Monday, December 23, 2013

Fort Apache (1948)

What kind of movie is Fort Apache supposed to be?

Yes, I know it's a western.

But is director John Ford's 1948 effort a slapstick comedy? Romance? Drama?

It's hard to pin this movie down because its mood is all over the place. That makes for a frustrating viewing experience despite some very fine cinematography by Archie Stout and William Clothier. In fact, the cinematography might just be the best thing about this movie.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is the new commander of Fort Apache. This career military man is definitely all business. He doesn't take kindly to being posted in the middle of nowhere and wants to move on - pronto.

Thursday is strictly by the book and doesn't take kindly to his daughter, Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), romancing 2nd Lieut. Michael Shannon O'Rourke (John Agar). Temple doesn't make much of an impression in this, one of her last film roles before retiring from the big screen in 1949. Agar was her husband when Fort Apache was shot, although they'd divorce in 1950. The romance takes up a good chunk of Fort Apache's nearly two-hour running time. Sigh.

Then there's the comedy, which also eats up a fair part of Ford's film. There's extended sequences with new recruits that go on too long. Even Temple gets mixed up with a comedic scene about living quarters that aren't very liveable.

Oh, there's the social life of the fort too, including a couple of dances. There's jokes about alcohol. Most of this screen time is tiresome. Fonda does get a good line when a stash of booze is found in the hidden inventory of Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). There's a suggestion the hooch is for a religious purpose. "Pour me some scripture," Thursday says.

Good grief, what's this movie about?

John Wayne doesn't do much for most of the film. One of his most promising scenes, when he meets with an important Apache leader, Cochise (Miguel Inclan), ends as soon as the two men meet.

Thursday is a great character. It's a wonder how he earned such a rank because he has zero people skills and shows little understanding of military strategy. Oh, he doesn't listen to his advisers either. It's too bad audiences don't get to learn more about what makes him tick. There's a suggestion of a past relationship with Capt. Sam Collingwood (George O'Brien). Each man made a decision in the past. It earned Thursday a promotion and Collingwood a ticket to Fort Apache. What happened? We never find out.

Fort Apache is a frustrating film to watch. Stick with My Darling Clementine or Stagecoach.

RATING: 4/10

FUN FACTS: Anna Lee, who appears as Mrs. Emily Collingwood, was Sister Margaretta in The Sound of Music . Her husband in Fort Apache is Ward Bond.

Movita has a small role as Thursday's servant.

George O'Brien's last film was in another Ford movie, Cheyenne Autumn.

UPDATE: Shirley Temple died on Feb. 10, 2014. She was 85.

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