It took me several years to get around to the first part of John Ford’s informal Cavalry Trilogy, and I’m not sure why, unless it’s simply that both of the other entries (1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and 1950’s Rio Grande) both fell into the “liked okay” territory for me, so I wasn’t hugely excited about tracking down Fort Apache despite the added bonus of Henry Fonda and the added curiosity of a teenage Shirley Temple.
I definitely should’ve sought it out sooner, though. This is easily the strongest of the three films, and continues the excellent streak of westerns I’ve been watching lately. Fonda plays a by-the-book cavalry officer sent to oversee a fort on the western frontier who comes into conflict with the men already stationed there over dress code, etiquette, and Indian fighting techniques – oh, and the little matter of one of the young soldiers wanting to date his daughter.
In a way, it’s kind of like the WWI stories I enjoy so much, which basically show the demise of an old way of fighting in the face of a new one. Here, Fonda’s straight-laced sense of military honor is simply not matched to the Indian’s guerilla tactics or the rough exterior required to survive on the frontier. He’s contrasted with his second-in-command John Wayne, who is a seasoned frontier soldier and both knows and respects the Indians. Throughout most of the film, it’s really frustrating to watch Fonda, because he’s pretty pig-headed in the face of advice from Wayne and the other men. He makes some pretty terrible decisions, especially a major one toward the end that flouts the goodwill Wayne had worked to build with an exiled Indian chief.
I should’ve expected this from a Ford film, but both the plotting and character work here is really great, and as easy as it is to be against Fonda, his final scenes are tragic – the tragedy of a man who simply couldn’t break free of his preconceptions and wasn’t ready for the new world of the frontier. Back to my WWI comparison, it’s not unlike the sense of tragedy we feel for Erich von Stroheim and his class in Grand Illusion, despite that character supervising a German POW camp. It’s a false nobility these characters have, to be sure, yet there is still nobility there as they watch the world they knew disintegrate before their eyes.
Fort Apache of course works as an adventure film as well, with Monument Valley shown in all its glory, and a dangerous illicit trip to Mexico as a nice little stealth centerpiece before the all-out battle of the end. I’m not a huge fan of Shirley Temple as a “grown-up” (she’s about 16 or 17 here); she can’t quite shed the cutesy little girl persona. But the fort home life scenes here do their job nicely, providing a contrast to the military action of the main plot and a very immediate sense of what the men are risking. The military setting gives the film a different feel than a lot of westerns, which I didn’t care for as much in Ford’s other two cavalry films, but it works quite well here.