Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Selling Out the Indians at Fort Apache

November, they say, is Native American Heritage Month. So I guess it was appropriate that I chose to watch a John Ford movie from 1948, Fort Apache. This is first film of Ford’s long directing career that shows the hand of screenwriter Frank S. Nugent. Nugent also wrote a number of Ford’s other major films, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and (most delightfully) The Quiet Man. My friend Joseph McBride’s essay on Nugent, whom he calls “The Quiet Man Behind John Ford” made me eager to take a hard look at Fort Apache. It’s a film set in Indian territory, dramatically making use of Ford’s favorite Monument Valley vistas.

McBride’s essay (found in his Two Cheers for Hollywood collection) makes the point that Nugent was a skilled creator of characters. His habit—which I think all aspiring screenwriters would do well to follow—was to create for every major character in the film a very thorough biographical sketch. Not all of the details in this biography (someone’s childhood experiences, education, and so on) would show up in the script he was constructing, but the thoroughness of his understanding would wonderfully flesh out the personalities we saw on screen. Such is the case in Fort Apache, where Henry Fonda plays a man who has his admirable qualities, but is also deeply flawed.

Fonda, known at the time for such sympathetic roles as Young Mr. Lincoln and Tom Joad in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, plays in Fort Apache the role of Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday, who’s reporting for duty as the commander of a frontier outpost deep in the heart of a territory where Cochise and his Apaches lurk. He’s a stickler for spit and polish, and there are hints that a demotion during the Civil War has made him eager to prove himself. He’s soon butting heads with Captain Kirby York, the character played by a Ford favorite, John Wayne. York is a rugged Civil War veteran who knows the land and its inhabitants. But despite his leadership qualities, Thursday regards him with contempt.

York brings Thursday the news that Cochise is ready for a powwow to discuss peace. Characteristically, Thursday wants none of that. Determined to grab the glory of a military victory, he uses the planned meet-up with Cochise as an opportunity for a surprise attack by the full regiment. It’s the dirtiest of tricks, but it leads to a brilliantly staged battle sequence in which Thursday and many of his men meet death. There’s an ironic coda, but I don’t want to spoil ALL of the film’s twists.

Clearly, this is not exactly a film about Native Americans. Still, their presence looms large. In Fort Apache, the American military is invading the territory sacred to Cochise and his men. The Cochise we see in the film is the noblest of savages, ready to co-exist peaceably with his American neighbors. Part of the attractiveness of John Wayne’s character is that he respects the Indian point of view.

Typically, Ford has cast such familiar faces as Ward Bond, Guy Kibbee, and Victor McLaglen, who plays a comical Irish character. One odd element is the presence of Shirley Temple, then 20, playing Fonda’s perky young daughter. She’s part of the film’s subplot, opposite her real-life husband, John Agar. Temple is charming in a grown-up part, but Agar (in his first film role) has a stiff screen presence, and makes for a dull romantic lead.  So I’d prefer to forget about their soppy romance and focus on the powerful Fonda/Wayne scenes that help this drama come alive.

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