Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Fort Apache (RKO, 1948)


A seminal work of mythography



Fort Apache is essentially a war film, almost an apologia for the US Army, and in the post-Second World War period it must have resonated, as it did for succeeding Korea, Vietnam and even Iraq generations. It was a war film, though, that was set firmly in John Ford’s admired frontier context. Stagecoach had brought him back to the Western genre in 1939 and the Wyatt Earp myth My Darling Clementine was his first movie after the war. Fort Apache was the first of the three celebrated cavalry Westerns made by Ford in 1948 – 50 (the others were She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) and in several ways it is the greatest of them.





In peacetime, Hollywood returned to the familiar terrain of the Western. If we look at Westerns of 80 minutes’ length or more (i.e. we exclude juvenile programmers and the like), only eight were produced in 1945, but in 1946 there were 12, in 1947 there were 14 and 1948, 31. It was a genuine renaissance of the form. But of course they were ‘new’ Westerns in the sense that they were greatly influenced by the war and war movies, and they tried to reference the peacetime future. From 1947, ‘year 1’ of the Cold War (the year Russia got the bomb) frontier conflicts in which decent and brave Americans faced up to the menace of the ‘red’ men represented how America would confront the ‘red threat’ of the Communist world, just has war movies had used the threat of the evil Axis powers. In many of these post-war Westerns, Fort Apache included, the Civil War was to be read as World War II. The movies were often pretty obvious metaphors of the contemporary scene.


Fort Apache starred John Wayne. After Stagecoach, Wayne continued the series of Republic Westerns which he had contracted for. There were four in 1939 alone. Then came the unusually big-budget Dark Command, Republic’s masterpiece, and of course a series of war films. He did make Westerns during the war years, such as Universal’s The Spoilers (1942) or Tall in the Saddle for RKO (1944). In 1947 came the pleasant little Angel and the Badman, which he also produced.



But of course it was really Fort Apache that brought Wayne back to Western stardom after the Second World War and, along with Red River (shot before Fort Apache but released after) established him as the towering presence of the Western movie.


In his book The Western Films of John Ford, JA Place suggests that American soldiers make two great sacrifices: they may lay down their lives but they also, on enlistment, laid down their individualism. This story is one of conflict between Colonel Owen Thursday, a play-it-by-the-book martinet of a commander, superbly interpreted by Henry Fonda in one of his greatest roles, and a more human, Captain Kirby York (an equally fine Wayne), who has certainly not laid down his individualism. Thursday is an Easterner – worse, he has been in Europe! He is a racist, a snob and he respects only the forms of the army, not its spirit. York is a Westerner in every sense, informal, rugged, brave, knowing Indians, a man of the people and at heart refractory. But at the end, when York puts on Thursday’s desert cap and barks, “Any questions?” he has learned from the late commander and now, says Ford, combines the qualities of both.



What comes across chiefly in the movie is the sheer rigidity of Colonel Thursday. Every scene in which he appears highlights this stand-to-attention stiffness. Ford loved community dances – nearly all his movies contain them – and Thursday interrupts dances twice: once on his first arrival and once when he summons the regiment to battle. The first one is a swirling, waltzing ball and it’s the first time we see Wayne’s character, York, smiling and whirling a lady round. Thursday is totally out of his element. When Thursday dances, in the NCOs’ ball later in the movie, it is a linear march and they parade up and down with the colonel unsmiling and stiff as a poker. York, by contrast, moves fluidly, stands at ease in that languid Wayne way and speaks with a low, slow Western drawl noticeably different than Fonda’s cropped Eastern tones.



There’s an obvious reference to Custer. The obstinacy which leads to Thursday’s last stand and the annihilation of his men is very Custerish, even if Thursday as a man has none of the dash of Custer. Cochise and the Apaches are portrayed as noble and brave, which is a great improvement on earlier Ford Westerns, where Indians were just savages to be shot down. The militaristic James Warner Bellah’s stern original plot was softened by Ford and his screenplay writer Frank S Nugent.


Writers Bellah and Nugent


On the other hand, York and Cochise respect each other as warriors. Ford makes a stark contrast between the way Thursday rudely and clashingly interrupts the fort rituals and York respectfully entering the presence of Cochise and his Apaches, as an equal.




As Richard Slotkin pointed out in his essay on Fort Apache in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, in war movies ‘home’, or ‘the home front’ was often a utopia in which everything will be perfect when the vile war is over. In Fort Apache, it’s different. The wartime fort, on the edge of a fierce desert, is a well-ordered meritocratic society (at least until Colonel Thursday arrives) while the ‘home front’ is back East and is a world of class oppression and social snobbery, and is the very kind of society honest frontier folk had fled.


One of Ford’s weaknesses, by modern standards anyway, was the way he portrayed women. Westerns of course had a pretty dismal record in that department. The Hollywood West was a real man’s place and women were only there to be saloon gals (i.e. whores) or saintly schoolma’ams, occasionally sturdy farmers’ wives, and were rarely actual ‘people’. I suppose nineteenth century frontier army posts were unlikely to be havens of feminism. Certainly earlier cavalry Westerns, such as the Raoul Walsh/Errol Flynn They Died With Their Boots On, were pretty male-chauvinist affairs.


Still, John Ford did make an effort. Women had been increasingly emancipated during the war and it was time to represent them as such. In Fort Apache fort society is still pretty traditional and hierarchical: officers are WASPs while Irish and Hispanics are other ranks. Ford’s war service seems to have reinforced a rosily romantic officer’s view of the troops. But women this time play a more subtle role than was usual in the genre. The female population of the fort is given a moral weight equal to that of the fighting men, and, in the case of the scene where Colonel Thursday rudely enters Sergeant O’Rourke’s home uninvited (and has to be reminded by Mrs O’Rourke even to remove his hat) in order to rule out a marriage between his daughter and the socially inferior sergeant’s son, it is a superior moral weight. The American home is sacred, Ford is saying, and no tyrant may enter it in such a way, and certainly not to preach snobbery. The women are the genuine Americans who counter Thursday’s autocracy.



There’s absolutely no sex, though, not even by 1940s standards. The women are maternal figures except Shirley Temple and she is virginal. Novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne wrote, “Sex is so absent in Ford’s Monument Valley that his desert forts seem almost monastic.”


Another of Ford’s weaknesses was his propensity for (let’s call it) broad humor. He loved drunken Irish sergeants, for example. Viewed today, these scenes are coarse and unfunny, though I suppose even Shakespeare had his porters and fools, and standards of humor change with the times. Perhaps 1948 audiences found those parts hilarious.



It was inspired casting. Henry Fonda was a supreme professional but was socially awkward and was ideally suited to the role of Thursday. In fact this period of chumminess with the Ford-Wayne clan was the closest Fonda ever got to being one of the guys. Later he fell out with Ford (who was a poisonous old man) but he maintained a lifelong friendship with Wayne.


The support cast of Fort Apache is also outstanding, particularly Ward Bond as Sergeant-Major O’Rourke, Victor McLaglen as Sergeant Mulcahy and Pedro Armendariz as the interpreter (all Ford stock-company regulars), and Ms Temple is also excellent as Thursday’s daughter who has none of the rigidity of her father.



Ford usually victimized one cast member another on his sets. This time he had it in for John Agar, who played the young 2nd Lieutenant O’Rourke, West Pointer son of the sergeant. Ford could be really unpleasant at times and he really lit into “Mr Temple” as he sneeringly called Agar (Agar was married to Shirley Temple). The other actors, especially Wayne (who had often been on the ugly end of Ford’s spitefulness) backed Agar up and encouraged him. Wayne was employing him as late as Chisum, when Agar’s career was reduced to Z-list sci-fi movies. Wayne was a thoughtful and decent man. Agar does a good job in Fort Apache, in fact, but still was only billed 21st, after Hank Worden as “Southern Recruit”.


George O’Brien got a good 5th-billed part as Captain Collingwood. O’Brien had been a Ford favorite back in the silent days with Fox but had fallen out of favor, and his career was in the doldrums. O’Brien’s wife Marguerite (female lead opposite Wayne in The Big Trail in 1930), who loathed Ford (“A son of a bitch. Drunk, hateful, vicious”) called Ford and said, “Jack, you’ve got to do something for George.”


“I wouldn’t do anything for that son of a bitch,” replied Ford, who was still nursing a grudge against O’Brien for having deserted a drunken Ford one time in Manila. But Marguerite then played her ace: “Jack, if you don’t, it will be the ruination of a good Catholic family.” In fact, Ford and George O’Brien immediately fell back into their old rapport, and the part went well. The Collingwood character is actually rather moving.



Archie Stout shot some of it with infra-red film to heighten the dust and veil the action in mystery. Much of the black & white photography is magnificent and we know how ‘visual’ Ford was, and how closely he worked with his cinematographers. He had an artist’s eye.



What really makes Fort Apache, though, is the ending. It is in some ways very curious and surprising – Scott Eyman in his biography of John Wayne John Wayne: The Life and the Legend, wrote, “This is more ambiguity than audiences – or most writers – are used to in the movies;” I am referring of course to the almost ironic epilogue, when we viewers know that the Army’s handling of the Apaches was unjust and dishonorable but Captain – now Colonel York tells reporters that the romantic picture of Thursday’s heroic, noble (and Custer-like) last stand was “true in every detail.” It is a lie, of course, but as Wayne himself later said, “He [the character York] can’t say, ‘Why, the stupid son of a bitch got all those guys killed and made a liar out of me to the Indians.’ He can’t say that because it would be bad for morale. It wouldn’t do anybody any good … to belittle the guy.” Ford seems to be saying that Thursday’s action, though fundamentally stupid and wrong, was nevertheless redemptive: it purges the worst (Eastern) element of the army and brings forward the best qualities of the regiment personified by York, who assumes the mantle of command, “real command”. Myth is more beneficial and useful than fact. Ford echoed it in the later The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when he has a reporter told, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This is, in a way, Ford’s message to America. And it is also the apologia of the Western movie.



Fort Apache is a fine film. In fact it’s one of the seminal Westerns.



8 Responses

  1. Excellent write-up! Perhaps Ford's best western. (Heresy, I know, but I think this is a great movie by any yardstick.)

    1. Most filmistas would probably say the Searchers is Ford's greatest Western – and I would be tempted to agree with them. Still, Fort Apache is very fine, and, to me, the best of the cavalry trilogy.

  2. I love the whole Cavalry Trilogy. This film and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon are John Ford's best films in my opinion! I plan on doing films to go along with being a history professor when I graduate college in a few years, and I will reference the final battle of this masterpiece! I wish more kids my age appreciated old fims like me.

  3. It was good but a little too much Irish blarney in the first hour for my tastes. It would have been interesting if Wayne and Fonda swapped roles. I know, they would never make Wayne out to be the moron in charge that gets people killed, but it would have made the movie better imo

    1. The blarney angle was a weakness of Ford's.
      Myself, I have difficulty seeing Duke as the Eastern martinet!

  4. Just saw this on Blu a few weeks ago. Holds up brilliantly. always love Thursday’s confrontation with Cochise. America getting in trouble with bullheadness. Many memorable sequences make it one of my favorite Fords. Thanks for the excellent review of a seminal American film.

    1. It is superb. Of course each time I watch the other two parts of the trilogy I think they are they are the greatest too!

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