Fort Apache (1948)

Fort Apache (1948), directed by John Ford.

The first entry in the "Cavalry Trilogy" and the only one on Blu-ray so far. (Later: Rio Grande (1950) is also on Blu-ray).

A new Colonel, traveling with his daughter, arrives to take command of a remote outpost. He's arrogant and officious, concerned with proper uniform dress and often quoting military theory. He doesn't bother to remember anyone's name. He is unhappy with his command, craves glory and will try to achieve it by forcing Cochise and his people back onto the reservation.

It's a disaster, a massacre in the making. He's Custer under a different name. He's contemptuous of the Indians and anyone who disagrees with him is a coward. Everyone recognizes the unfolding tragedy, even the Colonel himself, even Cochise with a "what a pointless waste" expression, but no one can stop it.

As cold and unlikeable as the Colonel is, we recognize something in him, maybe a familiar experience from childhood: being an outsider, unable to fit in and be at ease with others.

The Fort itself is a warm and tightly knit community. The first half of the film spends much time exploring this society, particularly the Army wives who form a "regiment within the regiment". We contrast the way the women work (cooperation and understanding) with the conduct of the men: orders, drilling, yelling and comical drunkeness. Some of the formal "society" material seems a bit stiff and posed to me, but the speaker on the commentary track defends Ford's design and intent here.

It ends with a curious "print the legend" coda, and the proposition that the honored dead achieve immortality in the regiment. It's a way of being loyal to the men.

When asked "What was your father like?", Peter Fonda said "Did you see Fort Apache? He was like that." Ouch.

John Wayne, still trim, is the moral center of the story: act justly, tell the truth and keep your promises.

Shirley Temple (age 20) and John Agar were newlyweds.

The fort has a large Irish contingent, ably represented by Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen.

Available on Blu-ray with good detail, although the black levels vary from scene to scene. Thoughtful commentary track. He says the outdoor scenes were shot on infra-red film, darkening the sky and increasing contrast. He points out the parallels between the characters still recovering from the Civil War, and the film cast and crew just out of WW2.

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