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Apaches (1977)


Main image of Apaches (1977)
16mm, colour, 28 mins
Directed byJohn MacKenzie
Production CompanyGraphic Films
SponsorCentral Office of Information
ForHealth & Safety Executive
Produced byJohn Arnold
  Leon Clore
Written byNeville Smith
CameramanPhilip Méheux
MusicJohn Cave

Six children play on a farm. Five will never return home.

Show full synopsis

Impact can be judged by Apaches' long shelf-life: prints made it to 16mm film's last stand beneath the onslaught of video cassette. The film was also broadcast by ITV companies, like Westward and Anglia, whose franchises covered agricultural areas. For a good decade, unbeknownst to Britain's adult, urban majority, Apaches busily scared the bejaysus out of a generation of rural schoolchildren, in the cause of saved lives and limbs.

Viewed again through adult eyes, it is Apaches' cut-price cross-breed of filmic forms that most intrigues: one part documentary to two parts drama and fable, a Children's Film Foundation caper injected with heavy doses of B-western, B-horror and hints, even, of Bergman and Buñuel. Its public service function supplies a carefully compiled catalogue of the hazards of modern farms, and a final, factual call of recent fatalities (some 30 deaths annually had triggered the Health and Safety Executive's campaign).

Yet the title credits borrow the Playbill typeface of westerns from Stagecoach (US, 1939) forward and director John Mackenzie ('Frenzy Mackenzie', three years from The Long Good Friday) deploys camera setups evoking their action highlights. By Hollywood standards, production values are below Poverty Row. And this is no Monument Valley: Apaches was shot, fast, on a Home Counties farm in February 1977, its cast six children from a Maidenhead junior school. The point of the genre borrowings was not mere playful pastiche. The six play cowboys and Indians in a lethal modern setting, and the film's own storytelling is governed by the illogical logic reigning over the netherworld of childhood play and imagination. One by one the Apaches die, yet curiously continue their adventures (punctuated by abruptly arty flash-forwards) to their grim conclusion.

The Central Film Library routinely charged for print hire but made exception for major safety campaigns. Hence Apaches was distributed free of charge. Supported by a small advertising and mailshot campaign, it rapidly broke CFL booking records. For production, Graphic Films had been allotted a budget generous by the COI's 1977 standards (affording a running time rare by this stage in COI history). But that's another way of saying that by any other standard, Apaches was shot on a shoestring. Its cheapness fittingly underscores themes shared with many post-war westerns whose TV reruns young Apaches everywhere so enjoyed. Love of life, homestead and hearth are our bulwarks - the only ones - in a landscape cruelly, tragically and absurdly indifferent.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'The COI Collection Volume 4: Stop! Look! Listen!'.

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Video Clips
1. Kim and the tractor (3:13)
2. Tom and the slurry (5:26)
3. Sharon and the paraquat (6:15)
4. Robert and the gate (3:37)
5. Danny and the tractor (3:14)
Complete film (26:18)
Building Sites Bite (1978)
Mackenzie, John (1932-2011)