Monday, June 25, 2012

The Innocent Turned Imperialist: Shirley Temple & John Ford by David Meuel

This week I'm pleased to welcome a guest post from a gifted writer on a fine actress, Shirley Temple. Her  acting career may have peaked well before she was an adult, but she remains surprisingly under-appreciated by many classic cinephiles, both for her childhood and young adult roles. All you really need to know was that Shirley was good enough for John Ford--twice! The author of this interesting analysis of this unique actress in the Fordian canon is David Meuel. David is a lifelong film enthusiast with a special fondness for the visual poetry and emotional power of John Ford's work. While David would prefer to live in Monument Valley, he lives in Silicon Valley -- San Jose, California, to be exact -- where he also works as a freelance writer for several high-tech companies. You can reach him at At the end of this post, links to other articles and some brilliant short fiction by him will be posted. I hope you will enjoy discovering his work, and re-discovering the powerful young lady who is the subject of this piece. - Moira Finnie
The Innocent Turned Imperialist: Shirley Temple in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie and Fort Apache by David Meuel

Shirley Temple and John Ford? The pairing seems surreal. After all, she’s the precocious child star who won our hearts by singing The Good Ship Lollipop, and he’s the tyrannical film director who could make John Wayne cry. Yet, the pair made two very good films together, 1937’s Wee Willie Winkie and 1948’s Fort Apache. And one intriguing element the two films share is Ford’s use of Temple the child and then Temple the young woman. In both, she is a sweet, openhearted innocent who accompanies her one living parent to a remote military outpost in an alien land inhabited by “savage” Indians. Initially, she questions traditions and systems that are fundamentally imperialist, racist, and repressive. In the process, she has a humanizing effect on those around her. Ultimately, though, she becomes a part of these systems. The innocent—now transformed by the values of the societies in which she now lives—becomes an active participant in those societies and supporter of those values.
Philadelphia just after her arrival at Fort Apache

Temple’s characters, Priscilla in Wee Willie Winkie and Philadelphia in Fort Apache, are both highly curious individuals. And often their curiosity taps into key issues in the films. Before Priscilla arrives at the remote British outpost in India her grandfather commands she asks her mother that, if her grandfather were English, “why doesn’t he live in England?” One answer of course would be that, if England weren’t a colonial power, then, yes, he probably would live in England. Philadelphia has her share of questions too. She constantly asks what her role as “the colonel’s lady” should be and what she needs to do to play it correctly. Of the two Temple characters, it’s interesting that little Priscilla asks the bigger questions, questions about war and peace, questions that get to the heart of the story’s core conflicts. In contrast, Philadelphia’s main focus is domestic: she is angry that her father (Henry Fonda’s Colonel Thursday) doesn’t approve of her and Lieutenant O’Rourke (played by Temple’s then real-life husband John Agar) and openly questions and occasionally defies fatherly judgments based on classism and prejudice.
Mixing It Up: Priscilla talks with the imprisoned “enemy,” Khoda Khan, and Philadelphia goes riding with Lieutenant O’Rourke, much to her father’s chagrin.

Because they are genuinely kind and caring as well as inquisitive people, Priscilla and Philadelphia both do much to humanize their communities. Much has been written about Priscilla’s relationship with the gruff but lovable Sergeant McDuff (Victor McLaglen) in Wee Willie Winkie. But Priscilla also has a great humanizing effect on her equally gruff grandfather, Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith). She charms him by telling him that the men call him “Old Boots,” nudges him into taking her widowed mother to a dance, and gets him to change some of his assumptions about the native peoples under his jurisdiction. Her act of kindness to the “enemy” leader Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero), returning a talisman to him, has a major impact on his attitude toward the British. Little Priscilla is remarkable at seeing through stereotypes and helping others to do the same, and her ability to transform both her grandfather and Khoda Khan directly results in the conflict’s positive resolution. In Fort Apache, Philadelphia plays a similar role but nowhere near as successfully. From the beginning of the film she wins the hearts of Lieutenant O’Rourke and just about everyone else at the fort. Even before she reaches the fort—when she lets an old frontier women try on her big-city hat—we see how her kindness touches people. She is also the only one who can get beneath her stern father’s hard shell. The scene when she shows Colonel Thursday how she has fixed up their quarters and he awkwardly kisses her on the forehead is both painful and moving. Yes, this arrogant, bigoted, self-centered man does have a tender side, and Philadelphia, it seems, is the only one who can bring it out. Sadly, though, Colonel Thursday is not nearly as balanced or reasonable as Colonel Williams. Try as she might, Philadelphia can’t get her father to accept Lieutenant O’Rourke as a potential son-in-law, O’Rourke’s lower-class background, or even his Irish heritage (let alone accept Apaches). Here the ability to humanize is profoundly limited because her father adheres so fiercely to a rigid set of classist, racist, imperialist values. And the great tragedy at the film’s end is inevitable.

Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith) and Priscilla join in a salute.

Despite their shared ability to question and sometimes challenge the systems they must live within, however, both Priscilla and Philadelphia succumb to those systems. This for me is part of the essential—and very disturbing—irony at the heart of both films. At the end of Wee Willie Winkie, Priscilla now has her own soldier’s uniform and toy rifle and, in a display of classic Temple cuteness, is marching around, enthusiastically embracing her new role.

And at the end of Fort Apache, Philadelphia has fully made the transition to by-the-book military wife and mother. The spirited young woman, once so oblivious to the military’s rigidity and the way it can stifle self-determination, has now been fully integrated into the system. Her hair is tightly (almost unpleasantly) wound around her head. She doesn’t smile. She is all duty. Here, she is so different from the way she is at the non-commissioned officers’ dance that immediately precedes the last tragic battle. There, almost everyone dances with incredible stiffness, grimfaced and determined. This is more a march than a dance. The exception is Philadelphia. Her movements are livelier, looser, easier. She smiles and seems endlessly curious. She is actually enjoying herself. And she seems light years away from the fully initiated military wife we see in her last scene.

Duty Above All: Fort Apache’s women (Irene Rich and Anna Lee along with Temple) watch their men leave before the climatic battle.

While quite different in tone, both Wee Willie Winkie and Fort Apache astutely examine the consequences of imperialist mindsets, showing how empire extracts an enormous human toll on the oppressors as well as the oppressed. We see this most obviously in all the deaths that occur in both films. But we also see this in the people who remain, including Priscilla and Philadelphia. To survive in imperial systems, they must sacrifice something good and true of themselves. Especially in these remote outposts where options are few, there is little else these people can do.

Yes, Shirley Temple and John Ford make a true odd couple. But in both these films their collaborations work extremely well. Temple has called Wee Willie Winkie her favorite among the 40+ feature films she made. And, in Fort Apache, Ford’s casting of Temple—no longer box office gold by 1948 but still in full possession of the Temple persona of innocence, integrity, kindness, curious intelligence, and boundless spunk (the Temple “brand,” if you will)—is inspired. This helps to make Philadelphia’s change at the film’s end to stiff, dutiful military wife all the more startling to watch.

Both Wee Willie Winkie and Fort Apache are available on DVD.

More of David Meuel's work can be read at the following websites:


From the indispensable resource at the blog,

The Female Ethan Edwards

Not a Bad Jail: John Ford’s Delightfully Subversive Up the River (1930)


Life Noir by David Meuel

One Lucky Dog by David Meuel 


April said...

Brilliant, David! I would love to see more and longer articles on the women in Ford of which you have eloquently been writing. I think they (the women in Ford's films) are vastly underestimated by most everyone except Ford himself. Keep writing.

Caftan Woman said...

Very interesting look at the talented Miss Temple and her place in the Ford films. I think there is a tendency to underrate her talent, and the importance of females in Ford's world view. You are going a long way in correcting that oversight.

Moira Finnie said...

I am so glad that you both enjoyed this post about the Ford-Temple connection.

I think that the tragedy and triumph of reconciliation at the end of each film as the idealistic individual becomes a part of the group was something that Ford dealt with in all of his best movies. The characters with the greatest amount of self-awareness in several films are also the people most pained by change who often separate themselves from the crowd they have run with. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ethan Edwards (Wayne again) in The Searchers, Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell) in How Green Was My Valley, and Smitty (Ian Hunter) in The Long Voyage Home all experience a degree of alienation from the world around them that is never entirely resolved. Ford celebrates their individuality while mourning the inability of a group to entirely accommodate their singularity.

Even days after first reading it, I am still realizing that David has written a most thought-provoking piece!

Thanks for taking the time to comment, April and Patricia.


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