|Directed by||John Ford|
|Cinematography||Archie Stout, ASC|
Fort Apache is a 1948 American Western film directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda. The film was the first of the director’s “cavalry trilogy” and was followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), both also starring Wayne. The screenplay was inspired by James Warner Bellah‘s short story “Massacre” (1947). The historical sources for “Massacre” have been attributed both to George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn and to the Fetterman Fight. The film was one of the first to present an authentic and sympathetic view of the Native Americans involved in the battle (Apache in the film, Sioux in the real battles)
Some exteriors for the film’s location shooting were shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The exteriors involving the fort itself and the renegade Indian agent’s trading post were filmed at the Corriganville Movie Ranch, a former Simi Hills movie ranch that is now a regional park in the Simi Valley of Southern California.
An entertaining western with plenty of value in the characters, writing and commentary
Owen Thursday is hardly impressed when his new command is the desolate Fort Apache, but resolves to make the best of it. When a group of Indians strike out from the local reserve led by warrior Cochise, Thursday sees the challenge as being key in winning back the military honour he feels has been denied him to date. However Captain York persuades him to allow York to go into Mexico to talk peace and convincing him to return to the US to broker a resolution – but will Thursday’s obsession with honour and glory cause a bloodier ending? Interweaving this central plot with romantic and comic subplots makes a standard western into a much better one, even if it sometimes causes it to feel a bit slow.
The story concerns an outlying post and the first half of the film lays down the characters, their relationships and who they are in ways that are interesting and produces a mix of funny moments and rather slower dramatic moments – all of them work as well as one another and it enriches the final section of the film. It is in this final third of the film where the action starts and it is rather dramatic and exciting; it also brings out a lot more of the subtext about the arrogant leadership of Thursday, based on the character traits that we have already had developed in him in regards his men and his daughter. It is made to look easy but the script does it well and even finishes with Ford’s oft-touched assertion that the legend was often printed in favour of the less impressive truth – although it still has a salute to the serving men.
The cast are all pretty strong, although naturally the script favours the men, although having said that Temple is quite good if you can get past her “precious princess” performance. Fonda has the main role and manages to make his character convincing and arrogant at the same time – we never hate him so much as just see his failings. Wayne has a straighter role to play and he is as good as ever with it, although it is hardly the most challenging character I’ve seen him play. Agar is a bit stilted and unsure of himself – unsurprisingly his chemistry is good with Temple (they were married at the time) but it is the other parts where he appears overshadowed by the stronger male actors. Support is roundly good, particularly in the comic roles as filled by Bond, McLagen and some of the other NCO’s. Direction is good, although I felt that the landscapes were “there” rather than being integrated into the fabric of the film.
Overall this is a worthy film. Perhaps not the best of the ford films but still an intelligent film that delivers the goods just like a standard western would, while also having good writing in the characters and subtexts. The cast are mainly good and the whole film feels professional and entertaining.
“They’re The Regiment”
Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
22 June 2005
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 bedeviled 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.
Most Powerful of Ford’s ‘Cavalry’ Trilogy…
Author: Ben Burgraff (cariart) from Las Vegas, Nevada
24 September 2003
John 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.