Directed by John Ford
A lieutenant colonel is transferred to a backwater outpost to take command. Now this glory seeking officer must confront a growing Indian threat.
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is a Civil War veteran and West Point graduate that, despite his experience, is ill equipped to lead the post and deal with the Native Americans in the region. It is clear at the outset that he neither expected nor wanted the posting and is looking some glory to get himself out of there. He wishes to achieve glory in order to get a better posting and raise his status which leads to many of the conflicts in this movie. He is not all one dimensional though on that aspect. He does have a sense of duty and honor and right and wrong, but he is hindered by his rigid adherence to regulation and low opinion of the local Native American population. He refuses the council of his more experienced men when that counsel interferes with his personal goals.
Lt. Col. Thursday was no virtuous Western hero which stands out to me. He is not the white hat hero saving the settlers. If anything, he is the problem. His arrogance and racism is the issue here. It is the cause of all the problems.
Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne) is a well-respected veteran stationed at the fort and immediately clashes with the officer who has had little practical experience in military matters of the Western Frontier. Wayne is his usual paternal character here. The man was a master at it though making it rarely obvious.
One thing that stands out to me about this movie is that John Wayne was the better actor in this film. Fonda felt like he was just reading his lines in comparison to Wayne. While Wayne had the better part, Fonda was a better actor or is viewed as such. Fonda’s line delivery was very monotone. There was little inflection and the voice rarely rose even when the character was upset.
Shirley Temple plays the unusually named Philadelphia Thursday who is the daughter of Lt. Col. Thursday. There is something I must discuss. In the story she is indicated to be no more than 16 years old per a statement to her father when he confronts her over her relationship with Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) which Lt. Col. Thursday does not approve of. She was clearly older than 16 at this point in her career but this is Hollywood and even today people in their late 20s and 30s with crow’s feet play high school students.
Philadelphia is 16 and O’Rourke is clearly an adult in the context of the story. At the end she is shown with a toddler having married O’Rourke. Assuming they married the moment after the closing battle, and she got pregnant that night she was barely 18 in the final moments of the film. I am not sure if anybody really thought that deeply about it at the studio or making the movie but given the time when this film was released it is surprising. Temple and Agar WERE married at the time so it would make sense to pair the real-life couple on screen but given the implied age difference in the characters it seems a questionable choice.
On a more positive bit, this film is noteworthy for containing a more positive portrayal of Native Americans than most Westerns of the time. They were not mindless savages but rather rounded individuals. They did not decide to fight because that was their nature but rather because they had no choice. General poor treatment by the U.S. government and being cheated and abused by Silas Meacham (Grant Withers) forced their hand. The soldiers at the fort do not all respect them but do understand that they are people which is in sharp contrast to Thursday’s cartoonish view of them being drunken savages seeking only to fight.
There are the usual lighthearted moments which lean this film more into a fun adventure than into a drama or an action film. They were common for the day and are expected. Speaking of comic relief, noted character actor and regular Wayne costar Hank Worden shows up as an unnamed southern recruit that served under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Worden can also be found in The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, True Grit, Chisum, Big Jake, Cahill U.S. Marshal among many others. The more I read about the guy, the more fascinating he becomes to me. He attended Stanford University and the University of Nevada where he studied engineering. Given the characters he played this is a little surprising. More surprising though is that he was basically playing himself each time. That voice and those mannerisms were how he reportedly really was. He used that to get work until the end.
Despite Fonda being the weakest link, the acting is generally strong and entertaining. The characters are good, and the story is pretty solid. It has themes of duty and obsession with characters blinded to reality based on their own self-interest and personal goals. For 1948 and the views held by too many at the time, this film was revolutionary in its themes and in its depiction of Native Americans.
Fort Apache is a pretty solid western. It has plenty of excitement and drama and good characters. You will be entertained. I highly recommend it.