Fort Apache (1948)

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Fort Apache gives me the opportunity to consider one of John Ford’s most unlikely long-term collaborations with film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent. As with all Ford partnerships, it was oftentimes prickly but there’s no repudiating the impact. However, even the writer realized how improbable it was he would have such a hand in mythologizing the West alongside one of the great American masters. Nugent noted the following:

“I have often wondered why Ford chose me to write his cavalry films. I had been on a horse but once—and to our mutual humiliation. I had never seen an Indian. My knowledge of the Civil War extended only slightly beyond the fact that there was a North and a South, with West vulnerable and East dealing. I did know a Remington from a Winchester—Remington was the painter. In view of all this, I can only surmise that Ford picked me for Fort Apache as a challenge.”

The picture opens with a particularly acerbic and icy Henry Fonda as Owen Thursday, newly assigned to the cavalry outpost at Fort Apache. One could make a wager each of Fonda’s characterizations in everything from You Only Live Once to The Ox-Bow Incident and even My Darling Clementine all culminate right here. Though he’s dismissive of the assignment, Thursday is nevertheless intent on upholding his duty. He rides along the bumpy roadways with his teenage daughter Philadelphia (an effervescent Shirley Temple) who is simply glad to be by her father’s side.

To understand the picture, it’s useful to know Nugent developed extensive bios for every character to flesh out who they were exactly. We have John Agar in his screen debut starring opposite his new wife in real life (Temple) and playing the newest commissioned officer to the fort, Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke.

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Life as a cavalryman proves to be a family affair and one clan has an especially substantial presence in the camp. The Lieutenant’s father (Ward Bond) is stationed there too with his mother, the older man serving as a Sergeant Major. Meanwhile, many of the veteran soldiers provide a close-knit community including Sergeant Festus Mulcahy (Victor McLaglen) who has been a lifelong friend to the O’Rourkes. Here we see Irish-American blood flowing through the picture as Ford heralds his own ancestors part in this historical landscape not only during the Civil War but long afterward. The pride in this shared culture is undeniable.

For most of its run, Fort Apache is the epitome of character-driven drama. Nugent’s meticulous character development overlaid by Ford’s own distaste for expositional dialogue provides the groundwork for yet another story operating in vignettes more than anything else. At any rate, the dialogue comes off clunkily at times while the romance between Philadelphia and Michael O’Rourke begins to blossom.

However, with her father adamant against such a union and astringent in all manners of his command, it causes an instant riff in the camp. One of his finest lines comes with inspecting his officers and noting, “The uniform is not a subject for individual whimsical expression.” He expects everyone to abide by the letter of the law and his unswerving personality is glacial on all accounts.

Meanwhile, the old reliable guard has fun with the new recruits. Among their ranks, rather unbelievably, is the veteran character actor Hank Worden. Then, the community of wives and sweethearts led by Mrs. Collingwood (Anna Lee) and Mrs. O’Rourke (Irene Rich) look to help Philadelphia make a home for herself. John Wayne is in the picture as well though he takes a decidedly secondary role as Captain Kirby York, striving to work under Thursday’s guidance with as much obedience as he can muster. However, the final act is Wayne’s as much as it is Fonda’s however.

It hardly needs to be said at this point but Monument Valley is awesome. Watching horses streak across the plains ferociously kicking up storms of dust never grows old. Nor do images of Wayne and Pedro Armendariz perched on a towering rock formation taking in the view. You can’t make this stuff up. The beauty is majestic as only natural topography can be without input by human hands or CGI — the way it was probably meant to be photographed.

There’s the impending threat of Indians making their way south. Telegraph lines are down again. So a visit is paid to the scruffy horse trader who is quite conveniently liaison between the American Indians and the government within the territory. Despite his contempt for Meacham, Thursday will not do anything about him nor does he attempt any diplomacy with the belligerent Cochise. He decides instead on the executive decision to make an all-out charge on the Native Americans forces who are waiting, guns cocked and ready.

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In the waning moments, Fort Apache becomes a more fully-realized, even emphatic indictment of recalcitrant and bluntly antagonistic leadership. Thursday holds a very entitled station — whatever he says, he says on behalf of the United States government — and no one else can say anything otherwise. What they do protest he backs up with regulations, honors, and code of conducts that might as well bury everyone.

Instead of addressing any area of compromise as minor as it might be, there is a straight and decisive path cut through any issue. They ride toward their inevitable deaths. The final bugle sounds for charge and yet it’s hardly a battle, target practice is more like it, and the horrifying thing is most everyone knows it going in. But when a man such as Colonel Thursday holds the reins you reluctantly cave to his demands lest you be clapped in irons for insubordination — even when the decisions are near lunacy. York is the one man brave enough to stand against and lives to fight another day. Many others are not so lucky

If Custer’s Last Stand was anything like this, it makes complete sense and simultaneously becomes an even more terrifying piece of history. In what might be called an early precursor to the glorification of a hero’s legend in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), much the same treatment is provided here for the far more dubious Owen Thursday. Once more Ford’s picture is able to get at this obvious discrepancy by pulling away and looking at the story from those folks who canonize history for all posterity. It’s oftentimes the newspaper men who are afforded that privilege. Whether their effusive praises are in order is another matter entirely and by the end, Ford Apache is a sobering portrait. It comes so far from seemingly homely even jovial roots within the compound.

So many lives were needlessly sacrificed so one man could be heralded a legend. The frightening thing is that Thursday was not a mere glory seeker; he fervently believed what he was doing was in the right. That kind of dogged methodology proved itself highly pernicious when no thought was given to discretion of any kind. It’s simply blind execution of duty. Whether it evokes Kant or not, I cannot help but think of one of the most famous examples of this in Adolf Eichmann, acting as a lowly Holocaust architect, who nevertheless proved the consequences of such a philosophy.

The dark horse of the Ford pictures, Fort Apache begins as one beast and comes out quite a different animal by the end. It so easily gets sidetracked, distracted, and lulled into different scenarios and there never is a true sense of urgency to keep the picture moving toward an obvious conclusion. Still, in the end, we get the finale and it’s unnerving as both a commentary and another projection of the mythical West. Somehow Ford stitches it together as a two-edged sword of both indictment and a moving paean to those passed.

4/5 Stars

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Hangmen_Also_Die_1943There are some fine pieces of intrigue in this modest WWII period film from Fritz Lang. The plot is based off real events in Czechoslovakia surrounding the assassination of Nazi Holocaust proponent Reinhold Heydrich. Mascha (Anna Lee) finds herself admidst a web of trouble when she helps a member of the underground after he commits the killing. But the Nazis are soon hounding her and it brings danger to her father’s household (Walter Brennan) . Ultimately she is forced to choose where her greatest allegiance stands.The film features Gene Lockhart playing the Nazi collaborator Czaka. Perhaps this film is not all that realistic and the casting is not perfect (although I did enjoy seeing Anna Lee in a leading role). At the time it came out this movie functioned as an anti-Nazi film and it still packs a decent punch from that perspective. It deserves some acknowledgement at the very least.

3.5/5 Stars

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

crimsonk1From director Samuel Fuller comes another welcomed addition to his canon. It features the same type of seedy urban landscapes and back alleys of Pick up on South Street (1953) and there are some equally interesting characters like Mac (Anna Lee). It all is underlined by some sleazy jazz music in the vein of Sweet Smell of Success except this one is set in L.A.

The plot line is basic enough following two policemen as they investigate the homicide of a local stripper with a heart of gold and wasted plans for a new show involving kimonos and karate. Their only real lead is a painting and the name that goes with it. That’s where the more interesting part of the story begins.

I failed to mention that one of the cops is Caucasian. His name is Detective Sergeant Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett). His partner is Japanese-American or “Nisei,” meaning the second generation. Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) is his name. The beauty of their relationship, which is one of Fuller’s focuses, is that they are equals who are inseparable ever since landing in a fox hole together in Korea.  Charlie was saved by a pint of Joe’s blood, Charlie practices kendo with Joe in their off hours, and they live together on the side. You cannot get much closer than that.

The movement of the plot leads them to Ms. Chris Downes (Victoria Shaw), a pretty young painter who is the only witness who potentially saw the man who shot Sugar Torch. In between looking at journals full of mug shots, she gets to know both Charlie and Joe. Charlie sees himself falling in love with her and like anyone he tells his best friend. Joe is happy for him until the fateful moment when he is alone with Chris. She makes her affection for him quite plain because he’s a pretty great guy, but as a good friend, he doesn’t do anything. It tears him apart and it only hurts them as they plod on with the homicide.

What follows is a painful love triangle embroiled with issues of race, friendship, and misguided notions. It’s jarring because these three are all likable and you want only the best for them, but it cannot be remedied like the murder which ultimately gets wrapped up neatly.

crimsonk4Samuel Fuller always tackles issues of race head on like no other. In fact, he was ahead of his time when no one else would show such relationships, romantic or otherwise, on the silver screen. Beyond whether or not an Asian man and a Caucasian woman romantically involved was accepted back in the 1950s or not, it probably was not what audience cared to see at the movies. To me, now, it’s really interesting, especially to see such non-stereotypical roles all across the board. It’s a breath of fresh air from the Charlie Chans and Mr. Motos.

On another level, Fuller’s camera makes solitary L.A. street corners and the bustling Nisei festival amazingly dynamic. It brings Little Tokyo alive, filling it with genuine people, sights, and sounds. Thank you, Sam Fuller.

It’s like mixing two dabs of paint together. You could never separate them.” ~ Mac on Charlie and Joe

It’s what you think is behind every word and every look.” ~ Chris Downes

4/5 Stars