Fort Apache: John Wayne and Henry Fonda represents the two sides of the American soldier in this magnificent first film in John Ford’s ‘Cavalry’ trilogy

Fort Apache starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda is the first film in what became John Ford’s ‘Cavalry’ trilogy. It’s one of John Ford’s most balanced, racially sensitive westerns that tries to understand the Native American issue even as it pays homage to the Army

Who better than an Irishman can understand the Indians, while still being stirred by tales of the US cavalry?

John Ford

Fort Apache(1948) begins with the shot of a Cavalry bugler framed against the horizon. The title scenes that follows shows inter-cut sequences of the following: a U.S. cavalry march, a band of Apache warriors  going in to battle, a group of men and women performing the ceremonial ‘St. Patrick Day’s Grand March’ dance, Panoramic shots of  Monument valley,…….etc. From these scenes alone, one can safely assume that this is a John Ford film. This was the first in the series of Ford’s Cavalry trilogy. It is more ambitious and complex than his earlier Western masterpiece, Stagecoach(1939), which practically launched or re-launched  ‘the western’ as an A list genre; and, like “Stagecoach, this film is a social Allegory and a political allegory, where Ford expands on the earlier themes of nation building and Civilizing the West to make a bigger socio-political statement regarding  Race, class, War and peace.

John Wayne and Henry Fonda are the two lead stars who have made maximum number of films with Ford. Both are a study in contrast with regards to their screen image, real-life image and acting styles; Fonda is the star of Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, Grapes of Wrath etc. where he plays the most dignified, honorable, vulnerable characters. Off screen, he was a liberal Democrat as opposed to Wayne- whom Ford launched to stardom in Stagecoach, and was a conservative republican. On screen, Wayne was the epitome of  aggressive masculinity, courage, leadership and individualism. In Fort Apache, Ford brings these stars together in a quasi revisionist western, where he subverts a lot of myths and concepts that existed at the time, both about the American old- west as well as the genre of movie “western” itself. John Ford’s biggest act of subversion here is to cast his macho-star, John Wayne, as  a pacifist: the peacemaker who understands the Apaches, and treats them as fellow man.  In stark contrast , he casts Fonda as a class conscious ,racist, delusional  war monger who believes  the only solution for the Native American problem is through military action. Wayne plays Captain Kirby York, who is a veteran in dealing with Apaches and who was expected to take command of Fort Apache. But instead , Col. Owen Thursday, played by Henry Fonda, is selected for command. Thursday is an egocentric officer who deludes himself to be a leader in the vein of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. He believes fully in the absolutism of military authority and chain of command, no matter what the circumstances. His regular refrain ‘Any Questions?’ is basically a statement that  orders are to be followed without questioning.

In many ways, the titular Fort Apache represents America: a desert island, distant from the main hub of civilization, where people came seeking riches and glory. The film begins with Col. Thursday and his daughter  arriving at the Fort after an arduous journey. When they arrive, the inhabitants of the fort are celebrating the birthday of George Washington with a ceremonial dance. John Wayne gets the most subdued and perhaps the most  ‘non-macho’ introduction of his career: he is seen wisecracking and dancing  with the ladies. The scene gives the essence of Kirby York, the man and the soldier: who is happy in himself and his surroundings; his fellow soldiers love him and the dance routine is an attempt by him and his men to re-create the semblance of a civilized society in this frontier wilderness that they find themselves in. Once Thursday arrives, he goes about changing the existing order. He imposes his own ideas of discipline, rules and regulations on the fort, which he believes is the true army way. Though he is a reluctant traveler to this faraway land, he is determined to use the opportunity to mine everlasting glory; something very similar was done by the white European settlers after arriving in the new world. imposing their own culture and ideas on the indigenous population, even as they plundered the land for riches. Wayne and Co. who are already inhabitants of the Fort lives in communion with the natives and are well versed in their ways. Thursday, ‘The outsider”, who has no idea how to command a frontier regiment or deal with the native population, enforces some  preset military rules and battle tactics which has no relevance in this place, but he is so full of himself, with a chip on his shoulder for being a west point graduate, that he refuses to see or is incapable of seeing  the uselessness of his methods.

It’s inevitable that both the captain and colonel are going to be at loggerheads throughout the film.  These two characters not only represent the two set of ideologies prevalent in both military and political establishment – the Dove and the Hawk-  but also two  kinds of human beings: One who is a realist; willing to adapt according to the surroundings; who will change with the  changing times and survive, while the other who remains rooted in his ideology and is swept aside, unable to withstand the changes that happen with time. That’s exactly how their fates will end up at the conclusion of the movie, with Wayne’s Captain still standing while Fonda’s colonel is decimated along with his regiment.

The film is perhaps the first American mainstream movie where there is  a sympathetic portrayal of the American natives. The main point of conflict in the film is regarding a band of Apaches who have walked off the reservation under their leader “Cochise”. They are engaged in battle with the U.S. Government and Thursday’s immediate task is to deal with them. It would be hard  for a lot of people (who has a certain perception of  John Wayne, especially after the resurfacing of his 1971 playboy interview) to believe that he was perhaps the first big time movie star to essay a character that spoke for the Native American rights. Wayne’s Captain York wants the Apaches to be treated with honor. He wants to seek a peaceful solution to their problems. He condemns the Indian League in Washington for its corruption in no uncertain terms. He treats the corrupt  Indian agent. Meechum, with disdain, as he is mainly responsible for Indians leaving the reservation and going to war. Thursday realizes  Meechum’s crimes, but as someone who follows  the Military rules to the T, He gives him protection as he is part of the U.S. Government. Moreover, he considers Apaches as a tribe of murdering savages, who are unskilled in warfare and  could be easily taken care in battle.

Apart from critiquing American government’s insensitivity towards the Native tribes, Ford also points his camera inward, into the American society, where class divisions are rampant. Col. Thursday is as virulently class conscious as he is racist. He forbids his daughter from getting married to the Second Lieutenant O’Rourke, because he is the son of a lowly Sergeant Major. Ford entwines images of war with images of civil society showing how interconnected  one is to the other.. There are two major battle scenes  and two  ritualized ceremonial dance sequences. The ritualized nature of the ceremonial dance is strikingly similar to ritualized nature of cavalry movement in battle. Both dance sequences are interrupted with someone coming from outside. The first one is interrupted by the arrival of Col. Thursday. The second, ‘The Grand march scene’, is interrupted when York comes back successfully  from his peace mission to the Apaches. But he soon realizes that Thursday has used him as bait to draw the Apaches out and that he plans to attack them. Wayne is shocked by this betrayal, but his words “I gave that man my word and nobody is going to make a liar out of me ” falls on deaf ears. This maybe Ford’s nod to those hundreds of treaties that American Government made with the Indian nations, none of which were honored as US. continued its westward expansion. Even when Thursday agrees to a token “peace meeting” with Cochise, he ends up insulting the great Apache war chief, resulting in an all out conflict. Captain York is relieved of his command after he questions (for the nth time) Thursday’s battle tactics .In the end, Thursday and his regiment are no match for the Apache and they are all wiped out, except for a few who manages to escape to a nearby Ridge where York is stationed.

John Ford was at the height of his powers when he made this film. This is one of the greatest films he ever made. It has all the elements one expect from a John Ford Western And as in a lot of Ford Westerns, there is a strong stream of comedy flowing through out “Fort Apache”; performed by his regular players and embellished by subplots involving family, as well as the camaraderie between the fun loving, drink swilling Irish characters who are always at the heart of every Ford movie. As it is typical of Ford, the film is visually stunning. Ford fills the screen with some magnificent images. The first battle with the Apaches over the telegraph line brings back images of the spectacular climax  from “Stagecoach”. Other extraordinary sequences include Wayne’s peace mission to the Apache camp and the final battle sequence. Ford gives equal importance to the staging of the two dance sequences, and the staging of  ‘The Grand march’ is a special treat. It’s surprising that Ford never made a musical; on the basis of this scene alone, Ford would have made a great director of “song & dance” musicals. But the truly “beautiful” and haunting image comes at the end of the final battle sequence: Wayne conceding defeat, drops his belt and walks towards Cochise, Cochise rides towards him and then plants his flag, then he and his entire army vanishes in a swirl of dust. That one image speaks a thousand words and opens up many interpretations. It’s a victory of tribal spirit and moral strength over sheer arrogance and duplicity. And even though the Apache has won this battle, they will loose the “war” eventually, as their entire race will be decimated in time.

The cast is terrific. Fonda is great as the ultimately sanctimonious Col. Thursday. Though top-billed, John Wayne actually plays more of a supporting role, and is brilliantly restrained as the honorable second-in-command. The rest of the cast is filled up by regulars from Ford’s stock company like Victor McLaglen, John Agar, Ward Bond etc. New to a Ford film is Shirley Temple (playing Thursday’s daughter Philadelphia) who not only radiates beauty but delivers a sweet, charming performance as the main feminine presence in an otherwise masculine drama. Another major member of Ford’s company, writer Frank S. Nugent, was a big influence in making of this film. Nugent’s screenplay altered the source material’s “visceral loathing” for the Indian characters, transforming them into “victims of government-sanctioned criminal exploitation” (the screenplay was inspired by James Warner Bellah’s short story “Massacre”) And as in the case of Col. Thursday and Capt. York, he introduced contrast – within the natives as well- between the young, hot-blooded warrior and the wiser veterans. This film also marks a major shift in the Ford-Wayne-Fonda dynamic as from hereon Wayne will become the principal star of John Ford. The film, along with “Red River” in the same year, would take Wayne to the next level, where he would start playing more complex, mature characters. His very next film for Ford, “She wore a yellow Ribbon” had him play a character twenty years older than his real self. “Fort Apache” has an epilogue, where we see Wayne now commanding the regiment and the battle with the Apache are still going on. Col. Thursday has now become a legend- like Custer- after his ‘heroic’ death. They have even made a painting of him and  his heroic charge. Wayne concurs with the reporters that the painting is  ‘Correct in every detail‘ , even though, he fully believed that Thursday was a fool who embarked on a suicidal mission. (By the way , i have a special fondness for this line reading of Wayne’s, which i believe is one of the best in his career, for the emotions he convey through both his voice and his face) This  is closer to the “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” theme that Ford would explore in more detail in “The Man who shot Liberty Valance”. The film ends with a monologue by Wayne , paying homage to the countless, nameless soldiers that make up the American army, who never get the  glory that they deserve, but who will never be forgotten as long as the army exists. This may seem to be at odds with the painful truth about the betrayal of the Native Americans that came before, but then again, as the opening quote by Ford suggests, he was as much a cavalry man as he was sensitive at understanding the problems of the natives. Thus the film becomes both a critique and a paean to the American military, even as it was a great step towards humanizing the Native Americans. This contradictory nature inherent in Ford made his post-WWII Westerns more complex and richer, and “Fort Apache” – though may not be his greatest – was his most complex, richest and entertaining film of them all.


One thought on “Fort Apache: John Wayne and Henry Fonda represents the two sides of the American soldier in this magnificent first film in John Ford’s ‘Cavalry’ trilogy

  1. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who was conducting a little research on this. And he in fact bought me lunch due to the fact that I discovered it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending the time to talk about this topic here on your site.


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