Understand me, gentleman. I am not a martinet, but I do want to take pride in my command. We here have little chance for glory or advancement. While some of our brother officers are leading their well-publicized campaigns against the great Indian nations — the Sioux and the Cheyenne — we are asked to ward off the gnat stings and flea bites of a few cowardly digger Indians.
This irony-laden speech by Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) occurs early in the second reel of John Ford’s Fort Apache. It foreshadows the tragic and violent finale of the film, and firmly establishes what kind of man Thursday is. Not only is he the dictionary definition of a martinet, but his underestimation of the Apache will be fatal.
When Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) protests that Cochise and his Apache warriors are far from “digger Indians,” Thursday refuses to listen, and the conflict between Capt. York and Lt. Col. Thursday only intensifies as the film goes on. When York, who is familiar with the customs of the Apaches, arranges a meeting with Cochise (played by Miguel Inclán), Thursday refuses to honor the agreement Kirby makes with Cochise. “There is no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise,” Thursday says. Kirby simply responds, “There is to me, sir.”
In a lesser film, Thursday’s rigid adherence to discipline would mask cowardice, but Thursday isn’t a coward. He isn’t vainglorious either. When York, who remembers Thursday as a general from Civil War, addresses him as “general,” Thursday curtly corrects him. “I’m not a general, Captain,” he says. “A man is what he’s paid for. I’m paid in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.”
Fonda’s performance in Fort Apache is remarkable. His character is so clearly in the wrong so much of the time that it would be easy for him to be a stock villain, but he never is.
Fort Apache is a study in heroism and myth-making, and a story of how the messiness of real life will always end up either forgotten or completely remade.
Of course, since it’s a film directed by John Ford, it’s also a film full of broad comedy, mawkish Irish sentimentalism, and lionizations of the common man.
And no matter how much Ford ever deconstructed the idea of heroism and myth-making in any of his films, he couldn’t resist engaging in his own larger-than-life artistry. Just like My Darling Clementine (1946), Ford shot Fort Apache in Monument Valley because it looked good, not because it was where the real events of his story took place.
Fort Apache isn’t a perfect film, but it’s damned close. It’s an excellent western, and a great film about the U.S. Cavalry that doesn’t paint the Apache as mindless savages. There are references to men tied to wagon wheels, roasted alive (off screen, of course), but Cochise and his warriors are never two-dimensional villains.
Fonda and Wayne are the stars of the film, but they have excellent support from the rest of the cast, especially Ward Bond, who plays Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, and Pedro Armendáriz, who plays Sergeant Beaufort.
If there’s a weak link for me in the film, it’s John Agar, who plays Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke. When Agar appeared in Fort Apache he was the real-life husband of Shirley Temple, who plays Lt. Col. Thursday’s daughter, Philadelphia Thursday. (Agar and Temple married on September 19, 1945, and were divorced on December 5, 1949. They had one child together.)
In terms of action, Fort Apache is stately and fetishistic. There are no real skirmishes that lead up to the final battle — as there would be in any picture made today — there is only the aftermath of Apache raiding parties.
And in the charge that begins the final battle, the bugler is the first to be killed by Cochise and his men, putting an end to the stirring patriotic music, which is perfectly fitting. The final battle is accompanied only by Apache war whoops, gunshots, and the thunder of hoof beats.