Fort Apache (RKO, 1948)
A key work of mythography
Today I thought we might pass, as you could say, from the ridiculous to the sublime. We have been looking on this blog at Sergio Leone’s so-called Dollars trilogy, and today and in the coming posts we’ll look at another threesome, an infinitely greater one IMHO, John Ford’s cavalry trilogy of 1948 – 50.
Of course neither Leone nor Ford conceived their pictures as a triptych at the outset. The rather surprising box-office success of A Fistful of Dollars encouraged Leone to make a sequel, aptly named For a Few Dollars More, and similarly, Ford did well for RKO with Fort Apache in 1948 – it was a big critical hit and a modest commercial success – and was thus prompted to make She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for the studio the following year. The last ‘volume’, Rio Grande, in 1950, at Republic, was almost an afterthought, and made to make money fast (which it did) to recoup losses for the pretty disastrous non-Western The Fugitive (also at RKO) and provide funding for his pet project, The Quiet Man, which Herb Yates at Republic finally agreed to do in 1952.
Ford had started in Westerns, in the silent days, first on the coat-tails of his brother Francis, then flying solo at Universal, and later Fox. His greatest work of that period, The Iron Horse (1924) was, however, only succeeded by one other Western, 3 Bad Men (1926) – click the links for our reviews - before he turned to other genres. Stagecoach (1939), an enormous hit, was his first Western since then, and his first talkie one. There were two pictures with Western tinges after that, the biopic Young Mr Lincoln and the proto-Western frontier story Drums Along the Mohawk, but it was non-Western pictures, then it was off to war. But when he came back, he made the absolutely superb Wyatt Earp myth My Darling Clementine in 1946, to finish off a Fox contract, and seemed to be bitten by the Western bug once more – perhaps spurred on by rival Howard Hawks’s masterpiece Red River, shot in the summer of ’46 though not shown till August 1948 – five months after Fort Apache’s release - and starring an actor Ford considered ‘his’ property, Stagecoach’s star John Wayne. And it was of course Duke, paired with the star of Lincoln, Mohawk, Grapes of Wrath, Clementine and The Fugitive, Henry Fonda, who would lead in Fort Apache. Shooting started in July 1947.
And indeed, oaters were back. In peacetime, Hollywood returned to the familiar terrain of the dusty West. If we look at Westerns of 80 minutes’ length or more (i.e. we exclude juvenile programmers and the like), only eight were produced in 1945, but in 1946 there were 12, in 1947 there were 14 and 1948, 31. It was a genuine renaissance of the form. But of course they were ‘new’ Westerns in the sense that they were greatly influenced by the war and war movies, and they tried to reference the peacetime future. From 1947, ‘year 1’ of the Cold War (the year Russia got the bomb) and the year Fort Apache was filmed, frontier conflicts in which decent and brave Americans faced up to the menace of the ‘red’ men represented how America would confront the ‘red threat’ of the Communist world, just has war movies had used the threat of the evil Axis powers. In many of these post-war Westerns, Fort Apache included, the recently concluded Civil War was to be read as World War II. The movies were often pretty obvious metaphors of the contemporary scene.
So yes, Fort Apache is essentially a war film, almost an apologia for the US Army, and in the post-Second World War period it must have resonated, as it did for succeeding Korea, Vietnam and even Iraq generations. It was a war film, though, that was set firmly in Ford’s admired frontier context.
Ford had met James Warner Bellah in India during the war. The two became friendly, Ford got interested in the cavalry stories Bellah published in The Saturday Evening Post and purchased one, Massacre, for $4,500. This became Fort Apache. But Bellah was an overt racist for whom Indians were filthy savages. He also had a penchant for absurd names for his characters, and stylistically was a pulp writer with pretensions. So Ford had many changes to make - he always tinkered with scripts anyway but this time there were significant structural alterations. Ford gave the brunt of the job of adaptation to a former film critic for The New York Times, Frank Nugent.
RKO was unenthusiastic about the project but Ford took it much more seriously than that right from the outset. Preparation was meticulous. Great efforts were made to make detail authentic. Writing and casting was thought through very carefully. Ford hired Archie Stout as cinematographer. Stout had put in time churning out five-day second-feature Westerns with Wayne and others all through the 1930s and he knew his stuff. He was however almost as obstinate as Ford, and they fought like cats and dogs. But Ford took Stout's assistant cameraman, William Clothier, under his wing and Clothier would become a key man for Ford in later Westerns.
The great cameraman James Wong Howe had used infra-red film the year before on the noir Western Pursued and Stout thought the effect would suit Fort Apache. It heightened the dust and veiled the action in mystery. Much of the black & white photography is magnificent and we know how ‘visual’ Ford was, and how closely he worked with his cinematographers. He had an artist’s eye.
Naturally, Arizona was represented by Monument Valley. You didn't have to be Archie Stout or William Clothier to photograph that well. Though they did it supremely well.
Richard Hageman’s score, integrated with sound effects, is especially good, and adds to the picture in a big way. He’d worked on Stagecoach and Angel and the Badman, and would go on to work for Ford again on Yellow Ribbon and Wagonmaster.
Wayne had ‘grown’ after Stagecoach. Although he continued the series of low-budget second-feature Westerns at Republic which he had contracted for, in 1940 he got the unusually big-budget Dark Command, Republic's masterpiece, with Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor, and of course then a series of war films. He did make Westerns during the war years, such as Universal’s The Spoilers (1942) or Tall in the Saddle for RKO (1944). In 1947 came the pleasant little Angel and the Badman, which he also produced. But of course it was really Red River and Fort Apache, both released in 1948, that brought Wayne back to Western stardom after the Second World War and established him as the towering presence of the Western movie.
As for Fonda, he had had a ‘good war’, as they say, and his Navy service certainly put him in Ford’s good books. But he was already a big star, with, then, a considerably higher profile than Wayne. He had done a string of A-picture Westerns or semi-Westerns, such as Fox’s Jesse James (1939), in which he was Frank to Tyrone Power’s Jesse, and its sequel The Return of Frank James (1940), Drums Along the Mohawk, the somber The Ox-Bow Incident with William A Wellman in 1942, and of course his wonderful portrayal of Earp in My Darling Clementine. Ford wanted him in Fort Apache as the Eastern martinet Colonel Thursday, counterpoint to the less formal Westerner, a ‘man who knows Indians, Captain York (Wayne, of course). It was excellent casting and both actors were splendid. Fonda was a supreme professional but was socially awkward and was ideally suited to the role of Thursday. In fact this period of chumminess with the Ford-Wayne clan was the closest Fonda ever got to being one of the guys. Later he fell out with Ford (who was a poisonous old man) but he maintained a lifelong friendship with Wayne.
In his book The Western Films of John Ford, JA Place suggests that soldiers make two great sacrifices: they may lay down their lives but they also, on enlistment, lay down their individualism. This story is one of conflict between Owen Thursday, a play-it-by-the-book tyrant of a commander who considers his posting a banishment to Siberia, and the more human Kirby York, who has certainly not laid down his individualism. Not only is Thursday an Easterner – worse, he has been in Europe! He is a racist, a snob and he respects only the forms of the army, not its spirit. York, however, is a true Westerner, freer, rugged, brave, democratic and at heart a rebel. But at the end, when York puts on Thursday’s desert cap and barks, “Any questions?” he has learned from the late commander and now, says Ford, combines the qualities of both. What comes across strongly in Ford’s movie is the sheer rigidity of Colonel Thursday. Every scene in which he appears highlights this stand-to-attention stiffness. Ford loved community dances – nearly all his movies contain them - and Thursday interrupts dances twice: once on his first arrival and once when he summons the regiment to battle. The first one is a swirling, waltzing ball and it’s the first time we see Wayne's character, York, smiling and whirling a lady round. Thursday is totally out of his element. When Thursday dances, in the NCOs’ ball later in the movie, it is a linear march and they parade up and down with the colonel unsmiling and stiff as a poker. York, by contrast, moves fluidly, stands at ease in that languid Wayne pose and speaks with a low, slow Western drawl noticeably different than Fonda’s clipped Eastern tones. .
There’s an obvious reference to Custer. The obstinacy which leads to Thursday’s last stand and the annihilation of his men is very Custerish, even if Thursday as a man has none of the dash of Custer.
Cochise (Miguel Inclan) and the Apaches are portrayed as noble and brave, which is a great improvement on earlier Ford Westerns, where Indians were just savages to be shot down. Thursday despises Apaches but York and Cochise respect each other as warriors. Ford makes a stark contrast between the way Thursday rudely and clashingly interrupts the fort rituals, and York respectfully entering the presence of Cochise and his Apaches, as an equal.
As Richard Slotkin pointed out in his essay on Fort Apache in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, in war movies ‘home’, or ‘the home front’ was often a utopia in which everything will be perfect when this vile war is over. In Fort Apache, it’s different. The wartime fort is a well-ordered meritocratic society (at least until Colonel Thursday arrives) while the ‘home front’ is back East and is a world of class oppression and social snobbery, and is the very kind of society honest frontier folk had fled. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of the time in The New York Times, the “hard-bitten Army colonel, blind through ignorance and a passion for revenge” and “a venal government agent [Grant Withers] who exploits the innocence of the Indians while supposedly acting as their friend” are Easterners.
One of Ford’s weaknesses, by modern standards anyway, was the way he portrayed women. Westerns of course had a dismal record in that department. The Hollywood West was a real men’s place and women were only there to be saloon gals (i.e. whores) or saintly schoolma’ams, occasionally sturdy farmers’ wives, and were rarely actual ‘people’. I suppose nineteenth century frontier army posts were unlikely to be hot-beds of feminism. Certainly earlier cavalry Westerns, such as the Custer biopic They Died With Their Boots On (1941), were pretty male-chauvinist affairs.
Still, John Ford did make an effort. Women had been increasingly emancipated during the war and it was time to represent them as such. In Fort Apache fort society is still pretty traditional and hierarchical: officers are WASPs while Irish and Hispanics are other ranks. Ford’s war service seems to have reinforced a rosily romantic officer’s view of the troops. But women this time play a more subtle role than was usual in the genre. The female population of the fort is given a moral weight equal to that of the fighting men, and, in the case of the scene where Colonel Thursday rudely enters the O’Rourkes' home uninvited, a superior one. The colonel has to be reminded by Mrs O’Rourke even to remove his hat. Thursday has come in order to rule out a marriage between his daughter and the socially inferior sergeant’s son. It is an unpardonable intrusion. The American home is sacred, Ford is saying, and no tyrant may enter it in such a way, and certainly not to preach snobbery. The women are the democrats who counter Thursday’s autocracy. You almost want to cheer.
There’s absolutely no sex, though, not even by 1940s standards. The women are maternal figures except Shirley Temple's character and she is virginal. Novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne wrote, “Sex is so absent in Ford’s Monument Valley that his desert forts seem almost monastic.”
Another of Ford’s weaknesses was his propensity for (let’s call it) broad humor. He loved drunken Irish sergeants, for example. Viewed today, these scenes are coarse and unfunny, though I suppose even Shakespeare had his porters and fools, and standards of humor change with the times. Perhaps 1948 audiences found those parts hilarious.
The support cast of Fort Apache is also outstanding, particularly Ward Bond as Sergeant-Major O’Rourke, Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Mulcahy and Pedro Armendariz as the interpreter (all Ford stock-company regulars), and Ms. Temple is also excellent as Thursday’s daughter who has none of the rigidity of her father. She actually got $100,000 for her part, the same as Wayne and Fonda.
Ford, a pocket-sadist, usually victimized one cast member or another on his sets. This time he had it in for John Agar, who, in his debut, played the young 2nd Lieutenant O’Rourke, West Pointer son of the sergeant. Ford could be really unpleasant at times and he really lit into “Mr Temple” as he called Agar (Agar was married to Temple). The other actors, especially Wayne (who had often been on the ugly end of Ford’s spitefulness) supported Agar and encouraged him. Wayne was employing Agar as late as Chisum (1970), when the actor’s career was reduced to Z-list sci-fi movies. Wayne was a thoughtful and decent man. Agar does a good job in Fort Apache, in fact, but still was only billed 21st, after Hank Worden, “Southern Recruit”. Ford was a great artist without doubt but could also be a spiteful little man.
George O’Brien got a good fifth-billed part as Capt. Collingwood. O’Brien had been a Ford favorite back in the silent days with Fox (he’d been the lead in The Iron Horse) but had fallen out of favor, and his career was in the doldrums. O’Brien’s wife Marguerite (female lead opposite Wayne in The Big Trail in 1930), who loathed Ford (“A son of a bitch. Drunk, hateful, vicious”) called Ford and said, “Jack, you’ve got to do something for George.”
“I wouldn’t do anything for that son of a bitch,” the director replied, still nursing a grudge against O’Brien for having deserted a drunken Ford one time in Manila. But Marguerite then played her ace: “Jack, if you don’t, it will be the ruination of a good Catholic family.” That played brilliantly to the sentimental Irishman in Ford. In fact, Ford and George O’Brien immediately fell back into their old rapport, and the part went well. The Collingwood character is actually rather moving.
What really makes Fort Apache, though, is the ending. It is in some ways very curious and surprising – Scott Eyman in his biography of John Wayne John Wayne: The Life and the Legend, wrote, “This is more ambiguity than audiences – or most writers – are used to in the movies.” I am referring of course to the almost ironic epilogue, when we viewers know that the Army’s handling of the Apaches was unjust and dishonorable but Captain – now Colonel York tells reporters that the famous romantic painting of Thursday’s heroic, noble (and Custer-like) last stand was “true in every detail.” It is a lie, of course, but as Wayne himself later said, “He [the character York] can’t say, ‘Why, the stupid son of a bitch got all those guys killed and made a liar out of me to the Indians.’ He can’t say that because it would be bad for morale. It wouldn’t do anybody any good … to belittle the guy.” Ford seems to be saying that Thursday’s action, though fundamentally stupid and wrong, was nevertheless redemptive: it purges the worst (Eastern) element of the army and brings forward the best qualities of the regiment, personified by York, who assumes the mantle of command, “real command”. Myth is more beneficial and useful than fact. Ford echoed it in the later The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) when he has a reporter told, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."This is, in a way, Ford’s message to America. And it is also the apologia of the Western movie. The BFI Companion to the Western’s entry on Fort Apache says that “Ford’s bifocal vision puts myth and truth side by side.”
Its reception in 1948 was very positive. The New York Times called it a “dandy panorama of frontier cavalry life”. It added, “In his rich blend of personality, of the gorgeously picturesque outdoor western scenery, of folk music and intrinsic sounds, plus his new comprehension of frontier history, Mr. Ford here again fires keen hope that he will soon turn his unsurpassed talents to a great and sweeping drama of the west.” Variety said, “suspense, and romance are masterfully combined in this production” and added that the “Cast is as tremendous as the scope achieved by Ford’s direction”.
There were some naysayers. Newsweek rather caustically remarked that the film succeeded in “bringing back the time-honored business of making redskins bite the dust as entertainment”, which rather missed the point of Ford’s ‘elevation’ of the Indians in this picture.
It didn’t make the top ten in box-office rankings that year (in fact Yellow Sky did better) but it still made some money, $3m gross on its $2.1m budget. As I said above, that was enough to commission a sequel.
Later critics have heaped praise on it – rightly. Brian Garfield says it “is grand entertainment, justly regarded as a classic Western.” Patrick Brion calls it “un grand film.”
Fort Apache is a fine film. In fact it’s one of the seminal Westerns. Furthermore, it could just be the greatest of the trilogy.
But then I say that about each one just after I have watched it.