The magazine ads for the 1948 release of John Ford’s “Fort Apache” featured an illustration (above) that could almost be the romanticized historical painting of “Thursday’s Charge” referenced in the film’s devastating final sequence, in which John Wayne’s Captain Kirby Yorke (now a colonel) declines to disillusion a group of newspaper reporters on the subject of the now-legendary heroism of his former commanding officer, Henry Fonda’s Owen Thursday. The film, of course, shows a very different event — a pointless massacre that results from one man’s refusal to change with the times.
Now available from Warner Home Video in a magnificent Blu-ray edition, “Fort Apache” remains among Ford’s finest achievements — a difficult, tightly-knotted, highly personal film that seems to contradict itself with every scene. J. Hoberman reads it as a call for a militarized America in his excellent history of Cold War cinema, “Army of Phantoms,” yet it’s a film that profoundly questions military authority and sides with the Apache “enemy” against the duplicity and exploitative policies of the US government. Ford’s remote outpost is at once a kind of idealized, democratic community (its harmony suggested by two beautifully filmed ballroom dances) and a site of loneliness and devastation, of mysteriously fragmented families and rigid class distinctions. I don’t think I’ll ever come to the bottom of this one, though here’s another thousand words of thrashing around, in this week’s New York Times.