Written by Frank S. Nugent, based on the story by James Warner Bellah
Directed by John Ford
It has been recognized that one of the greatest natural symbols of the United States that helped popularize the western genre is Monument Valley, located on the Utah-Arizona state line. Its rocky walls and pillars are instantly recognizable for their iconic, curious shapes and arresting beauty. John Ford, who is most known for his classic westerns films, made terrific use of the wondrous sight a number of times in his career, starting with Stagecoach in 1939. In 1948, he would return to Monument Valley yet again for another John Wayne collaboration, Fort Apache. Each of his films had distinct personalities and stories, though he always manged to enrich the experience with the famed vista.
In Fort Apache, Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is commissioned with the task of taking the commanding reigns over the titular military outpost, located deep in Apache Native American territory. Continuing mistrust between the Americans and Natives have led to an intense war of attrition. The strict, uptight Thursday wishes to glorify his resume by sprucing up Fort Apache and hitting the Natives hard once the opportunity presents itself. He will have to tangle however with a number of stationed captains and majors who do not warm up to his methods, such as Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond) and the latter son, 2nd Lieutenant Michael O’Rouke (John Agar), who quickly falls for Thursday’s beautiful daughter (Shirley Temple)…and she for him.
The best movies, the case can be made, are those which can just as easily be viewed and appreciated on multiple levels. The first, the surface level, is the simpler but no less satisfying way of viewing a movie. Fort Apache absolutely succeeds on a visceral level with its story, cast of characters, its sights and sounds. With John Ford at the helm, the movie is given an impressive sense of sweep, especially in the latter stages. Monument Valley most certainly is used to full effect, with beautifully epic shots of cavalries riding along the rough terrain either towards or from the enemy, the thundering sounds of the war trumpets not just accompanying the action, but giving it a real sense of urgency. With so wide a canvas to set his action sequences, director Ford pulls out all the stops once the Thursday’s frontier men confront the Apache’s head in the film’s final battle. However difficult it might have been to shoot under the unforgiving conditions, the climax feels as large scale as can be for a film of its time.
The visceral qualities are felt in other respects too, however, such as the intense and richly drawn characters, virtually all of which are handsomely brought to life by a awe inspiring cast. Curiously enough, even though Fort Apache is another Ford-Wayne collaboration, the latter is not exactly the star, but rather one part of a fantastic ensemble. In fact, the most imposing individual the viewers encounter is not even Wayne.Henry Fonda, who plays Lt. Col. Owen Thursday with the infuriating rigidity and conviction that would grind just about anybody’s gears. One of the actor’s most beloved and highly regarded roles was as Abraham Lincoln, a model of strong, virtues morals, in yet another John Ford picture, The Young Mr. Lincoln. In that film, Fonda personified the icon history remembers Lincoln as being. The actor’s versatility permits him in Fort Apache to play the flip side of that coin. Thursday is just as tall and authoritative a figure, convinced of his righteousness, only his morals and methods are skewered towards a more controversial and, perhaps more crucially, confrontational style which does not help him win many admirers to say the least. John Wayne does not become a major player into Fort Apache second half, once Thursday’s reign has begun to push to many of his buttons, as well as those of the other stationed officers played by Ward Bond, Pedro Armendariz and of course John Agar, whose character is vying for the love of Thursday’s daughter. Seeing Wayne in a somewhat subservient role does not exactly stretch the actor’s talents too much, yet Wayne successfully pulls off his Captain York as a man of strong will with a good sense of what is morally right, including attempts at establishing peace with the Apache, something Thursday wants nothing to do with. By the time Thursday openly threatens to pummel the Apaches to the ground despite the latter group’s genuine attempts to bargain for peace, it is remarkably easy to detect Fonda’s character.
Underneath the action, romance and comedy (courtesy of a quartet of officers who train new recruits in the most unabashedly slapstick manners) lies a story interested in the effect, image and relevancy of military culture, with special attention given to the notion of rank within the institution. Throughout the entire picture various captains and sergeants below Thursday put up both small and sizable amounts of resistance to their superior’s orders, sometimes willingly while other times not. Thursday, having already made something a name for himself in addition to being a hardened military man whose loyalty to its culture and codes are draconian, is less than patient when met with these slight provocations. From the outset the movie makes it clear as daylight that the Lt. Colonel thinks himself above Fort Apache, its staff and most certainly those savage, ever-untrustworthy Indians. His topmost rank means that everyone in the vicinity must obey him and nothing else. As he himself frequently barks, he does not ask for opinions, he orders that people see his demands be put into effect. When, just prior to the epic battle in Monument Valley, Captain York offers up different interpretations of the Apache distraction tactics than what Thursday deduces, he is scoffed at, despite that York possesses far more knowledge and experience than Thursday. Even though most of the characters frequently bow to their new leader’s commands, a constant battle of wits and will wages on from start to finish. Differing philosophies on how the ranking system can operate are continuously contested, not in any overt way so as to make the Ford’s project come across as a ‘message movie’ but there are more than just the seeds of some ideas which grow organically out of the story. There are even some humorous stabs at the theme, such as when new recruits are, during their comically torturous training, given make believe higher status for no other reasons than perhaps where one of them was born. Even in the film’s sly ending, yet another less than favourable take on the idea of an officer position in the military is touched on, in that case what the image people of high rank must be for those on the outside of the military looking in.
Fort Apache is both a rousing adventure and intelligent story telling, juggling the epic battles that occurred all those years ago in the untamed west while offering a critical look at the machinations of the military.