John Ford and star John Wayne went together like peanut butter and jelly. They just clicked, working together 12 times in feature films and many more in uncredited fashion. Right up there with 1952's The Quiet Man, three films stand out as the pair's most memorable films. These are three movies simply known as the Cavalry trilogy, and here's the first, 1948's Fort Apache.
A career officer with a distinguished record, Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is less than pleased with his new orders. While fellow officers are being sent to fight the Sioux and Cheyenne, Thursday is being sent to a post in Arizona, Fort Apache, where he will take command of a cavalry regiment that's temporarily been under the command of Capt. Kirby York (Wayne). Thursday resents everything about the posting and with no knowledge or respect of the Apaches thinks nothing can happen to advance his career, or at least earn him new orders and a new posting. Not interested in making friends, Thursday's actions cause his regiment, his officers and his men, to resent him for what he's doing. He wants to make the regiment as strong as ever though and continues to push the men. Believing there's nothing he can ultimately do, the new commanding officer sees a chance for glory when Apache warriors leave their reservation. How far will he go?
Later in his career, Ford made darker, more cynical and realistic westerns that almost apologized for his previous genre entries. It's odd then that some 15 to 20 years earlier, it was these westerns that are far better remembered. 'Apache' and the other two Cavalry flicks, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, are more how the west should have been and not how it actually was. Ford embraces the romantic concept of the old west. The cavalry were gentlemen and soldiers, family men while the wives were steadfast and loyal, and the government and Indian agents were as corrupt as dirt. The movie is a gem. Ford films on-location in Monument Valley, stunning backdrops from scene to scene, in black and white, producing one of the most visually pleasing westerns ever. The musical score from Richard Hageman is a gem too throughout.
Throughout his career, Ford had his favorite actors to work with, and 'Apache' pairs two of the best in Henry Fonda and John Wayne. This is one of Fonda's most underrated performances, his Thursday a rigid, humorless man and career officer who is equal parts arrogant and condescending. He may be a capable officer but his methods come into question at times. At what point is pride and glory a hindrance, a threat to his command? Wayne's part is less flashy but still quite good. His Capt. York is an experienced Indian fighter with a respect for the Apaches who's trying to help his new commander...except Thursday ain't having it. This is Wayne in fine fashion, natural and quite at home. Their scenes together crackle, two different personalities pushing and testing and feeling each other out. No matter what they discuss though, this is a relationship that seems doomed to failure.
From everything I've read, Ford was a tyrant on his sets, but the man could assemble quite a cast. He brought the best out in his cast (for the most part, some he just pushed mercilessly). Shirley Temple plays Philadelphia, Thursday's daughter who falls for a new lieutenant at the outpost, Lt. Michael O'Rourke (John Agar, Temple's real-life husband). A former silent movie star who worked with Ford regularly before they had a falling out, George O'Brien is excellent as Capt. Collingwood, a former friend who made a decision that halted his career, dooming him to Fort Apache, Anna Lee playing his loyal wife. Ward Bond gets to Irish it up as Sgt. Major O'Rourke, the capable NCO who the rest of the men look up to, a top man at the outpost, with Irene Rich as his wife of many years. From the John Ford Stock Company, look for Pedro Armendariz, Victor McLaglen, Jack Pennick and Dick Foran as four hard-drinking sergeants always getting into trouble.
An Irishman to the core, Ford loved the sense of family and camaraderie and community in his films. This is a prime example. He's interested in the life of the outpost from the officer's dances to the training of the recruits. We see the cavalry moving out in formation, of marching across the desert silhouetted against the rock formations and on the horizon. We see the dynamics of the wives of the fort, of the community that sprouts up in the desert cavalry fort. Ford ate this stuff up in most of his movies and sometimes could lay it on a little thick, but for the most part I felt like he kept those things in check. Yeah, the physical humor with McLaglen is a little thick at times. Yeah, the G-rated love between Temple and Agar is sugary sweet. Yes, Foran even gets to serenade us with an old Irish love song. These moments fit here more, fit with the tone and rhythm where certain other Ford movies are handicapped by moments like this.
Transplanting some characters and tribes, 'Apache' is a pretty thinly veiled take-off on Custer's Last Stand with Fonda's Thursday standing in for Custer. This isn't an action movie -- by a long shot -- with much of the conflict saved for the final 45 minutes as the outnumbered regiment moves out to face Cochise and his warriors. Again, an Irishman can build a sense of doom like no one else, and Ford nails the ending. He builds the tension as we see trouble coming over the horizon and hanging in the air. What Thursday does proves costly in a moving finale both visually and in storytelling. The actual battle is a bit of a disappointment but Ford set out to do what he wanted. The final scene opens up the door especially for some themes that would be discussed 14 years later with Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the movie ending on a far more hopeful note than it could have.
Just an excellent movie. Good story, great-looking film, wonderful score, excellent directing and a very strong ensemble cast, especially Fonda, Wayne, Armendariz and Bond. Not as good as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but the without a doubt second best movie in the cavalry trilogy. Well worth checking out.
Fort Apache (1948): ****/****