Lost And Found 16: Fort Apache, The Bronx
There are a number of cases where films are misunderstood at the time of their release, fade away without making much of a mark only to be re-discovered years later and become more relevant than ever. Lost and Found tends to discuss films where similar events took place, and shed some light on them to see if it was better that they disappeared or were unfairly treated and now deserve a bigger audience. This week’s film seems to be alarmingly fitting for a modern audience but mainly due to unfortunate events that have recently taken place. Our film this week is Fort Apache, the Bronx.
Film: Fort Apache, the Bronx
Cast: Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Rachel Ticotin, Danny Aiello and Pam Grier
Director: Daniel Petrie
Writers: Heywood Gould
When the filmmakers set out to make Fort Apache, the Bronx in 1980, they wanted to capture the realistic grittiness of the city. They knew that the only way to achieve this was by filming on location in the Bronx itself. However, local community groups threatened to file a lawsuit against the producers after reading the script as they were concerned about the negative way African Americans, Puerto Ricans and the neighbourhood as a whole would be depicted. While some stories vary, it is believed that the script was changed immediately to come to an agreement with the local residents and protesters, who by this time heard about the shoot and would regularly disturb the film set and its crew by throwing toilets etc. Other producers remember the shoot differently and claim that apart from some minor disputes, the film provided jobs for some of the locals and the filmmakers hardly clashed with the protesters. Eventually both came to an agreement and a disclaimer was added to the beginning of the film explaining that it does not portray all residents of the city such as those trying to turn the Bronx around. The film was a financial success but not a critical one, with most acknowledging Paul Newman’s strong performance as the highlight in an otherwise clichéd, familiar cop film about inner-city ghettos. However, thirty-four years later and one could argue that Fort Apache, the Bronx may be more relevant than ever.
We follow Officer Murphy (Paul Newman) a tough veteran cop and his young partner Corelli through the streets of a devastated and decaying South Bronx. Their department is understaffed and mainly made up of officers that were either unwanted or transferred from other precincts. Following the death of two rookie police officers, the precinct gets a newly appointed police captain Connolly (Asner) who wants to capture the cop killer no matter what it takes, even if it means harassing innocent locals. As they pursue the case, Murphy and Corelli witness two corrupt police officers from their department throw a young Puerto-Rican male off a roof for no reason. They decide not to report it, scared that they will considered informants and untrustworthy to the rest of the precinct. Murphy starts to feel guilty has to decide whether he should report the police officers to Connolly and be considered an informant or not say anything and remain safe in his job. You can watch the whole film on YouTube.
From the very first scene the stereotypes are rife in Fort Apache, the Bronx but thankfully the intention of the film seems to shift slightly by the middle act. Only thirty minutes into the film and already we witness two police officers gunned down in cold blood by a drug addict played memorably by blaxpoitation star Pam Grier in a very daring role, who later we see being beaten up by her pimp. We then see a man that seems to suffer from a mental illness wielding a knife outside of a corner store. Buildings are set on fire and left to remain so, we are constantly surrounded by criminals and take drives with police officers through the grimy streets of South Bronx accompanied by mountains of rubble from the previous demolitions, director Daniel Petrie paints the city in a terrifying apocalyptic hellish manner. If you haven’t guessed it yet Fort Apache, the Bronx isn’t exactly a very cheerful film. Luckily we do have Lost and Found repeat offender Paul Newman to offer some funny one-liners here and there delivered with his natural charm and charisma. Actually the cast generally do a great job of making the audience have a hard time separating reality and fiction with their pitch-perfect performances, everything has a genuine gritty atmosphere to it that may feel very close to home for some viewers in one of the penultimate scenes. When Murphy and Corelli witness Officer Morgan (Danny Aiello) throw a young Puerto Rican boy off a roof, not aware his girlfriend hid witnessing the murder from a far; it outrages the local community who were already protesting about the random arrests of locals in relation to the murder of the rookie cops.
These events and scenes not only mirror what was going on behind the scenes of the film but also the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri and the riots that took place their after eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson who was later found not guilty sparking outrage and, like the film, highlighting the law enforcements treatment of ethnic minorities. Although we started off with an onslaught of stereotypes, we start to realise the filmmakers intention is to reflect what is going on and not exploit it for the sake of entertainment. When Murphy tells Corelli he’s going to turn his fellow officers in for the murder, the film’s main message is outlined. Murphy states not only is it a crime that they killed the young boy, but it’s also a moral crime that if the boy had a different ethnic background then the precinct would care more about his murder, as opposed to just letting it be another unsolved case and the officers roam free to kill again because people from certain backgrounds are not seen as equals. The community are pretty much reacting to their surrounds.
The pacing can drag at times but has a lasting effect on the viewer, the feeling of spending a realistic amount of time in this world. Some of the storylines are not resolved, characters kill and carry out actions that have no explanation and the ending has no real resolution which may leave a bitter taste to some. Although now all these elements, that were perceived as shortcomings at the time, are what make the film unique and genuine. Real-life police officers were on set to help create a realistic perspective of what it was like to be a cop in the Bronx at that time. It is likely then that many cases were left unsolved, corrupt officers got away with murder but also there were some that wanted to make a change like Murphy. Fort Apache, the Bronx is another undervalued gem due to its relentless gritty atmosphere, relevancy and another insight into the troubling relationship between those in power and those that are less privileged.