Fort Apache (1948): John Wayne Vs. Henry Fonda

The authority of John Wayne’s Western heroes is charismatic, to use the German sociologist Max Weber’s typology of authority.

In his pioneering work, Weber distinguished among three types of authority. Charismatic authority rests on the personal appeal of the leader and his exceptional abilities, perceived by his followers as a “gift of grace.” The charismatic leader possesses extraordinary virtues, on the basis of which he demands and gets personal devotion from his people. As such, he differs substantially from the legal-rational leader, Weber’s second type, whose authority is based on a system of explicit laws which define and limit his use of power.

The quintessential Wayne hero is charismatic because, as Weber noted, he gains and maintains authority solely by proving his strength in life. Wayne’s strength in his films is moral, physical, and emotional. In some Westerns (and war movies), his authority is a combination of charismatic and legal-rational, a mixture of types that was acknowledged by Weber. In this case, the appeal rests on the leader’s extraordinary personality, but he also occupies an official position in the organization’s hierarchy, be it the cavalry or the Navy.

Wayne’s authority, however, is never traditional, Weber’s third type of authority, since his power never rests on the sanctity of tradition or on hereditary position. When Wayne occupies a position, he has earned it through his outstanding qualities. The Wayne hero is influential even when he does not hold a formal job in the military or community hierarchy.

The charismatic and legal authority are explicitly contrasted in Fort Apache, in which Wayne’s Captain Kirby York is the charismatic leader, whereas Henry Fonda’s Colonel Owen Thursday represents the legal-rational type. Fonda’s ambitious and prestige-seeking officer from the East resents the fact that he has been sent to Fort Apache, a remote post he regards as temporary appointment.

Strict with his men, he demands military discipline at all times. Arrogant and rank-conscious, Fonda 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, Fonda treats his family the same way he treats his soldiers. Strict with his daughter (Shirley Temple), he forbids Lieutenant O’Rourke (John Agar) to court her because he did not ask for his permission, but also because he is a sergeant’s son; he is extremely class-conscious. He 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 is exactly the opposite. He is passionate, warm, informal and friendly with his soldiers. More flexible, he doesn’t 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 he is well liked by them. 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.

Wayne and Fonda differ radically in their approach to the Indian problem. Coming from the East, Fonda 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. Wayne, in contrast, respects the Indians and understands them. His knowledge of the problem is firsthand, based on his personal experience.

Motivated by ideological considerations, Wayne fights the Indians from a sense of duty, whereas Fonda fights for selfish reasons: the gain of power and prestige. And while Wayne understands the value of military discipline, he is also willing to violate it when he thinks it’s necessary. Fonda’s ambitions cause him to underestimate the Indians’ strength and intelligence. First, he double crosses the Apache, and then betrays his word. Wayne sympathizes with the Indians’ rebellion against their ill treatment. He resents the crooked Indian Ring in Washington, which he describes as “the dirtiest, most corrupt political group in our history.”

Wayne 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 Fonda 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 Fonda, “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.” Nonetheless, Wayne insists, “There is to me, sir.”

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

The last scene, which takes place two years later, conveys the film’s meaningful message and emergence of a compromised type of authority. Wayne, now the post’s official 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,” Wayne concurs, “No man died more gallantly or won more honor for his regiment.”

Wayne lies to reporters to maintain the legend of the army and the myth of military authority. He 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. They’re better men than they used to be, Thursday did that, he made it a command to be proud of.”

With this statement, Wayne confirms the sacred superiority of the military as a collective organization over any of its individual members.