Fort Apache gives me the opportunity to consider one of John Ford’s most unlikely long-term collaborations with film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent. As with all Ford partnerships, it was oftentimes prickly but there’s no repudiating the impact. However, even the writer realized how improbable it was he would have such a hand in mythologizing the West alongside one of the great American masters. Nugent noted the following:
“I have often wondered why Ford chose me to write his cavalry films. I had been on a horse but once—and to our mutual humiliation. I had never seen an Indian. My knowledge of the Civil War extended only slightly beyond the fact that there was a North and a South, with West vulnerable and East dealing. I did know a Remington from a Winchester—Remington was the painter. In view of all this, I can only surmise that Ford picked me for Fort Apache as a challenge.”
The picture opens with a particularly acerbic and icy Henry Fonda as Owen Thursday, newly assigned to the cavalry outpost at Fort Apache. One could make a wager each of Fonda’s characterizations in everything from You Only Live Once to The Ox-Bow Incident and even My Darling Clementine all culminate right here. Though he’s dismissive of the assignment, Thursday is nevertheless intent on upholding his duty. He rides along the bumpy roadways with his teenage daughter Philadelphia (an effervescent Shirley Temple) who is simply glad to be by her father’s side.
To understand the picture, it’s useful to know Nugent developed extensive bios for every character to flesh out who they were exactly. We have John Agar in his screen debut starring opposite his new wife in real life (Temple) and playing the newest commissioned officer to the fort, Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke.
Life as a cavalryman proves to be a family affair and one clan has an especially substantial presence in the camp. The Lieutenant’s father (Ward Bond) is stationed there too with his mother, the older man serving as a Sergeant Major. Meanwhile, many of the veteran soldiers provide a close-knit community including Sergeant Festus Mulcahy (Victor McLaglen) who has been a lifelong friend to the O’Rourkes. Here we see Irish-American blood flowing through the picture as Ford heralds his own ancestors part in this historical landscape not only during the Civil War but long afterward. The pride in this shared culture is undeniable.
For most of its run, Fort Apache is the epitome of character-driven drama. Nugent’s meticulous character development overlaid by Ford’s own distaste for expositional dialogue provides the groundwork for yet another story operating in vignettes more than anything else. At any rate, the dialogue comes off clunkily at times while the romance between Philadelphia and Michael O’Rourke begins to blossom.
However, with her father adamant against such a union and astringent in all manners of his command, it causes an instant riff in the camp. One of his finest lines comes with inspecting his officers and noting, “The uniform is not a subject for individual whimsical expression.” He expects everyone to abide by the letter of the law and his unswerving personality is glacial on all accounts.
Meanwhile, the old reliable guard has fun with the new recruits. Among their ranks, rather unbelievably, is the veteran character actor Hank Worden. Then, the community of wives and sweethearts led by Mrs. Collingwood (Anna Lee) and Mrs. O’Rourke (Irene Rich) look to help Philadelphia make a home for herself. John Wayne is in the picture as well though he takes a decidedly secondary role as Captain Kirby York, striving to work under Thursday’s guidance with as much obedience as he can muster. However, the final act is Wayne’s as much as it is Fonda’s however.
It hardly needs to be said at this point but Monument Valley is awesome. Watching horses streak across the plains ferociously kicking up storms of dust never grows old. Nor do images of Wayne and Pedro Armendariz perched on a towering rock formation taking in the view. You can’t make this stuff up. The beauty is majestic as only natural topography can be without input by human hands or CGI — the way it was probably meant to be photographed.
There’s the impending threat of Indians making their way south. Telegraph lines are down again. So a visit is paid to the scruffy horse trader who is quite conveniently liaison between the American Indians and the government within the territory. Despite his contempt for Meacham, Thursday will not do anything about him nor does he attempt any diplomacy with the belligerent Cochise. He decides instead on the executive decision to make an all-out charge on the Native Americans forces who are waiting, guns cocked and ready.
In the waning moments, Fort Apache becomes a more fully-realized, even emphatic indictment of recalcitrant and bluntly antagonistic leadership. Thursday holds a very entitled station — whatever he says, he says on behalf of the United States government — and no one else can say anything otherwise. What they do protest he backs up with regulations, honors, and code of conducts that might as well bury everyone.
Instead of addressing any area of compromise as minor as it might be, there is a straight and decisive path cut through any issue. They ride toward their inevitable deaths. The final bugle sounds for charge and yet it’s hardly a battle, target practice is more like it, and the horrifying thing is most everyone knows it going in. But when a man such as Colonel Thursday holds the reins you reluctantly cave to his demands lest you be clapped in irons for insubordination — even when the decisions are near lunacy. York is the one man brave enough to stand against and lives to fight another day. Many others are not so lucky
If Custer’s Last Stand was anything like this, it makes complete sense and simultaneously becomes an even more terrifying piece of history. In what might be called an early precursor to the glorification of a hero’s legend in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), much the same treatment is provided here for the far more dubious Owen Thursday. Once more Ford’s picture is able to get at this obvious discrepancy by pulling away and looking at the story from those folks who canonize history for all posterity. It’s oftentimes the newspaper men who are afforded that privilege. Whether their effusive praises are in order is another matter entirely and by the end, Ford Apache is a sobering portrait. It comes so far from seemingly homely even jovial roots within the compound.
So many lives were needlessly sacrificed so one man could be heralded a legend. The frightening thing is that Thursday was not a mere glory seeker; he fervently believed what he was doing was in the right. That kind of dogged methodology proved itself highly pernicious when no thought was given to discretion of any kind. It’s simply blind execution of duty. Whether it evokes Kant or not, I cannot help but think of one of the most famous examples of this in Adolf Eichmann, acting as a lowly Holocaust architect, who nevertheless proved the consequences of such a philosophy.
The dark horse of the Ford pictures, Fort Apache begins as one beast and comes out quite a different animal by the end. It so easily gets sidetracked, distracted, and lulled into different scenarios and there never is a true sense of urgency to keep the picture moving toward an obvious conclusion. Still, in the end, we get the finale and it’s unnerving as both a commentary and another projection of the mythical West. Somehow Ford stitches it together as a two-edged sword of both indictment and a moving paean to those passed.