In John Ford's sombre exploration mythologising of American heroes, he slowly reveals the character of Owen Thursday, who sees his new posting to the desolate Fort Apache as a chance to claim the military honour which he believes is rightfully his. Arrogant, obsessed with military form and ultimately self-destructive, Thursday attempts to destroy the Apache chief Cochise after luring him across the border from Mexico, against the advice of his subordinates.
John Wayne ... Capt. Kirby York
Henry Fonda ... Lt. Col. Owen Thursday
Shirley Temple ... Philadelphia Thursday
Pedro Armendáriz ... Sgt. Beaufort (as Pedro Armendariz)
Ward Bond ... Sgt. Maj. Michael O'Rourke
George O'Brien ... Capt. Sam Collingwood
Victor McLaglen ... Sgt. Festus Mulcahy
Anna Lee ... Mrs. Emily Collingwood
Irene Rich ... Mrs. Mary O'Rourke
Dick Foran ... Sgt. Quincannon
Guy Kibbee ... Capt. Dr. Wilkens
Grant Withers ... Silas Meacham
Jack Pennick ... Sgt. Daniel Schattuck
Ray Hyke ... Lt. Gates (Adjutant)
Movita ... Guadalupe (Col. Thursday's cook)
I think that a list of John Wayne's five best pictures has to include Fort Apache. It's the first and best of the cavalry trilogy that he did with John Ford. Oddly enough he has less screen time here than in the other two, due to the fact that he was co-starring with another big Hollywood name in Henry Fonda.
It's first and foremost the story of a clash between two men who see the United States Army in very different terms. Fonda is a former general who's seen glory in the Civil War, but has been shunted aside. He wants to get back on top in the worst way. He's exiled to Fort Apache in the Arizona territory while the big headlines concerning the Indian wars are going to the campaign against the plains Indians which was true enough.
Wayne has also seen some glory in the Civil War. But he's a professional soldier and just wants to live long enough to retire. In fact Ward Bond who is the sergeant major at the post has also dropped down in rank, he was a major in the Civil War and a Medal of Honor winner. This was a common occurrence at the end of the Civil War. During the war, promotions came swiftly because of battlefield service. Something called a brevet rank was instituted a kind of temporary promotion. You could be a brevet brigadier general and have an actual rank of something like major. After the Civil War as the U.S. Army shrunk to its pre-war size, soldier reverted to previous ranks. This was something John Ford was keenly aware of when he made Fort Apache.
Ford's stock company was never better. Even minor bit parts are woven nicely into the whole story. And his photography of Monument Valley, it's beauty and vastness was never better even when he used color. Look at the scenes with John Agar and Shirley Temple riding and with Wayne and Pedro Armendariz on their way to parley with Cochise. Really great cinematography.
Ford had a couple of inside comments in the film. In a scene where Henry Fonda is getting an incomplete message from the post telegrapher, the telegrapher who might have strolled in from a Cagney-O'Brien film informs his commander that the message was interrupted "in the middle of the last woid." With both Irish and southern recruits in Fort Apache, a Brooklynese telegrapher would not have been out of place.
George O'Brien and Anna Lee, play Sam and Emily Collingwood who both knew Henry Fonda's Owen Thursday way back in the day. It's hinted that O'Brien had a drinking problem and that's why he's at Fort Apache, but he's looking for a transfer out. It comes as the regiment is moving out against Cochise.
Charles Collingwood was the second in command to Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar. Nelson became a British hero martyr, historians know about Charles Collingwood. When newspapermen at the end of Fort Apache remark about men like "Collingworth"not being remembered, it was John Ford making a statement about the worth of all the men who contribute their lives to defend their nations not just the leader heroes.
That remark by the way is the stage for one of John Wayne's finest acted scenes in his career. A soliloquy photographed through a cabin window about the life of the professional soldier, the camaraderie, the toughness, the bravery required of these men and how they deliver for their nation.
In a later film John Ford uses the line that in the west "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Henry Fonda's quest for martial glory was a blunder, but his story for the sake and tradition of his regiment is whitewashed and he becomes an inspiration.
Of course some of the lowbrow comedy that one expects from John Ford is here aplenty with the four drinking sergeants and their efforts to make soldiers out of the recruits. Led by Victor McLaglen, the quartet rounds out with Dick Foran, Jack Pennick, and Pedro Armendariz. See how they dispose of the contraband they are charged with destroying and its consequences.
Fort Apache also takes the side of the Indian here. Cochise played by an impassive Miguel Inclan is a figure of strength and dignity. Later on Jeff Chandler in another film brought speech to the dignity and that role launched his career. Cochise is the only true major figure in the film. He bedevilled the U.S. Cavalry for over a decade in Arizona Territory with guerrilla tactics Mao Tse Tung would have envied.
Fort Apache is a grand ensemble film and you will not be bored for one second in watching it.
ohn Ford's FORT APACHE is the first of a three-film cycle chronicling the exploits of the U.S. Cavalry in the settling of the West, but it is far more than that; as a thinly-disguised reworking of the George Armstrong Custer story, it provides insight about a leader so blinded by his own ambition and ego that his actions nearly wipes out his command, and would have to be 'covered-up' by an Army that always protects its 'own'. Ironically, in whitewashing his actions, he becomes a national hero, giving him, posthumously, the attention he'd craved. The story is a powerful one, and in the hands of a top-notch cast, FORT APACHE is as timely today as when it was first released.
Henry Fonda's Lt.Col. Owen Thursday is a complex, driven man, a martinet who considers his transfer to the western outpost as a slap in the face by the War Department. Accompanied by his daughter, Philadelphia (a grown-up and vivacious Shirley Temple), he arrives at Fort Apache early, and discovers the welcoming festivities are not for him, but for the return of the son of Sgt.Major O'Rourke (Ward Bond), a new second lieutenant, fresh from West Point. The younger O'Rourke, portrayed by John Agar, and Philadelphia are immediately attracted to one another (they were married, off screen), but, displaying a 'class' snobbery, Col. Thursday nixes any chance of an officer's daughter and an enlisted man's son (even if he is an officer) having a romance.
As the new commander, Thursday shows an insensitivity to both his own men (he rebukes former commander Capt. Collingwood, played by George O'Brien, in front of the other officers), and the intellectual and tactical skills of the Indians (drawing the ire of John Wayne, as Capt. Kirby York). He does convince York that he is interested in parlaying with Cochise, however, and soon York, whom the chief respects, is on his way to Mexico, to get him to cross the border for a meeting between the two leaders and the corrupt Indian agent (Grant Withers) whose actions had led to the current insurrection.
Ultimately, Cochise does cross the Rio Grande, and Thursday reveals his true plan; to demand a return to the reservation, or face annihilation. York feels betrayed, and warns Thursday that he's setting himself up for a massacre, especially as the commander intends to bring his entire command to the meeting. Thursday simply sneers at his warning, sarcastically suggesting that York is crediting Cochise as being as brilliant as Napoleon.
The meeting is brief, with Thursday showing no respect, and, sure enough, ends disastrously. Cochise, prepared for a potential betrayal, has lined the canyon walls beyond the meeting place with hundreds of sharpshooters, and, despite York's warnings (leading to his being branded by Thursday a 'coward', and ordered to remain with a rear guard), the Colonel leads his command in a charge, into the canyon...
In an unsympathetic role, Henry Fonda is marvelous, actually making Col. Thursday believable, if not likable. John Wayne, despite star billing, is actually secondary, plot-wise, but is excellent as the officer who learns, finally, what it means to command, by watching the wounded Thursday return to his command, and face certain death.
Major subplots of all three 'Cavalry' films would be devoted to Sergeants, and FORT APACHE offers four truly memorable ones, in Bond, Pedro Armendariz, Victor McLaglen, and Dick Foran.
FORT APACHE is a film that could easily stand alone as a superb drama; as the first of the trilogy, it set a high standard, and is considered by most critics as the finest of the three films.
Henry Fonda portrays Colonel Owen Thursday in this post Civil War cavalry Western, and manages to clash with virtually everyone else in the film, including his own daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). Thursday is assigned to Fort Apache in the Arizona Territory, an end of the line outpost in which he feels shunted aside as regards his military career. Complicating matters, the pretty "Phil" is immediately attracted to West Point graduate and Second Lieutenant Michael O'Rourke (John Agar). Against this backdrop, Thursday must deal with an Apache tribe increasingly dissatisfied with reservation life and their treatment at the hands of dishonest trader Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). When Thursday decides that the Apaches must return to the reservation against their will, his resolve is questioned by Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), who has always stood by his word with Apache Chief Cochise.
Subordinate to his superior officer, John Wayne does an admirable job in maintaining a delicate balance between following orders and resolutely pointing out the Colonel's folly in pursuing his course against the Apaches. York self assuredly gets Cochise to agree to a parley, only to learn that Thursday's intention is to attack with a regiment and earn the glory that will get him promoted to a more suitable assignment. Noting York's attitude as cowardice, Thursday relieves him of command and details him to the supply train. Thursday's only redemption, if it can be called that, is that he returns to battle after being severely injured and with the outcome of the battle no longer in doubt. His death in combat cements his reputation, even as his arrogance and defiance to the end causes his own downfall.
In one of her final film roles, Shirley Temple seems out of place in the wild west, and her characterization of the Colonel's daughter is at times pouting and demure. There were moments in the film that she reminded me of the young Judy Garland.
John Agar marks his film debut in this movie; he would go on to mini fame in the mid 1950's in such "B" sci-fi and horror gems as "Revenge of the Creature", "Tarantula" and "The Mole People".
Word must be mentioned of the superb cinematography in this film; the expansive desert imagery and rock formations often times overshadow the story, as if the affairs of soldiers and Indians could even attempt to outweigh the beauty and grandeur of nature.
Besides the movie's star players, the film boasts a talented supporting cast, including Ward Bond, George O'Brien, Victor McLaglen and Dick Foran. Their finest moments usually come in the form of comic relief, as portrayed in a scene showing new recruits learning to ride horseback. But it's in a scene left to one's imagination that brings the biggest chuckle, when Colonel Thursday requests his men to destroy trader Meacham's supply of rotgut moonshine. Following orders, they each pick up a cup, in full readiness to complete their mission.
* The Fort Apache fort, built for this production, stood for years. It was reused in dozens of productions, most notably the TV series "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" (1954). It was located at the Corriganville Movie Ranch in Simi Valley, California. Today it is possible to visit this location, as it is now administered as a City Park in Simi Valley.
* The plot for this movie was loosely based on Custer's Last Stand with Thursday as Custer and substituting Apaches for the Sioux. The cover-up by the survivors and the military of Thursday's blunder is in line with the cover up of Custer's mistakes and deliberate disobedience of his orders at Little Big Horn.
* Shirley Temple and 'John Agar (I)' were married at the time the movie was made, but went through a highly publicized divorce complete with allegations of spousal abuse, infidelity and alcoholism a couple of years later.
* Henry Fonda's last film before he was graylisted for his left-wing political activism.
* The "Apache" Indians were really members of the Navajo tribe.
* Cinematographer Archie Stout and Ford used infrared black and white film stock, developed originally for medical and scientific researches and which doesn't sense the blue and record that color as black, in many exterior scenes shot in the Monument Valley to enhance the clouds and the rock formations. Ford learned that technique from Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa that he worked with for The Fugitive (1947).
* First entry to John Ford's famed "Cavalry Trilogy," followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), though it was not originally intended as a trilogy. This second project Ford's independent venture teaming with Merian C. Cooper was planed to give their company 'Argosy Productions' financial stability after the commercial failure of The Fugitive (1947).
SPOILER: Thursday's Charge, the painting referenced at the end which falsely depicts Lt. Col. Owen Thursday's last stand as him greatly outnumbered and fighting off the Indians to the best of his abilities, was actually one of the illustrations used to advertise for the film in it's initial release.