriage. To Sean, he’s abandoning materialism and possessions in the US – particularly after a life of having none – but Mary Kate’s possessions of her own earning from her own hard life and Sean does not seem to truly understand that, causing the biggest hurdle for them two as a couple. Particularly Mary Kate’s frustration that Sean doesn’t care to integrate her way of life with his and will not fight for her, something Sean really needs to be convinced of and where his status as an outsider truly brings him at a divide.

The moment that indicates Sean’s reason for not wanting to fight and for leaving America in the first place is a flashback distinct in both being the only sequence we see set in America and the only one that’s abstract: the backdrop is darkened beyond a backlight for Sean’s stunned posture and when we see him taking a seat and being covered in something comforting… what is important to note is that his name is embroidered in green of all things in that one flashback sequence. A visual anchor right back to where we meet Sean and a moment of personal contention before making his decision to finally accept and engage the fight for his identity and his new home, a moment where he cuts along through the field of green marching and dragging along with Mary Kate in a blue shirt. And his blue shirt matches up well against Red’s own blue when they finally have their phenomenal and unforgettable fisticuffs match (on top of being the moment where Victor Young’s score, the best ever made for a Ford film, get most indulgent in traditional instrumentation after previously just sprinkling Irish airs whenever Sean seems to get closest to getting it) which ends specifically with a dissolve to the two of them side by side, blue sleeved arm over the other’s back, embraced like brothers now… no decisive result of the fight, just that it ended with Sean’s acceptance. And blue-shirted he remains in his final shot as well when we literally say farewell to every character with their own direct address close-ups and two-shots.

So there you have it: John Ford took the opportunity with The Quiet Man to imbue his own sense of what Ireland would look like to the mind of someone whose heart belongs there but does not come from there. And in turn that informs The Quiet Man‘s tale of an Irish-American trying to have Ireland fit into his foreign idea of the land before taking solace in being a part of the culture itself and reclaiming his heritage. And like all of Ford’s best masterpieces, he lets this psychology fit just as well into the strong and striking visuals even in a movie as easy-going and easy-on-the-eyes as The Quiet Man.

*in this asterisk, I shall hide my shame that I was at one point in consideration of an internship at Cartoon Saloon before pulling out.

She Wore It in the Winter and the Merry Month of May

For Marshall

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – the second entry in John Ford’s informal Cavalry trilogy – is not Ford’s first rodeo with color filmmaking or even his first rodeo with the famous early three-strip Technicolor process. That privilege belongs to Drums Along the Mohawk ten years prior to Yellow Ribbon‘s 1949 release. But that movie doesn’t yield nearly the amount of ambition with this development in cinema as our current subject, so we shall forgive She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for doing it first as it does it best. Because whoa nelly does it do it best, well enough to win the year’s Oscar for Best Color Cinematography at the very least but that’s hardly a worthy award for the sort of formidable imagery we are granted as our window to the mythic West.

One such reason is because of what it is capturing in brilliant color: John Ford’s favorite shooting location Monument Valley, the very image of the West now transformed to more immediate presence and making a great leap from Fort Apache‘s cracked texturing of that landscape into bringing more awareness to the brush and the shadow in relation to the warm colors of that mountainous desert environment. And another is the fact that as the second film of that Cavalry trilogy, now we truly get to watch the proud bright blue and yellow of their uniforms in those lovely landscapes.

But it’s not just the colors and shapes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but what they are representing: it perhaps moves past How Green Was My Valley as Ford’s most sentimental film but if it is not as surprisingly fatalist as that movie or Yellow Ribbon‘s earliest predecessor Fort Apache, Ford, returning co-writer Frank Nugent, and co-writer Laurence Stallings – adapting TWO Saturday Evening Post stories by James Warner Bellah – bring an awareness of the end of things to come and the place of the cavalry and their duties in the scope of the world. Nugent and Stallings’ screenplay follows the last days of Fort Starke’s Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne), which happen to overlap with the days after Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn (making this a spiritual sequel to Fort Apache is a more direct way) and so the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes are emboldened by their victory to combine forces against the US and move for war. Brittles’ order from Major Allshard (George O’Brien) for his remaining five days is to quell the Native Americans’ desire for war and in the meantime accompany Allshard’s wife Abbey (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to an eastbound stagecoach.

And so for most of the movie’s runtime, we are instead brought to watch the Fort Starke Cavalry prepare for the journey and then just move on the road alongside them as a passenger and Ford’s aim appears to be just enjoying the company and miniature dramas of each of these men, whether the rivalry for Olivia’s romantic affections between 1st Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) or Victor McLaglen’s boistourous default Irish drunkard now taking the form of 1st Sergeant Quincannon or Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson)’s reconnaissance mission or just Brittles dealing with the fact that he is going to have to walk away from this life very soon and his adventure is over.

Which seems as good an avenue as any to say that while Fort Apache is Wayne’s best performance… Brittles is a very able to challenge to that being the case. Part of that is how well the makeup – with its lines on his face and the broad white streaks in his hair – does to transform him into an aged man (Wayne was only 41 years old at the time) and the manner in which, without particularly changing his regular performance method in a big way, Wayne is able to modulate a sense of regret and looking back that anchors this movie’s fondness for the characters he finds his sense of belonging with (and I think that most of these actors had already worked with Ford amplifies that familiarity for a regular viewer of Ford’s). And particularly the level of emotion he would display according to who was his screen partner crafts together the image of Brittles of a man who is a big softie but cannot stand to let anyone see it, something performed in subtle places where Wayne can fit in honest reactions to loneliness or disappointment or tenderness… all things that will turn out to be necessarily present in Brittles’ character arc as his final steps towards retirement do not appear to go in the direction that he hopes. And in turn She Wore a Yellow Ribbon turns out to be an analysis of where warmth and gentleness belong in masculinity – the idea that it is ok to apologize, even in spite of the famous line “never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness” and to feel for a man – something that isn’t acknowledged nearly as much in this world of toxic masculinity and in which Ford was known to live by in his life despite trying very hard not to betray how easily emotional he could become.

And yet then there is all of these magnificent nature-based wideshots in all the wonder the camera was capable of providing for the painterly scenery that is the American Southwest. For even in the immortalizing of the cavalry’s soul as men, it is small in the face of this magnificent untouched desert land and Ford with cinematographer Winston Hoch never run out of ways to transform these panoramas into magnificently romantic variables of light and surface, particularly in a famous central scene set in a thunderstorm where ever hue is captured with the sort of straightforward darkness that a overcast sky could blanket upon the day but allowing each crack to make the colors burst ever so aggressively each second. The awareness of how light responds to the vistas differently in color than in black and white is something Ford and Hoch were expected to get hold of if She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was going to work, but their ambition with changing the lighting of not just each sequence but within the shots themselves is extraordinary. To say nothing of the gorgeous red-mixing sunset silhouettes that come at She Wore a Yellow Ribbon‘s most sentimental.

Even more so in the manner that while the colors of those cavalry outfits proudly call out in the vastness, the movie visual gives the encroaching Cheyenne and Arapaho confederacy the same distinguished space within this vast framing of this land as the Cavalry… maybe a manner in which John Ford did not want to roll back on all the progress of Fort Apache interrogating the United States’ history of relations with Indigenous people. I’ll confess even the most progressive Western picture – which Fort Apache may very well be among – still gets a bit dubious for me on its treatment of Native Americans, but I’d forgotten how clearly Ford seems to be willing to favor and even understand the objections of the Native Americans in this picture (giving them a blunt voice in the form of Chief John Big Tree’s performance as Pony-That-Walks). The major thesis of this movie is not that the Cheyenne or Arapaho are wrong (and while it is easy to make the mistake of Custer’s death and defeat being something that provides foreboding in this picture, the context of Fort Apache instantly disabuses that), but that war is not something favorable for anyone. Even when Major Allshard moves for war and the early third act of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon embodies a sort of resentful regret on what could not be done and what may very well be on the horizon, Brittles is looking for a way to circumvent that by any means necessary (there is other things that Nugent & Stallings’ script tries to circumvent at the last second and it leads to the ending being the single biggest mark against the movie, but it takes up so little runtime and the movie is over before I know it that the movie still remains a masterpiece in my eye).

There’s a humanity throughout She Wore a Yellow Ribbon welcome to any presence within it, no matter how big or small the part (I honestly am surprised that Johnson makes the biggest impression on me as a performance outside of Wayne), and it’s through there that Ford is able to fill this ostensibly simple color western with awe of the land, sobering reconsiderations, musings on how to be a man, and camaraderie with others. The movie that most betrays the soul of John Ford is a very tough bet to make (especially considering how much of his 100+ movies I haven’t seen and ESPECIALLY with the knowledge that Fort Apache and The Quiet Man exist) but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems most characteristic of Ford as a person to give the impression of a big tough guy and still break down before the picture or grave of a loved one and try to find the words to express personal failure. And it is through that personality that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon becomes more than just one of the most gorgeous films ever made… it becomes an extremely dense character study on top of it.

Here Come the Cavalry

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 fa├žade 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 Armend├íriz 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.

*Which would later be joined by a Best Short Subject, Documentary Oscar for an agitprop doc about Pearl Harbor’s attack.
**John Wayne was a fucking racist, among other things. That is an undeniable truth about the actor that may very well have been apparent before his infamous 1971 interview with Playboy magazine, but as someone who was not born until well after John Wayne was laid to rest, that was the smoking gun for me. There is no context in which the words “I believe in white supremacy” is an ok thing.
***And honestly, I can’t think of a more knowingly iconic casting of parent and child than having Henry Fonda be the father of Shirley Temple.