A World of Fragments

This is a blog for the review and discussion of films; all kinds of film, old and new, good and bad. Participation is always encouraged - even if you disagree! Leave me a comment, drop me a line. Heck, you might even want to recommend a movie...

Thursday, August 25, 2005

John Ford Appreciation, Part Two: Fort Apache

Title: Fort Apache (1948)
Dir.: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple

Viewed: on VHS

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

The video's introduction, provided by TCM movie guru Robert Osborne, describes this as "the typical John Ford western." That may well be. Unfortunately, it doesn't really compliment Ford as an auteur, or even a director, because this is the one Ford film I've seen so far (out of eight) that I would truly call unfocused. It does snap into a decent plot by the last forty-five minutes, but until that time the main thrust of the picture is watered down by too many characters, too many "side moments," and too many changes in tone.

Maybe it's because the plot is so basic, and has to be dragged out to the prerequisite, John Ford just-over-two-hours. Lt Col Thursday (Henry Fonda) is a somewhat failed Civil War general, reassigned to lead the cavalry regiment at Fort Apache, who sees his one chance for true military glory in what should be a small dispute with the Indians. Opposing him, in various ways, are his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple!), her sweetheart Lt O'Rourke (John Agar), the far less uptight Captain York (John Wayne), and most of the men of this rag-tag regiment. Where York sees an opportunity for peace, Thursday sees a major battle - and a place in history.

It doesn't sound bad, right? And it's not. It is, however, terribly wayward. There is a lot of time - more htan is necessary - spent on Philadelphia's romance, and there are loads of aggravating "comic relief" scenes with the rowdy, hard-drinkin' officers. Ward Bond makes a strong impression as Major O'Rourke (Agar's character's father), but John Wayne himself - the guy with top billing - doesn't make any sort of impact until the film is half over. And the lead casting is downright odd; I find it very hard to swallow Henry Fonda as a militaristic hard-ass, a role one would more typically associate with Wayne. To his credit, though, Wayne actually comes across well in a softer vein than usual, and for those (like me) who have always wondered about his range, it's a pleasantly surprising performance.

The Indians themselves don't make an appearance until about forty-five minutes from the end, and it's there that the line between Fonda and Wayne - hinted at, but not acted upon, for most of the second act - is finally drawn. The film abruptly realizes that it is, indeed, a film with a point, and quickly staggers into some semblance of a consistent tone and narrative. What's left is quite good, and Ford handles the battle sequences skillfully, as well as the slightly corny epilogue, but I found myself wishing I actually cared a little more. There's good characterization in the movie, for sure, but it's thrown out in such tiny little morsels that, pretty much, only Fonda, Wayne, and Bond feel like anything more than ciphers. I thought The Grapes of Wrath had pacing trouble, cramming so much into two hours? This is the precise opposite problem. At 90 minutes Fort Apache might well have been a classic. At 127 - it's simply too long. Recommended if you're a particularly great fan of the Western, I suppose, but I would still wait til it showed up on TV.


  • At 10:57 AM, Blogger Michael Hickerson said…

    Fort Apache is part of a trilogy of stories by Ford. And by trilogy, I mean a group of movies that look at the various stages of the Calvary, but do not feature the same characters over and over again....

    I think if you look at the Calvary trilogy as a whole about the rise and fall of the old west, it might be a bit more of interest to you. But then again, you do have to watch two more movies that are longish with John Wayne who I know is not among your favorite actors.

    And I think part of the point of the movie is to do more than just a standard action cowboys and indians western picture...hence why a good bit of time is spent creating the characters in the first hour or so...

    But that's just me...

  • At 11:22 AM, Blogger Sarah Hadley said…

    Robert Osborne's intro briefly mentions this trilogy. Do you know what the other two are?

    I'm sort of warming to John Wayne. He's probably not going to ever be one of my favorites, but I'm learning to appreciate him for sure.


Post a Comment

<< Home