Fort Apache (1948)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on Massacre by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Shirley Temple, John Agar
Just two years after the release of his widely successful western My Darling Clementine, John Ford decided to embark on the production of a loose trilogy of films. Fort Apache is the first film in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”, which includes She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), all three of which star frequent collaborator John Wayne. The three films form a trilogy in name and in spirit only, not having any recurring characters or situations (except for John Wayne’s Captain Kirby York in Fort Apache and Rio Grande), with the exception of all films dealing with the United States cavalry battling Native American armies on some level. Fort Apache, much like its successor My Darling Clementine, did not fare well on the awards circuit, but was still widely critically acclaimed upon its release. Looking at the list of winners and nominees at that year’s major awards shows, it seems as if there was something of a stigma against traditional western films, with critics and audiences instead gravitating towards literary adaptations like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which won Best Picture in 1948, groundbreaking visual dramas like The Red Shoes, and film noirs like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo. Luckily for Ford’s legacy, the film was a hit with audiences and the cavalry trilogy as a whole is now considered one of the many high points of his prolific career. Fort Apache stars longtime Ford collaborator John Wayne in his first of two appearances as Kirby York, My Darling Clementine star and future Oscar winner Henry Fonda, as well as child star Shirley Temple in one of her final film roles before retirement. Other frequent John Ford supporting players Ward Bond and star of The Informer Victor McLaglen also make notable appearances.
Fort Apache takes place after the end of the American Civil War in or around the state of Arizona, circa the late 1800’s. We meet Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), a decorated Civil War veteran who looks to replace the current commander at an isolated United States cavalry outpost, Fort Apache. Unfortunately for York, the position was unknowingly given to Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), who has traveled to the outpost with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). York and other cavalry soldiers are understandably upset when they learn the news, mostly due to Thursday’s lack of experience with the Native American population settled in the area near Fort Apache. Not only does Thursday lack the experience with the Native population, but he is also quickly outed as a class-conscious bigot with no remorse at all for the Native American’s, who are led by the great Cochise (Miguel Inclan). Thursday’s daughter, Philadelphia, quickly falls in love with the young and handsome Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke (John Agar). The budding romance is quickly squashed by Philadelphia’s father, who forbids any man he doesn’t consider a gentleman from seeing his daughter. After learning of Owen Thursday’s disapproval, O’Rourke’s father Sergeant Major O’Rourke (Ward Bond), also a veteran of the Civil War, comes to blows with the bigoted commander of Fort Apache. After learning of unrest by the Apache Natives, Commander Thursday ignores the advice of Kirby York, and decides to battle the forces of Cochise in the hills. York, aware and sympathetic of the skilled Apache warriors, stands aside to watch an almost certain disaster take place in the hills near Fort Apache. Will the bigoted Owen Thursday and his cavalry forces defeat the far more experienced Apache warriors, or will Thursday’s prideful ignorance lead to his and hundreds of his soldier’s untimely demise? Find out in John Ford’s classic Fort Apache.
Though it may come off as extremely old-fashioned in its politics and archaic views of race relations, Fort Apache was actually quite a progressive film at the time of its release. John Wayne’s Captain York is very sympathetic towards the struggles of the Native American population in the area, and suggests to his commander that the cavalry treat Cochise and his men with the utmost respect and civility, but Fonda’s Lt. Colonel Thursday is having none of it. Henry Fonda, one of the seemingly nicest men in Hollywood, is playing extremely out of type in Fort Apache as the prejudiced and incredibly strict Owen Thursday. This makes Fonda’s performance all the more impressive, because I found myself outright hating Thursday in several moments of the film, especially when leading his men into a battle they know they will lose in the name of ignorance. I’ve never actively rooted against a character played by Fonda, and to see him pull off such an impressive transformation made me fall in love with the film even more than I already had. John Wayne’s Kirby York is the perfect counterbalance, bringing logic and a strong-willpower to the table. It’s clear that York is the superior and more worthy leader of the titular Fort Apache, and for him to be as restrained as he is was both frustrating and admirable at the same time. Although Wayne was mostly playing himself as York, the performance is still very good and offers a character to really get behind. On top of two incredible lead performances, Ford’s filming of action and battle sequences is incredible, giving weight to every fallen cavalry soldier and Native American warrior, and making every shot fired worthwhile. For a film shot thirty years before the era of action blockbusters even began, the action set pieces are incredibly well-paced and have a perfect mixture of wonder and gravity to them. Fort Apache also brings with it a surprising amount of comedy, especially in its early cavalry training sequences. John Ford has a knack for subtle humour in films that don’t appear to be comedic in any way at first glance, and it never fails to add a little something to his films for me. Lastly, while not being something I usually praise or comment on in great detail, the sets and costume design in Fort Apache are absolutely something to behold. The sets are furthered by the incredible black and white cinematography that captures the beauty and bleakness of the plains featured prominently in the film. The uniforms worn by the cavalry look very accurate as far as I can tell, and it absolutely helps immerse you deeper into the film.
As a whole, Fort Apache is easily one of my favorite films of the marathon thus far. Its progressive attitude towards race relations between the Americans and Native Americans is something to be admired for the time period, the performances by both Henry Fonda and John Wayne are terrific and career-defining, and the direction of massive action set pieces by John Ford rivals some of the great action sequences in films made today. It is clear that John Ford was most comfortable in the western genre, and I can’t wait to dive even further into his catalog of great westerns. Fort Apache is highly recommended.