The issue of racism in John Ford’s 1948 movie “Fort Apache” is a central theme in the movie and is casual look at the racism that was prevalent both in the Old West and in America in the 1940s and 1950s. Though the movie centers around the idea that Col. Thursday is a blood-thirsty self-righteous man more interested in his own career than doing what is best for the Calvary or for his government, there is little in the movie to show that his attitudes toward the Native Americans are wrong. He is instead chastised for making war where there needn’t be any, for slaughtering people wholesale and for not keeping the best interest of his post at heart, but never for his treatment of the natives as blood-thirsty savages or “Injuns”.
In fact, in this epic, our hero, John Wayne, is supposed to be showing the mistaken Col. Thursday that the Injuns are not savages, but have a culture all their own and yet his own attitude toward them is extremely racist. His character reflects the attitude of the times that the Indians were vulnerable to being drunks and were ignorant savages who would be better off if they were taught the white man’s ways and “civilized” in a manner befitting western Europe. The interesting thing about this movie is that there is a sort of double edge of racism within it. First, we have the despicable racism of Thursday, who believes that the Native Americans are little more than chattel, to be destroyed on his whims. Then, there is the racism of the films writers and producers who also did not recognize the that culture and civilization of the native tribes, though different from traditional Western culture was in many ways more advanced and equally developed.
The problem with analyzing a film like “Fort Apache” in a modern setting is that many people fail to realize that the political correctness prevalent today was not the way of life in the time period depicted in the movie. While the movie suffers from its own forms of racism, such as the idea that a Native America was never hired to play the roles of Native Americans, it is important that we maintain this type of literature as a viewfinder to help understand the past. One of the biggest tragedies of American society is the current need to rewrite classics like “Huckleberry Finn’ because of the offensive language that they contain. Though this inherent racism is not appropriate in modern society, by sterilizing movies and literature to this language of our past, we are somehow trying to pretend that it did not happen. Some people seem to believe this is a means to undo racism, but if we do not accept that it was and is a part of American culture, then we cannot hope to overcome it. Much like an ostrich burying its head in the sand, when we attempt to cleanse our literature and create a cleaner, more politically correct version, we are dooming ourselves to repeat the tragedies of history.
Unfortunately, whether it is race-based or ethnically-based, slavery and discrimination are a huge part of human history. “Fort Apache” shows us an ugly part of that history, but we still have obviously not learned the lesson. Today, we treat people of a different religion as savages because we have not yet learned to appreciate the differences in societies. Until we have overcome this form of discrimination, we have no right to scorn Ford and his generation for their racist flaws.