CALL IT THE Deer Hunter Quandary.
In 1978, Micnael Cimino presented his "contemporary" epic of men at war--in this case, the Vietnam War--and, initially, it received universally enthusiastic reviews. Most critics ignored the film's contrived, overdone script and Cimino's bland direction, and praised The Deer Hunter for its emotional power. But, after having their tears jerked and their guts wrenched for three poorly-paced hours, many viewers recognized The Deer Hunter as a thoroughly racist, reactionary depiction of America's involvement in Vietnam. Cimino claimed he had set out to show what the war was really like. Instead, he made a hollow, melodramatic adventure story in which the dedicated, patriotic American soldiers were pitted against the sordid and infinitely evil Vietnamese; nearly every East Asian in the film was a leering, growling monster. In the end, our brave soldiers, having endured imprisonment, mutilation, and the deaths of their comrades, join their families and friends in a rousing rendition of "God Bless America." The controversy over The Deer Hunter's racism, its blind patriotism, and its historical inaccuracies (some would say lies) exploded in angry editorials and boycotts of the film. Important questions were raised: Did the artist have a right to distort the terrible social and political realities of recent history for the sake of drama? Did the artist have a social responsibility to give a fair, unbiased picture of reality, examining all the film's issues? Would this social responsibility make a mockery of art? Thus, the Quandary.
The Quandary is back. This time, the controversy surrounds Daniel Petrie's Fort Apache, the Bronx, a movie which purports to show what the South Bronx is really like, through the experiences of the officers of the borough's 41st precinct. Art and social responsibility clash once again. Community activists in the South Bronx have declared the film racist while its makers defend its accuracy in depicting the area from a cop's point of view.
In the heat of this debate, neither group has realized the obvious: that Fort Apache, in a cinematic context, is an awful film. The movie fails on almost every artistic and technical level. Muddled, sloppy, and usually just silly, the movie plods clumsily from Starsky and Hutch-type melodrama to confused social commentary to moronic musings on the decline and fall of modern civilization.
Of course, each work of art must be judged in terms of its own goals, in other words, its success or failure as a coherent, satisfying artistic vision. For the makers of Fort Apache, their artistic and social goals seem intertwined. According to Paul Newman, the star of and spokesman for Fort Apache, Petrie and company wanted the film to be "the positive catalyst needed to start a nation-wide effort to rebuild the inner cities and better the lives of their inhabitants." A noble aspiration. Unfortunately, no one involved with the film had the talent to fulfill it. The vision of Fort Apache's creators is, at best, blurry.
TO BEGIN, Heywood Gould has created a screenplay of almost magnificent incompetence. He had a promising premise: two dedicated cops Murphy (Paul Newman) and Corelli (Ken Wahl), confront crime, corruption, despair and death in the South Bronx; their turf is so dangerous that the precinct office is nicknamed Fort Apache, as it is, indeed, "like a fort in hostile territory." In depicting this crumbling world, Gould conjures up an assortment of ludicrous plot contrivances and inate episodes. First, there's Charlotte, the grotesque hooker who opens the film by shooting two rookie officers dead in their parked patrol car. Fort Apache begins as a thriller about urban terror. But not long after the initial murders, Gould changes tone and gives us "A Day in the Life of a N.Y. Cop." As Murphy and Corelli save a Puerto Rican drag queen from suicide, subdue a knife-wielding derelict, chase a swift purse-snatcher, (angle with a slimy pimp, and deliver the child of an unwed fourteen-year-old, the movie becomes an inner city Adam-12.
But soon, we're following Charlotte again as she slashes the throats of horny, innocent fools. Meanwhile, back at the "fort", the new play-by-the-book commander (Edward Asner) is giving Murphy a hard time but Murphy can't really be concerned with this since his new love, a Puerto-Rican nurse, has a dark secret and the local drug-dealer is up to no good and the whole neighborhood is being torn apart by riots. Gould orchestrates these dramatic situations with the skill of an armless conductor:
Corelli: Gee, with all the coverage on these cop killings, maybe you'll be able to pick up a cute reporter.
Murphy: If it was raining reporters, I'd get hit with Walter Cronkite.
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Applebaum: I hear the new commander is real straight-laced.
Pantuzzi: He's been kissing ass so long, he wipes his nose with toilet paper
* * *
Murphy: That pimp thinks he can own me for a couple odd dollars, just like he owns every other cop in the neighborhood.
Corelli: Hey, man. We're living in a world we never made.
* * *
Measure for measure, Petrie's incompetence matches Gould's. As illustrated by The Betsy and Resurrection, Petrie is an equally mediocre talent. In Fort Apache he relies on pointless camera meanderings, a la Brian De Palma, to give the illusion of a consistent style. The frequent tracking, zooming, and panning--usually from Paul Newman's right profile to his left--generally serve no purpose.
Nor does pitiful Petrie get much help from his technical staff. John Alcott is a talented cinematographer, but, as Stanley Kubrick's favorite collaborator. Alcott has shown that he specializes in creating eerily sunny dream worlds where harsh lights and bright colors take on a chilling unreality. Alcott's style couldn't be more wrong for the South Bronx. When he does try to capture the ugliness of the locale, his photography becomes more grainy than gritty. And then, there's Rita Roland, from the Lizzie Borden School of Film Editing. Many times, she cuts away from a scene with a character in mid-gesture or midsentence; the annoying discontinuity from one shot to the next disorients the viewer and further debilitates the already feeble storyline.
IMAGINE TELEVISION'S Mr. Rogers playing Rocky Balboa and you should get an idea of what Paul Newman is like as J.J. Murphy. Miscasting like this should be savored in all its hilarity. When Newman looks into the camera and says "I've been a cop for seventeen years and I've got every minute of this job written on my face" or adds "I could walk into Grand Central Station and everybody would know I'm a cop," he's almost too funny to bear. Yes, Newman has taken a lot of critical abuse in his twenty-five years of stardom and deserved most of it. No one can play the devilish rogue or the impudent egotist better than Newman with his wry grin and the irresistable twinkle in his eye. But, Newman dwells under the curse of the Pretty Man. Remember Robert Redford as the prison warden in Brubaker? Newman's even less credible as a cop; he has "gentleman jock" written on his face and if you passed him in Grand Central you'd think he was a slick exec commuting from his Manhattan office to his small mansion in Darien.
Then again, Murphy is a poorly concieved, poorly written character. He's the Last Honest Cop, supposedly appalled by the corruption in the precinct and the squalor in the streets, an ancient cliche. Murphy might have been utilized as the liberal mouthpiece for the film-makers' ideas on urban blight--but Petrie and Gould blow it again. Murphy tells his Puerto Rican girlfriend that he stays in the Bronx because he wants to help the victimized citizenry, he says he understands them: "You see Puerto Ricans are really no different from us Irish. We both like to dance and drink and make love." Great; ethnic stereotypes lead to better cultural relations.
Newman's at his very worst, though, when the film comes to its tragic, anti-climactic ending, wherein fate's final cruel blow devastates Murphy. Newman staggers, he pounds on furniture, his face scrunches up and turns red--he's in pain. He's trying hard, but he just can't do it, Newman can't cry on camera. He finally turns his back to the camera, bangs his head against the wall and fakes some pathetic sobs.
The rest of the cast fares better, though their performances display little more than simple competence. Particularly good are Wahl who brings an authentic Brooklyn charm to Corelli and Rachel Ticotin who, as Isabella, manages to survive several of Gould's most abysmal lines.
EDWARD ASNER, though, as the tight-assed commander Connolly delivers the film's muddled message in Fort Apache's penultimate scene. Asner, a talented, politically active performer, plays this role with conviction and, like the film-makers, probably thought the movie would come off sounding like a humane plea to America to save the South Bronx. Asner's convictions and intentions make his scene with Newman--where Connolly tries to persuade Murphy not to leave the force--all the more ironic. "The precinct must be a house of law," Asner says passionately. "Damn it, there're people out there who are trying to build something and we have to let them know that the law is here to serve them."
The problem is that we haven't seen any of those people trying to build something and that's the key to understanding Fort Apache's Quandary. For two hours the South Bronx's inhabitants have been presented as pimps, hookers, junkies, dealers, theives, and killers--all of them either Black or Puerto Rican. And American audiences will not see victims of an inhumane racist capitalist system--they will see looters and murderers who should be, in the view of this film, punished. When the neighborhood is in an uproar over random arrests, Murphy tells us that the community leaders will demand justice. But what we see is a mob of hundreds of rioters, screaming and throwing garbage. There are three Black cops in the film: one is one of the rookies knocked off in the first scene; the second is a jovial fellow with about three forgettable lines; the third shoves hero Murphy and calls him a "piece of shit." There are no Puerto Rican police officers in the film. This absence of heroic--or even respectable--minority characters, while not inherently wrong, weakens the film and caused a huge, and still growing, controversy. Fort Apache is not a deliberately mean-spirited and racist film; it is the product of people who lacked the insight and sensitivity to create a strong, fair movie.
The Deer Hunter turned in a healthy profit and won the New York Film Critics Award and the Oscar as Best Picture of the Year. But the Quandary aside, Fort Apache, despite its emotional jerry-rigging, stands as a silly sham and a dismal artistic failure.