Fort Apache (1948) is a very solemn classic western by John Ford, intertwining the barbarity shown in the huge battles between the U.S. cavalry and Indians with the subtle delicacy of love stories and romance.
Taking place in the magnificent atmosphere of Monument Valley, Fort Apache is the first movie of the “Cavalry Trilogy” — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande followed in 1949 and 1950. When the movie came out, it was seen as another complete success for John Ford, whose mastery of the western genre was already established thanks to movies such as Stagecoach (1939), They Were Expendable (1945) or My Darling Clementine (1946).
The movie relates an American drama of the frontier through the life of Colonel Thursday (Henri Fonda) who is sent to Fort Apache, an extremely secluded place nobody wants to go to because of its dangerousness. Colonel Thursday, a revengeful character, is willing to lead his small army to the conquest of the unknown territories surrounding the small town and populated by a horde of Apaches. Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), Sergeant Major O’Rourke (Ward Bond) and Lieutenant O’Rourke (John Agar) rank among Thursday’s regiment, to whom they all show an unconditional loyalty, although their commander reveals a form of blindness because of his ignorance and his reckless desire to defeat the Apaches. However, from the moment Captain York and Colonel Thursday clash over different issues, notably the way to deal with the Apaches, the tension is tangible and will sustain the suspense throughout the movie. From the outset, Colonel Thursday’s daughter, Miss Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), falls in love with Lt. O’Rourke but their relationship is extremely complicated — on the one hand because of their difference in social status, and on the other hand because of O’Rourke’s behavior, which, according to Philadelphia’s father, is not that of a true gentleman.
One of the most pioneering ideas in the visual shots of this movie might be the image of Shirley Temple looking in a mirror to get the right angle to see her lover (John Agar) on his horse. The battle scenes are intense, sound effects and music produce a colorful feeling even though it is a black and white movie. From the way dances are filmed to the fog between Wayne and Cochise during their meeting, everything is thought out.
John Ford also displays several groundbreaking reversals in the western genre. First of all, the Indians (Apaches) are represented in a different way than in most western movies. Not only do they seem to be much more numerous and powerful than the white Anglo-Saxon army, but they also seem very human and friendly — an image that differs from the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in westerns, which fed allegations of racism. This humanization of the Indian people certainly announces the revisionist trend in the representation of these people in westerns.
Another daring instance of these reversals of the western genre is the representation of women. In general, women didn’t have their say in most westerns; nevertheless, they do have an important role and speech in Fort Apache as well as in different movies directed by John Ford. For instance, Miss Philadelphia’s importance in the plot is a true demonstration of the essential role of women in the movie. Another instance is Mrs. O’Rourke (Irene Rich) role which enlighten Ward Bond’s performance — which is one of the very best — thanks to her charisma and influence.
Ford undeniably controls every aspect of his movie, every detail is taken into account, and every feeling is mastered, from the outdoors landscapes of war scenes to the humorous side of men’s fondness for the bottle. Otherwise said, Fort Apache is a classic that is definitely worth watching.
Screen play by Frank S. Nugent, suggested by the James Warner Bellah story, “Massacre”
Directed by John Ford
Produced by Mr. Ford and Merian C. Cooper for Argosy Pictures, and released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Colonel Thursday . . . . . Henry Fonda
Captain York . . . . . John Wayne
Philadelphia Thursday . . . . . Shirley Temple
Sergeant Beaufort . . . . . Pedro Armendariz
Sergeant O’Rourke . . . . . Ward Bond
Captain Collingwood . . . . . George O’Brien
Lieutenant O’Rourke . . . . . John Agar
Sergeant Mulcahy . . . . . Victor McLaglen
Mrs. Collingwood . . . . Anna Lee
Mrs. O’Rourke . . . . . Irene Rich
Chief Cochise . . . . . Miguel Incian
Johnny Reb . . . . . Jack Pennick
Meacham . . . . . Grant Withers
Quincannon . . . . . Dick Foran
Doc. . . . . Guy Kibbee