Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, suggested by the story “Massacre” by James Warner Bellah
Stars: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Pedro Arendariz, John Agar, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen
The Story: A strict martinet, with his daughter in tow, takes over a remote Arizona army base where there’s much camaraderie but lax discipline. He refuses to listen to his more experienced men, who are attempting to maintain an uneasy truce with the Apache, and instead he uses their peacemaking efforts to lure the tribe into a trap, with disastrous consequences for all.
How it Came to be Underrated: This movie is often paired with two subsequent Wayne-Ford movies, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande as the “cavalry trilogy”, (only the latter was an actual sequel) but it’s far richer than the other two, right up there with Ford’s greatest masterpieces.
Why It’s Great:
- The great Arnold Weinstein has a theory about how his fellow American literary critics tend to only apply the term “serious literature” to works in which family and community are destroyed or abandoned, but dismiss any work where such things are strengthened as un-serious fluff. I think that this helps explains why some Ford movies are not as valued as others. Ironically, Ford loved to use his rough Western settings to discuss his favorite topics: community-building and, yes, the value of domestication.
- But beyond that, I suspect that this movie is a victim, ironically, or being so far ahead of its time in its racial politics. Modern critics love to make excuses for movies like The Searchers, and their brutal depiction of the Indians, by finding nuance in them and explaining them away as products of their time, but that narrative falls apart when you see a movie like this, which gives a far more modern portrayal of the relentless victimization of the Apache, who kept trying to keep up their side of an endless parade of faithless deals. It’s embarrassing to see a movie this honest, even today. It can’t imagine how much courage it took to make it back then.
- I love role-reversal movies, where two actors oddly play against type. Here we have Fonda as the swaggering macho-man vs. Wayne as the gentle peacemaker, and they give two of their best performances. Fonda usually played roles that matched his political views: progressive and kind. But here he plays a role that, alas, matched the unpleasant personality he seems to have displayed at home: an uncomfortable, unreasonable autocrat. He does beautiful work and breaks your heart.
- The more morally complex Ford’s westerns were, the more likely he was to shoot them in a studio, which leaves viewers in the position of choosing between verisimilitude and thoughtfulness, but this is one of the few that gives us both. The performances are aided immeasurably by being able to actually interact with all that beautiful Monument Valley scenery.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This movie makes a nice companion piece to Wayne’s final (and perhaps greatest) movie with Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The ending of this one prefigures that movie’s famous “print the legend” conclusion, but this one is even more cynical, in its own way.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD, Watch Instantly, and it shows up on TCM a lot, looking gorgeous in HD.
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