As I am one to tie things to what I’ve read: at the end of Mark Harris’s excellent new book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World World, Harris alludes that director John Ford’s WWII experience in the Navy—which included developing/commanding the Field Photo group for the Office of Strategic Services and documenting The Battle of Midway—might have swayed him away from making the types of prestigious films that won him accolades (i.e. The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) to concentrate on making mythological and platonic Westerns (My Darling Clementine, The Searchers.) Likewise, it bears mentioning Ford was intent on associating himself with the genre; he’d often identify himself by saying, “my name is John Ford and I make Westerns [not films in general.]”
I don’t know the exact reason why such a prioritization would happen as a consequence of Ford’s war experience– perhaps retreating into a cinematic portrayal of America’s past was a way for him to cope with and rationalize the massive sacrifice of many servicemen as well as the complexities of post-war American. I imagine that there are Ford scholars who could provide a good answer to the question. But Harris’s suggestion was in the forefront of my mind as I watched Ford’s 1948 film Fort Apache.
Over the course of three years, Ford made a trilogy of films that portrayed life in the U.S. Calvary in the late 19th century, each of them featuring John Wayne: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. It makes sense that he would– stories set within the Calvary usually deal with Western Expansion while focusing on the trappings a military life. And FA certainly does focus on those trappings. The formality, the regalia and the pageantry of the Calvary is utmost emphasized, and perhaps to a fault. I found that the time spent on the particularities of a militaristic lifestyle on the Western frontier to be trying.
It’s obvious that Ford was indulging in his romantic representation of military custom as a way of ennobling his own military experience while also making a Western. At that point in his career, he had the clout to do so. And Ford probably enjoyed feeling as if he were commanding a de facto army unit, a film production, without actually having to be enlisted or in a war. Yet, while many could make a case for FA, I didn’t enjoy or was interested in Ford getting his Calvary kicks.
That is until the film’s ending, which is fantastic. Stiff, arrogant Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) takes command of the titular Arizona outpost despite having no experience dealing with Indian nations. The more qualified and conscientious Lieutenant Kirby York (John Wayne) works to arrange a peace agreement with Cochise (Miguel Inclan), the leader of the Apache nation, but Thursday defies any such agreement and orders the regiment to attack the Apaches. This results in a massacre similar to Custer’s Last Stand (which the movie drew inspiration from.)
This entire final movement of the film— featuring large-scale formations against an open sky in Monument Valley in grand pictorial fashion— marches towards a pointless vanquishment. Feelings of dread and doom hang in the open-country as Thursday’s hubris results in a sweeping tragedy. (And the kicker is that Thursday’s fiasco becomes a legend of valor in the film’s coda.)
Adding to the tragedy is that the plight of the American Indian at that point in history is acknowledged. Hence, they are not so much vilified (which is done in previous and, for some inexplicable reason, subsequent Ford films); they are just antagonized in a clear, empathetic manner (disregarding the blatant, stereotypical music cues that occur when the Apaches appear en masse.) This relativizes the final confrontation from being a battle against “the noble whites” and “the savages” to being an indiscriminate and destructive result of one man’s serious character flaw. So FA may not feature the most culturally sensitive depiction of the American Indian but it’s still remarkable for a Hollywood film from the late 40s and serves to enhance the drama.
At the finale’s culmination, Thursday and his diminished regiment digs itself in in the open after being severely ambushed. Nevertheless, the outnumbering Apaches come in full force; in a wide-shot, they rush from screen right to screen left to visually engulf the remainder of the Calvary soldiers and generate a massive dust trail. Once they run out of the frame and as the dust settles, it is revealed that the entrenched men have disappeared. They were literally wiped off the screen.
A direct line could be made from this moment of battle in FA to moments in Kurosawa films or the battle scene in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight. And, since Kurosawa and Welles were outspoken admirers of Ford, it’s safe to assume that they emulated it. But maybe a direct line could be drawn from this moment of pointless devastation to the real devastation that Ford witness while serving during WWII. Ostensibly, the ghosts of Ford’s recent past had informed his reenactment of the distant past.
Then again, Ford didn’t seem to like explanations of his films.