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Monday, November 16, 2009

FORT APACHE (1948)


The first in the great John Ford cavalry trilogy (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON/’49 and the undervalued RIO GRANDE/’50 followed) has the expected Fordian faults (coy ingenues, boozy Irish humor) and strengths (everything else, too many to enumerate). Taken all in all, this pseudonymous version of the Custer massacre is simply indispensable cinema. The cast are almost all Ford regulars with Henry Fonda especially strong in the vainglorious Custer role of Lt. Col. Thursday. The famous quote from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ really begins with the coda of this film. Listen closely as John Wayne threads the needle for some myth-seeking reporters in a carefully worded encomium about Thursday, his onetime commanding officer and a man he could barely tolerate. He doesn’t exactly lie, but he hardly tells the tale. In fact, he’s come to appreciate, even to give honor & credence to the metastasizing fiction. Ford’s great trick, unequaled in American cinema, was in his ability to live as an artist within that fissure, particularly in his post-WWII pics which printed the facts knowing full well audiences would opt for the legend as takeaway. Watching this time around, the parallels between Fonda’s stubbornly proud know-nothing confidence about a little understood land & people brought up prescient & horrifyingly images of George W & Iraq/Afghanistan. And it’s likely to feel just as prescient, tragic & challenging in some new context fifty years on.

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