“I can’t see him. All I can see is the flags.” – Mrs. Emily Collingwood
John Ford is without a doubt, one of the most well-respected American film directors of all time. Most would agree with such lofty praise; but I often find myself in discussions with fellow film lovers, having to defend Mr. Ford against allegations of casual racism, xenophobia, damaging classicism and a general worship of Manifest Destiny. With a number of his films, it is quite a feat to put down all of the charges. Luckily Ford made many a film to give us ammunition; films with much to say about all the aforementioned topics, what they mean and how to approach them whilst still making a rip-roaring Western very often set in Monument Valley.
Possibly Ford’s most subversive extravaganza, Fort Apache, begins with one of my favorite bait and switch tricks in cinema history. The opening credits give us a triumphant horn-driven score any time our heroes (U.S. Cavalry) are on screen, and then quickly segues into an odd, vaguely “native” sounding battle march any time the Native Americans show up. Ford is being exceptionally misleading here, for what’s to come is perhaps his least simple representation of the white man as hero and the red man as villain.
Many directors (occasionally including Ford) working in the Western genre were guilty of painting the world in blacks and whites. Fort Apache for the most part offers up a world of gray, where the Lt. Col. Thursday, played oh so complicated-ly by Henry Fonda, is anything but a simple good guy. Playing against Fonda’s usual nice guy character, Ford gives us a messy, confused individual whose penchant for never changing causes potentially avoidable problems many times. John Wayne (in one of his few inarguably fantastic performances) is great here, playing the knowledgeable but lower ranking soldier who knows better, but cannot get through Fonda’s thick skull.
Ford, through Wayne’s character, puts us on the side of the Natives. We meet the completely useless man who sells cheap goods and booze on the reservations to keep the Natives under his control. When we meet the Native American chief Cochise, he is shown as regal, respectable, absolutely right and full of pride (mind you, not to the damning extent of Lt. Thursday).
Perhaps I’m not making this film sound all that appealing, given that there’s a complex relationship here that’s often dumbed down in Westerns to make them easier to digest. But I promise, if you enjoy Westerns in any way, shape or form, you will absolutely love Fort Apache. Although Ford certainly has subversion on the mind this time around, he never skimps on the classical ideals that make the Western genre worth enjoying in the first place.
“Undemanding viewers can simply enjoy it for its depiction of a Wild West where the cavalry fought the Indians, supposedly to the glory of the United States. Those who take the time to really peer beneath the surface will find a completely different film, one which exposes and even undermines the mythology of the hero and which questions the whole notion that history is written by the victors.” - Jeffrey Kauffman
- Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center