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
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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.