An Army of Phantoms: J. Hoberman on Fort Apache

The following passage is excerpted from J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, published by The New Press. In the words of BAM/PFA Video Curator Steve Seid, Hoberman’s new book is a “brilliant, nimble, and nuanced look at a tumultuous decade, 1946 to 1956, and how cinema articulated the chilling moods and manias of the era.”

A former film critic at the Village Voice, Hoberman is guest curator of the new BAM/PFA film series An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War, based on the book. Hoberman will be introducing the opening film of the series, The Next Voice You Hear (William Wellman, 1950) tonight at the PFA Theater and The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951) tomorrow. On Sunday, he will present an overview of his book and sign copies following a screening of Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948). The following is a passage about Fort Apache from the book.

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Argosy’s second project, Fort Apache, was conceived in early 1947, before HUAC came to Hollywood or The Fugitive opened. It materialized in a season of crisis—for the nation as well as Ford’s company. The mid-April 1948 world premiere was a veterans’ benefit that broke the house record at Chicago’s Palace premiere. Rolling out that spring, Ford’s cavalry Western opened in New York on June 25—one day after the Soviet blockade of Berlin created a beleaguered Western fort in the midst of hostile Red territory.

All spring, the Soviets were agitated by the prospect of a West German state; in early June, four-power talks on the German question broke down. The situation worsened as the Republican Convention opened in Philadelphia on June 22; the same day New York governor Thomas A. Dewey received his second presidential nomination, the Soviets selectively sealed of Berlin’s western sectors. It was during Fort Apache’s Broadway run that Jimmy Roosevelt made a last-ditch attempt to draft General Eisenhower as the Democratic candidate, the Democrats split over a civil rights platform, and the Berlin crisis blossomed into the year’s second full-blown war scare.

Here was a military Western with a distinctly postwar ambience and intimations of crisis. The anticipatory print ad that ran in the New York Times promised “ACTION on 1870 America’s explosive Western rim!” employing an image suggestive of the most celebrated military defeat in American history before Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. Placing the most notorious encounter of the three- hundred-year- long Indian Wars in the context of the long, costly Apache campaign that began in the early 1860s and continued for another twenty-five years, Ford’s first cavalry Western replayed Custer’s Last Stand as an incident in an ongoing military struggle.

Fort Apache merged the nineteenth-century war against the Indians with the World War II combat film. Manifesting a new fascination with the post- atomic southwestern landscape, it was set in a mobilized world and dominated by the personalities of rival military leaders. Henry Fonda played the Europeanized martinet Owen Thursday, cast against type in contrast to John Wayne’s more relaxed and enlightened Indian-fighter, Kirby York. Fonda was top-billed but Wayne—who would appear in Ford’s next two movies—occupied the film’s moral center, his attempts at reconciliation with the Apache foe thwarted by Thursday’s proud death-wish stupidity.

Copyright © 2011 by J. Hoberman. This excerpt originally appeared in An Army of Phantoms, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.