Fort Apache (1948)

Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, John Agar, Dick Foran, Pedro Armendariz, Miguel Inclan, Irene Rich, Movita

Fort Apache is the first part of John Ford's Cavalry trilogy (it was followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande). The film tells the story of a cavalry officer, Owen Thursday, whose reckless tactics lead to the massacre of an entire regiment. It's best known for the controversial ending, in which Thursday's successor, his former lieutenant, not only covers up the man's folly, but even makes a hero out of him. 

Cast against type (1), Henry Fonda turns in a brilliant performance as Thursday, the cold army general, demoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and banished to the frontier. One of the first things he says after his arrival, is that he is not a martinet. But that’s exactly what he is, a martinet: he suppresses his daughter’s romance because the man of her dreams is socially unacceptable, and ignores York’s good advice because he is used to give orders, not to have discussions.

When a group of Apaches leave the reservation and attack an army patrol, Thursday sees a chance to redeem himself and regain his former rank of general. After a few skirmishes, the Apaches escape to Mexico, and Thursday sends captain York across the border to arrange a peaceful meeting. York's mission is successful, but when the Indians arrive on the spot, Thursday refuses to negotiate with them on equal terms, and simply orders them to return to their reservation, knowing they will never obey the order. But the Indians have set their own ‘trap’, and when Thursday attacks, his troops are annihilated, except for York and a few other men, who didn’t take part in the charge. 

Fort Apache is rather bleak and cruel for a western of the forties, but most story elements are classical western material. Renegade Indians, an arrogant cavalry commander, his knowing lieutenant, it all seems familiar western fare, and note that the film was made shortly after WWII, which might explain some of its bleakness. But then, all of a sudden, Ford comes up with this epilogue that puts things upside down and has puzzled critics as well as audiences ever since. It shows York, now commander of the fort, talking to some newspaper reporters. In front of a portrait of Thursday, he declares that ‘no man died more gallantly’ and that the men ‘are a better troop because of him’. Today it will remind most viewers of the famous ending of Ford's 1961 western drama The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, with the famous line (spoken by the newspaper man): "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." 

Like the other two parts of the trilogy, Fort Apache was based on a short story by James Warner Bellah (2). His story Massacre was based on Custer's Last stand at Little Big Horn and the Fetterman Massacre (1866), in which 80 US soldiers under the command of Captain  W.J. Fetterman were killed by Indians. Bellah was often called a hopeless romantic and authoritarian who was in love with the military and thought that the honor of a regiment was far more important than the individuals serving in it. The Indians in his cavalry stories are usually presented as uncivilized and cruel.

What Ford must have liked in these stories, was this idea of the cavalry doing a dangerous but necessary job in a hostile environment. But Ford had a far more humane vision than Bellah. To Ford the cavalry, or better: the cavalry fort, was a safe haven in the wilderness, a home and a hearth. There were no women in the original story, so Ford asked his screenwriters to develop a couple of female characters (the most important of them would be Thursday's daughter Philadelphia, played by a then 22-year old Shirley Temple). It wasn't the only change that was made. Fort Apache became the first of Ford’s films that is more sympathetic to the cause of the Indians; in the movie they’re no longer uniquely shown as a menace, but as human beings with legitimate complaints about the society of the white man. They're far removed from the cruel savages Bellah had created.

With much emphasis on daily life and the ceremonies and rituals within the confines of the army fort, the cavalry fort is almost treated as a family entity, with commander Thursday as the family father. There will be bad families, and bad family fathers, but in Ford’s vision the family is a sine qua non in the process towards civilization, with the father as an inevitable role model (3). Owen Thursday was not a good father (his stubbornness and lack of empathy ‘breaks’ the harmony of the army family), nor was he a capable commander, but at the same time was not a complete failure as either of the two: he loves his daughter and thinks he’s protecting her by suppressing her romance, and when all is lost, and he’s offered a horse (and a possibility to escape) by captain York, he returns to his men, proving that he at least is not a coward. In doing so, he indeed dies ‘gallantly’.

Fort Apache is not without flaws. Some of the more light-hearted scenes are more appropriate to vaudeville than serious filmmaking, but Ford uses them to illustrate the joyful atmosphere of daily life within the fort and luckily the more dramatic moments of the film are free from silliness. They’re also free of Ford’s (sometimes quite obtrusive) sentimentality. In Bellah's story, the twist ending is rather cynical. In Fort Apache it is repentant, contrite. We see bitterness in the face of Kirby York – who knew Owen Thursday personally – when he tells the newspaper men about the idealized image history has made of him. It’s as if Ford himself was surprised by the movie's bleakness; the other two parts of the Cavalry triptych, She wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande (although excellent films in their own right) would be more sentimental and traditional.

Fort Apache is the first of Ford’s truly reflective movies, in which he examines the great myths of the West (and the films made about it): people need myths, he seems to say, but they also need insight in the way these myths were created. Therein lies the greatness of this movie, one of Ford’s richest and finest. 


* (1) Some sources mention that Fonda was offered the York part first, but yielded the more sympathetic part to his co-actor, preferring the more complex part of Thursday. See for instance: Allen Eyles, A Man a horse and a Gun, in: They Went That-A-Way, London 1982.

* (2) For Bellah and the differences between the story and the movie, see: Gary Willis, John Wayne's America, 1997, New York, p. 165-176

* (3) See: William T. Pilkington, Fort Apache, in: Western Movies, edited by W.T. Pilkington and Don Graham, 1979, University of New Mexico press.