I'm out of my element with this film. I normally don't review black-and-white classics, because I'm too cynical to view the big studio releases of yesteryear with an open mind. All of them are contrived and somewhat sappy; I watch them and envision a cherubic Mickey Rooney looking on while eating chocolate chip cookies and drinking milk. "That's a swell show, Dad!"
But I like John Ford films. And I really like FORT APACHE, despite the movie being a stereotypical product of its time. Why, you ask (or mutter indifferently)? Because this film actually depicts some range for Henry Fonda and the Duke himself. Fonda plays a very unsympathetic role, while John Wayne steps out of character (for him) to play a compassionate second fiddle. And Ford's experiment works: the two actors pull off exceptional performances; their on-screen chemistry is riveting.
Tension--that's the motor that drives FORT APACHE. A new disciplined, disgruntled, by-the-book colonel (Fonda) arrives at a remote Arizona outpost; immediately, he is at odds with the fort's seasoned and weathered captain (Wayne). The captain, who possesses a deep respect for a band of Apache that has left the reservation, has the loyalty and affection of his men; the colonel is looked upon as an unwelcome intruder and resented as a martinet. The two officers wage a battle of wills that ultimately has Fonda using an unsuspecting Wayne as a ploy to draw the Apache back for a surprise attack--a strategy that produces deadly consequences.
This is good stuff, further enhanced by some outstanding supporting roles, including Ward Bond, Pedro Armendariz, and Victor McLaglen. We're even treated to a grown-up--yet still annoying--Shirley Temple. Kudos to John Ford for creating a good-looking film that successfully had Fonda and Wayne step outside their respective boxes. FORT APACHE, despite its "Aw, shucks" big studio smarm, is solid entertainment.