by Peter Lenihan
Fort Apache is a turning point. Since the thirties John Ford had made only two westerns—Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Between 1948 and 1950, however, he would direct five—Fort Apache (1948), 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950) and Rio Grande (1950). This, in itself, is not necessarily important. Great directors excel in many genres, and following Rio Grande, Ford wouldn’t make another oater for six years. However, the differences between these five films and the two that came before it are striking, and worth emphasizing.
Film historians have gone to great lengths to underline the importance of Stagecoach, and particularly its place in the canon as the first “mature” “western”—a distinction I approach with great trepidation, and which you probably should too. If we are to understand maturity as consisting of busy, overlapping subplots and more characters than writer, producer or director know what do with, then I agree. The film as a whole, however, is too overstuffed to accommodate Ford’s poeticism, and both the film’s merits and failings seem to have more to do with its script than direction or (admittedly often startling) cinematography. My Darling Clementine, alternatively, is essentially a sequence-for-sequence remake of the superb Frontier Marshal (1939), and that it is not recognized as such probably has more to do with the obscurity of Dwan’s film than anything else. While Ford’s sense of community in Clementine is undeniably deeper than in Stagecoach, there’s an often transparent directorial discomfort with the pulpy gunfighter plot he’s supposed to be telling, and the film only comes alive in the scenes that have nothing to do with the Clantons or the OK Corral.
Fort Apache is a bit different, and marks, as Dave Kehr put it, the film in which “Ford finally withdrew from the Oscar race and entered his own individual aesthetic, isolating himself in the glories and eccentricities of a great artist.” Those are lofty pronouncements, but strike me as being justified by the film (as well as Wagon Master, The Sun Shines Bright, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and countless others). It’s a film of strange, unexplained suggestions—the dispute between Collingsworth and Thursday, for example, is never fully explained, although it almost certainly has to do with sides taken during the American Civil War—and although some of this is overridden by a stunning and bombastic climax, these uncanny whispers remain. (more…)