When the Bronx was burning….
Fort Apache – The Bronx is an all-time classic and possibly the best movie about cops on patrol in the 1970’s. It is a film about the good and the bad in the daily lives of cops, grounded realistically in their interactions with the community.
The film is a distressed take on the original Fort Apache (1948), starring John Wayne. In the original, a glory-hounding Lt Colonel Owen Thursday takes over a fort in the American Southwest. He destroys the relationship with the local Apache tribes with his hard-charging and disrespectful attitude. In the updated version, the new 4-1 precinct commander, Connelly (Ed Asner), takes the same attitude toward the mostly Puerto Rican residents of Longwood and Hunts Point. A zero-tolerance approach to policing and a general disrespect of the community makes life difficult for cops and the community alike.
The film’s protagonist, Murphy (Paul Newman), has seen it all in his many years on the NYPD. He knows the community and understands the people. He and his partner Corelli (Ken Wahl) traverse the precinct in their radio car, using their wits and a twisted sense of humor to get through the day (sounds familiar). They are doing their best to maintain their sanity and help people in what seems like a hopeless neighborhood.
Their precinct is on the front line of the heroin epidemic and the never-ending fires that typified New York City in the 1970’s. The FDNY called that era “the war years,” as arson, junkies, and bad governance turned The Bronx into a warscape that resembled Berlin 1945.
(An aside: The 4-1 precinct was located at 1086 Simpson Street and went by second nickname in the late 70’s and early 80’s: Little House on the Prairie – because it was literally the only building left standing on the block. The building was beautifully restored and is now the headquarters of Bronx Detectives – a must-see if you are OTJ).
In the film’s back story, Newman’s Murphy is living his own drama as a divorced father with a recent love interest in a young Puerto Rican nurse. The film makes for excellent drama as the crumbling community, an unreasoning commanding officer, police corruption, and Murphy’s personal life all intersect. The plot is multifaceted and perhaps a bit disjointed, but that resonates with the fractured setting.
Excellent acting by Newman, Danny Aiello, and Ed Asner carries the film, and they all give have some truly gut-wrenching scenes. You will be laughing one minute and crying the next – a perfect encapsulation of patrol in the ghetto. This film will leave a lasting impression on you.
You can check it out streaming on the Disney+hotstar app. Other than that, you can order it on DVD via Amazon for about $7. It’s a bit hard to find but worth it.
And check out the JustWatch website for more info. You can find current updates on where to watch any film or show for free or behind a paywall.
And by the way…
THE BOOK (remember those?)
Fort Apache Bronx, New York’s Most Violent Precinct was a book written by 4-1 Precinct Lieutenant Tom Walker. The movie was inspired by his book, but he was not credited by the filmmakers. A legal battle ensued, and Walker eventually won. It’s a great book and deserves a future Weekend Buff recommendation of its own.