You can always tell just who an early western wants its audience to side with. The first clue can usually be found in the film’s opening credits. If the score has a crowd-pleasing triumphant feel or resembles the kind of music a big band would play at a fair, then it is a good guess that the film wants viewers to side with the settlers. If a western begins with slow, somber music, that is your first clue that the characters in the film are more complex, possessing both positive and negative attributes. They may have good intentions, yet the ways in which they go about achieving their goals may not be absolutely moral. John Ford’s Fort Apache is a bit of outlier in this aspect, for it begins like many other pro-settler films, and then reverses itself and becomes rather pro-Native-American.
The film stars Henry Ford as Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. In the film’s opening scene, we learn that Thursday has been sent to assume command of
Fort Apache, a small, undermanned fort in Arizona. It is a post he
did not want. In fact, he refers to it as “the end of the rainbow.”
Accompanying him is his daughter, Philadelphia Thursday, played by Shirley
Temple. (An explanation for her rather unorthodox name is given later in the
film, but it doesn’t make it more realistic.) Thursday is the kind of colonel
who believes in strict discipline and absolute observance of the chain of
command, both at work and at home. It seems inevitable that he will butt heads
with the much more affable Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), not because York
has a problem with taking commands, but because Thursday’s commands often
reveal how little he understands the situation he and his men are in.
Many contemporary viewers will no doubt see Thursday as a racist, and this is certainly understandable. Both his behavior and his words leave little doubt that he sees Native Americans as savages and the Irish-American soldiers that serve on the fort as belonging to a lower social class. However, I prefer to see Thursday as a product of his time and occupation. He is a commissioned officer among non-commissioned officers, he believes in following the rules he learned at his military academy to the tee, and he is living at a time in which many people held collectivist views of the world’s ethnic groups. Part of what remains fascinating about the film is the way in which Thursday begins to question these beliefs, and I believe that he ultimately regrets at least some of his decisions.
Thursday’s growth comes about mostly as a result of his interactions with the O’Rourke family, which is headed by Sergeant-Major Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond), a decorated war hero who commands the respect of everyone around him. O’Rourke’s wife (Irene Rich) is a good-natured, amiable woman who people know they can turn to when they are in need, and their son, 2nd Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke (John Agar), is sensible, mature, and brave. Unfortunately, the film is also chalk full of the stereotypical Irish characters we so often see in older films, the kind that are loud, drink too much, and say silly things for comic effect. Ford devotes considerable time to these characters, especially to Sergeant Festus Mulcahy (Oscar-winner Victor McLaglen), and as a result, for long stretches of time, nothing of much interest – or humor, for that matter - happens in the film.
Fortunately, the central conflict in Fort Apache is a rather juicy one, involving a band of Apache Indians who are roaming free and considered extremely dangerous. That’s not terrible unexpected. What is surprising though is the way the film lays out a case that it is they who are the wronged party, having been exploited and weakened by a government official who decided to make a buck selling them alcohol and guns. York believes he can get the Apache to return to the reservation if he negotiates with their chief, Cochise, one on one, and, quite surprisingly, Thursday agrees to let him try. This concept of returning to the reservation may be difficult for contemporary audiences, who may ask why they have to return considering the circumstances. However, at that time, the idea made complete sense to men like Thursday and
After all, it made the Wild West just a little less wild and no doubt helped
convinced more people in the east to migrate.
If Fort Apache succeeds – and I believe it does in the end – it does so in spite of itself. It does so in spite of its stereotypical Irish characters, its predictable and unconvincing love story, and its poorly-conceived ending, which seems tacked on by either censors or studio executives who wouldn’t allow a character like Thursday to be portrayed as being in the wrong. If the film succeeds, it does so on the strength of characters like Thursday, York, O’Brian, Sam, and the many women of Fort Apache. In fact, some of the film’s most touching moments involve these women standing and watching as their husbands and sons go off to battle, and it is impossible not to be moved by their stoic, yet concerned expressions. They know what is at stake.
The film is a cautionary tale, one that shows how much damage a lack of knowledge and understanding can cause, and comparisons between Thursday’s actions and some of the U.S. military’s more recent ones are likely inevitable for some viewers. Wayne is impressive as usual, and Fonda gives a truly stellar performance in a very complex role. We naturally side with
York, but I believe we
grow to at least empathize with Thursday. He just seems unable to let go of his
prejudices and outdated ideas, and I imagine we all know people like that. (on
DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars