Fort Apache (1948): John Ford Superb Western Starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda

In John Ford’s superb black-and white elegiac Western, “Fort Apache,” John Wayne plays Captain Kirby York is the charismatic leader, whereas Henry Fonda’s Colonel Owen Thursday represents the legal-rational type.

Frank S. Nugent’s sharply-written, character-driven script, based on the story “Massacre” by James Warner Bellah, alludes to the massacre of George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn, a dramatic battle depicted in many Hollywood movies.

An ambitious and prestige-seeking officer, Thursday, who is from the East, resents the fact that he has been sent to Fort Apache, a remote post he regards as a temporary appointment. Strict with his men, he demands military discipline at all times and all costs. Arrogant and rank-conscious, he is unable to remember his officers’ names, for example. He criticizes the slack standards of dress that Wayne has introduced, despite the fact that they are more comfortable (he himself looks ridiculous in his kepi), and demands that his men always wear uniform.

Serious and humorless, Thursday treats his family the same way he treats his soldiers. Strict with his daughter, Philadelphia), (Shirley Temple), he forbids Lieutenant “Mickey” O’Rourke (John Agar) to court her, because he did not ask for his permission, but also because he is a sergeant’s son–Fonda is extremely class-conscious.

Thursday lives by the regulations of the book, which he applies without examining their logic or practicality. In short, he is arrogant, driven by ambitious power, and considers himself superior to his men.

Representing charismatic authority, Wayne’s Kirby York is exactly the opposite. He is a passionate, warm, informal and friendly with his soldiers. More flexible, he does not live by the regulations, willing to bend or violate them if they are not applicable. Closer to the men than Fonda, he treats them as equals, and it is clear that they like him. Wayne is also gallant with women, including Philadelphia, Fonda’s daughter. In short, he lives by a personal code of ethics, his integrity deriving from a strong sense of self, which Fonda lacks.

Thursday and York differ radically in their approach to the Indian problem. Coming from the East, Thursday holds rigid racial ideas, stemming in part from his ignorance of the West. He believes that humiliation and conquest are necessary measures in dealing with the Indians. York, by contrast, respects the Indians and understands them. His knowledge of the problem is firsthand, based on his personal experience. York is motivated by ideological considerations, fighting the Indians from a sense of duty, whereas Fonda fights for selfish reasons: the gain of power and prestige. And while York understands the value of military discipline, he is also willing to violate it when he thinks it’s necessary.

Thursday’s ambitions cause him to underestimate the Indians’ strength and intelligence. First, he double crosses the Apache, then betrays his word. Wayne sympathizes with the Indians’ rebellion against their ill treatment because he resents the crooked Indian Ring in Washington, described by him as “the dirtiest, most corrupt political group in our history.” He volunteers to go to Cochise, who hides in Mexico, and persuades him to meet Fonda for peace talks. He is therefore disgusted when he finds out that Thursday had tricked Cochise. “Colonel Thursady, I gave my word to Cochise,” he protests angrily, “no man is going to make a liar out of me, sir.” This irritates Thursday, “Your word to a breech-clouted savage! An illiterate, uncivilized murderer and treaty-breaker! There is no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise.” But York insists, “There is to me, sir.”

York claims that the Indians outnumber the cavalry, but Fonda decides to lead his men against them. Earlier, he issues a harsh ultimatum to Cochise, despite York’s attempts of restraint. When Wayne challenges Fonda’s idea of lining his troops up in columns of four (he thinks it’s suicidal), he is accused of cowardice, relieved of command, and ordered to stay with the supply train. Fonda’s contempt for the Indians’ fighting skills leads him to charge his men up a closed box canyon into an ambush, destroying his command.

It is York who rescues the besieged troops and the wounded Thursday, though the latter insists on continuing to fight. Thursday wins some respect from York only because he follows his convictions courageously up to the bitter end–his death. Before he dies, though, he tells Wayne, “When you command this regiment–and you probably will–command it!” At the end, Wayne wears a scarf similar to Thursday’s, indicating the latter’s influence on him.

The film’s last scene, which takes place two years later, conveys a meaningful message. York, now the post’s commander, sits behind a desk, above which there is a painting of Fonda, and is talking to reporters. When one reporter eulogizes Fonda as “the hero of every schoolboy in America,” and “a great man,” York concurs, “No man died more gallantly or won more honor for his regiment.” He lies to reporters to maintain the legend of the army and the myth of military authority.

York disagrees, however, with a reporter claiming that Fonda is remembered, but his men are not. “You are wrong,” states Wayne, “They aren’t forgotten…they’ll keep on living as long as the regiment lives…their faces may change, the names, but they’re here, the regular army.” Moreover, “they’re better men than they used to be,” because “Thursday did that, he made it a command to be proud of.” In this, he confirms the sacredness and superiority of the military as a whole over its individual members.

Cast

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda)
Captain Kirby York (John Wayne)
Philadelphia Thursday (Shirley Temple)
Sgt. Major Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond)
Lt. Michael “Mickey” O’Rourke (John Agar)
Captain Sam Collingwood (George O’Brien)
Mrs. Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich)
Sgt. Festus Mulcahy (Victor McLaglen)
Mrs. Emily Collingwood (Anna Lee)
Sgt. Beaufort (Pedro Armendariz)

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