Jan. 9, 2006

Fort Apache (1948)
Grade: 69/100

Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple

What it's about. Humorless West Point Lt. Col. Henry Fonda journeys to a western outpost to fight the Indians, and takes along his hottie daughter Shirley Temple. At Fort Apache, they meet John Ford favorites John Wayne, Ward Bond, and Victor McLaglen. Also present is John Agar, Temple's real-life husband and onscreen paramour.

How others will see it. This entry in Ford's "Cavalry Trio" should please any fan of Fonda, Wayne, Ford, or Temple. In fact, it is difficult to imagine anyone who wouldn't enjoy the film, although all things are possible, and some folks just don't see the point of watching an old black and white movie when there are perfectly good color films out there.

How I felt about it. You probably never thought you'd see John Wayne dancing with Shirley Temple. Such an odd screen event briefly exists in Fort Apache Any movie with Victor McLaglen can't be all bad, especially when he has the order to destroy contraband whiskey. He decides to drink it, of course.

Sure, Fort Apache is a good movie, and almost a very good movie. The secondary plot of Temple and Agar's romance isn't of great interest, and the command sniping between stiff Fonda and the more relaxed Wayne is overdone. Perhaps camp buglers and singers weren't as talented on the real western fort as they are in Hollywood's depiction. One can speculate the same about the uniforms, which are spiffy in Fort Apache but likely faded and dirty in real life.

If the colonel in charge of the fort did bring his daughter to such a remote and dangerous setting (which is unlikely) she probably was older, brought her husband, and was not as hot as Shirley Temple. The actress never really outgrew her combination of smiling and pouting, but she's a knockout nonetheless.

In the battle between big time screen stars Fonda and Wayne, the former is in command, but the latter is the better man. While Wayne respects the Apaches, Fonda is a racist, and is confident of the cultural superiority of a West Point officer over an itinerant Indian tribe leader. His imperious screen persona leads to a surprisingly rash and foolish military move against the Apaches. The need for Western mythology existed even back then, as Fonda and his blunder is repackaged to schoolchildren similar to Custer's Last Stand.

Ford takes his time in Fort Apache. Comic relief scenes are plentiful, even early on when no tension exists to break up. The most spectacular of these moments comes when new recruits (and novice horse riders) are ordered to mount steeds. Horses and bounding bodies are everywhere. Other comic scenes include Temple receiving a card from Agar, McLaglen and company shoveling horse manure, Fonda sinking into a chair, and Guy Kibbee's taking inventory of a neighbor's hidden liquor cabinet.