John Ford's 1948 epic Fort Apache is based on the short story Massacre by James Warner Bellah with a screenplay by Frank Nugent. Tremendous research went into this post-war production with its cavalry setting and myriad of characters. Following his experiences in WW2 director Ford felt a special bond with the military and the day-to-day life of soldiers and wanted to impart that feeling to the screen.
Fort Apache tells the story of a Custer-like officer, Colonel Owen Thursday played by Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath). Col. Thursday feels he has been dismissed politically by a posting in the west with no chance for advancement and glory. He is an arrogant man, dismissive of others not of his class. He is ignorant of the native population and unwilling to learn. 20-year-old Shirley Temple (Wee Willie Winkie) plays the colonel's daughter, Philadelphia Thursday. While the straight-backed Thursday makes an cold first impression with those at the fort, Philadelphia, all dimples, smiles and heart on her sleeve is an instant favourite. In turn, she is smitten with the newly-minted Lieutenant O'Rourke played by real-life husband at the time John Agar. The young lieutenant is the pet of the fort being the son of Sergeant Major O'Rourke played by Ward Bond (The Fugitive).
Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, Irene Rich, Henry Fonda
Fort Apache is the story of the people in it. The ladies of the fort include Anna Lee (How Green Was My Valley) as Mrs. Collingwood and Irene Rich (Desperate Trails) as Mrs. O'Rourke. They represent home and stability, and perhaps the future for young Philadelphia.
Grant Withers, Victor McLaglen, John Wayne, Henry Fonda
George O'Brien, Miguel Inclan, Pedro Armendariz
Captain Collingwood played by George O'Brien (The Iron Horse) had been expected to become commander of Fort Apache and has a checkered career and history with Thursday. Captain York played by John Wayne (Stagecoach) is an officer who came up through the ranks with a knowledge of the frontier gained from experience. Conflicts naturally arise between the by-the-book Thursday and men who have adapted to a rough life outside of the text books.
Shirley Temple, John Agar, Anna Lee, John Wayne
Guy Kibbee, Dick Foran
One of the things I enjoy most about a Ford picture, particularly those with a Nugent screenplay, is that they bring us into a society fully formed to make of it what we will. Complete biographies for the characters were created before the screenplay was begun and the audience is respected enough to be able to understand the nuances of the dialogue and the shared look among characters. Of course, being a Ford picture we also have, as in life, humour and music. It feels absolutely right that a character like Thursday, so hide bound, can be surrounded by the rollicking humour of the sergeants and the recruits. Although, give him his due, Thursday has one of the funniest lines in the movie when dealing with the larcenous sutler Meachan played by Grant Withers. The charming musical interlude in Fort Apache is provided by Dick Foran lending his whisky soaked tenor to Sweet Genevieve.
John Wayne as Kirby York
Archie Stout and William Clothier are the cinematographers who worked on Fort Apache and there are scenes in the desert which are absolutely breathtaking. I had seen the film quite a few times before realizing how beautiful it is visually. Fort Apache gives much for the viewer to absorb. It is an historical piece. It is a character study. Perhaps Thursday and York had much they needed to learn from the other. It has vivid and heartbreaking action. Fort Apache is full of noble sentiments, and the triumphs and tragedies of every day people. The stirring epilogue is Ford's presentation to us of when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Whether it is for good or not, the legend propels us forward.
TCM is airing Fort Apache on Sunday, June 17th at 10:30 pm.