FORT APACHE (1948)
A genuine, entirely American masterpiece. The first of the Ford U.S. Cavalry trilogy. Longish work centers on a military garrison out West, mostly manned by veterans of the Civil War--tactfully called here "the late war"-- most of whom had held higher battlefield commissions. They live in rowdy harmony until the new colonel, Thursday (Fonda), a vain, arrogant, class-conscious martinet, upsets all, from the cavalrymen to the sensible, humanitarian Captain (Wayne), and the Apaches of Cochise, whom he first betrays, then attacks suicidally.
The film takes its delicious time with vignettes of the men and their families, comic Irish shenanigans, and sub-plots. The only weak subplot is the romance between Philadelphia (Temple),the Colonel's daughter, and O'Rourke (Agar, in his debut,) the new lieutenant from West Point.
It's an affair that starts before the film can get going. Temple is all smiles and simpers. Agar, as the son of Sergeant Major Ward Bond and lovely Irene Rich, is overshadowed by the masterful acting of his screen parents. But even this romance, superfluous in other hands, scores some touching points with Ford.
Whatever the minor flaws, these are entirely made up by the excellence of the rest of the cast, from the trio of Agar's three godfather sergeants (here McLaglen partly reprises his role in "Gunga Din") to the Fonda-Wayne contrast.
Fonda is obviously patterned after General Custer, down to a superbly filmed Last Stand. Ford has tremendous control over his film. Army life may have never been quite the way it is depicted but that's a moot point, one that you raise for ordinary or "historical" films but not for Ford's stylized masterpieces. By the standards of the genre, "Fort Apache" is rather complex in plot, characters and visuals, but it feels simple because it so cleanly made that even familiar devices, treated in a fresh manner, become rituals and look un-cliched.
The film has grandeur but no grandiloquence. Though everything is a little or a lot bigger than life, nothing seems self-conscious or artsy. Ford's eye for authenticity, forswift and effective details of pathos or satire, is amazing. Compare the brevity and genuiness of Wayne's encounter with Cochise (whom he respects) with the same situation in another fine film, Delmer Daves's "Broken Arrow." Ford's talent comes even more sharply into focus. Even when horses ford a stream, there's something more striking in their movements than in most movies by others.
Morally, Ford is walking a tightrope. He blames military folly, but at the same time he is so taken with the values of the Army--a wonderful institution, an expanded family --that at the end there is an inevitable cop-out when Wayne pays an unconvincing tribute to Fonda. Yet it may be this very partisanship that, in part, gives this and other Ford movies their conviction. The warm poetry and lyrical visuals have not dated a bit. Freeze the frames on a VCR and you get a collection of splendid individual shots, compositions that stand as single images and also flow in beautiful continuity.
To my taste, Richard Hageman's score dates, now is inappropriate, now like music for a B-movie. But this is a forgettable imperfection in a work that justifies those who call Ford "King John." Please turn the control to defeat colorization, if any. (Edwin Jahiel)