26 July 2010

Great Scenes- Fort Apache (1948)

Today's great scene comes from John Ford's Fort Apache. I was inspired to make my way through all the John Ford Westerns after watching Stagecoach the other evening (My Darling Clementine predates this one but I'll be going back to it tomorrow). The film depicts life within a frontier outpost, with its military hierarchy, formal and informal relationships, and some humor along the way. The Indian question comes into focus in the second half of the film, and the climax presents the American forces, led by Henry Fonda, riding against the Apache forces led by Cochise and Geronimo.

The scene, comprising the last ten minutes or so of the film, is notable for both its camerawork, showcasing Ford's familiar mastery with the Monument Valley location, and the way it brings most of the narrative questions of the film to a head all at once, as great climaxes are known to do. John Wayne's character, Captain York, is at odds with Colonel Thursday, played by Fonda. The regiment splits into two factions, following each officer, and Fonda's by-the-books approach becomes his downfall.

Without giving away each plot point, the moral ambiguity of the scene is central to the film's understanding of native American policy. It doesn't serve as a fully realized criticism of the government's treatment of the various tribes, as the film's final moments glorify the American troops who, within the story, still continue to fight to tame the West. However, it does stop short of imbuing the troops with moral certitude.

The final portion of the battle scene features a wonderful shot of Captain York standing tall against a cloud of dust kicked up by the Apache troops. He often serves as the film's moral center, but he is forced to make some concessions. When he is speaking with reporters a couple of years after the battle, we can see the conflict as he remembers his former commanding officer, and we get the sense that the way he glorifies his comrades may not be wholly sincere, but an act of public relations demanded by his new post.

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