The Duke had a vintage year in 1948 with the release of two very fine films. In the March of that year came "Fort Apache", followed by the monumental Howard Hawks epic "Red River", where he gave a towering performance as the larger than life cattleman Thomas Dunson. "Fort Apache" directed by the venerated John Ford, is the first film in the directors famed Cavalry trilogy that also included his elegiac "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and the inferior "Rio Grande". His later cavalry offering "The Horse Soldiers" was quite rightly never included, and is best forgotten. In all these films Ford venerates his folksy ideals of family, community and nation. It was possibly as a result of his over sentimentality that his stock has fallen in recent years, whilst that of Sam Peckinpah and Anthony Mann has risen. But nations rise and fall and I am sure Ford's time will come again. There is much in "Fort Apache" to admire.
The film is based on the Saturday Evening Post story "Massacre" by James Warner Bellah. John Wayne plays Captain Kirby York, an experienced officer who is expected to take command of an isolated Cavalry outpost following the departure of its previous commander, but the post is instead taken up by West Point graduate and former General in the Civil War Lt Col Owen Thursday played by Henry Fonda. Thursday proves to be a martinet, a class snob, and a racist. This does not endear him to his men. He is the classic case of a square peg in a round hole. When a crooked Indian agent, was there an honest one, ferments unrest amongst the local Apache Indians, Thursday refuses to deal with the situation, ignoring the advice of York. In one exchange Kirby says "I gave my word to Cochise". Yes good old Cochise turns up in a movie for the umpteenth time! Thursday responds "Your word to a breech clouted savage? An illiterate uncivilised murderer and treaty breaker". This entrenched attitude leads to serious ramifications.
Thursday is clearly loosely based on General George Armstrong Custer, who has had a lot of bad press over the years for his arrogance and incompetence, however true that may be. In this film the hostile Apache of the South West replace the Sioux of the northern plains as the native adversary. The film boasts two screen legends in John Wayne and Henry Fonda, both actors having immense screen presence and at the top of their game. They are supported by Ford favourites Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen and Pedro Armendariz. Filmed in atmospheric black and white in Ford's favourite location Monument Valley, it eschews the sumptuous Winton Hoch inspired colours that was such a highlight of "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", and is none the worse for that. As in all the Cavalry films the images of the troopers are strongly influenced by the famous western artist Frederic Remington. It is likely that the Indians were also based on the paintings of Charles Russell, an equally gifted artist. This is all heavily romanticised of course, but the look is everything to Ford, and is something that often sets him above other directors. You only have to watch "The Searchers" to understand this! The film addresses weighty issues, without giving any easy answers. How we communicate with our fellow man is so often key to many people's success or downfall. The film still lives up to its fine reputation, and is certainly deserving of a digitally re-mastered edition with extras, as has been done with "The Searchers" 50th anniversary edition, now also available in blu-ray I see! This basic transfer will have to do in the meantime. I note that the film is also available as part of "The Greatest Westerns Collection" and the "John Wayne-John Ford Collection" which may represent better options for some people.