In John Ford's sombre exploration of the mythology of American heroes, he slowly reveals the character of Owen Thursday, who sees his new posting to the desolate Fort Apache as a chance to claim the military honour which he believes is rightfully his. Arrogant, obsessed with military form and ultimately self-destructive, Thursday attempts to destroy the Apache chief Cochise after luring him across the border from Mexico, against the advice of his subordinates.
Fort Apache is the first film of what came to be known as John Ford's US Cavalry trilogy. Just like the other two, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon & Rio Grande, this is also based on a short story by James Warner Bellah. Originally intended to be shot in colour, it was however filmed in black and white with Ford still making spectacular use of the Monument Valley location. The story primarily deals with opposite factions within the same army. On one hand is Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), stiffly rigid in his beliefs, a stickler for the rules and pig ignorant and hostile towards the Indians he has been sent to control. On the other hand is Captain. Kirby York (John Wayne), more relaxed towards those under his command, he's also knowledgeable about, and respectful towards, the Indian race. Thursday is also something of a chauvinist and a snob, he is determined to stop a burgeoning union between his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) and Lieutenant O'Rourke (John Agar), with O'Rourke's homely family seen as too low for his daughter. All of this is played out in a far out military outpost, something else that Thursday also resents - that he was sent here instead of some place where a chance of glory was imminent.
Ford's film is also intriguing in its view of army life for the women at the post. As the men go about their military chores, the women have to remain lady-like even in the face of stupidity and ignorance. And Ford also occupies much of the piece with military etiquette, rank and file and social standing. This is also one of his most overtly sympathetic movies as regards the Indians. Here it's the Apache, led by the wise and stoic Cochise, they are not painted as villains, instead they are victims of trouble stirred by vile Indian agent Meacham (Grant Wthers). It's this thread that leads us to the fabulous last thirty minutes of the film. Ford's action sequences are a given, highly impressive as always, but it's his parting shot that leaves the greatest indelible mark. The myths of the West and the need for heroes is given close scrutiny by the master director - food for thought as the close caption booms out of the screen. Fort Apache takes its lead from George Armstrong Custer's folly, and covers it with intelligence, wit and panoramic delights. 8.5/10
RKO Radio Pictures by John Ford, Frank S. Nugent, James Warner Bellah.
Stars: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Pedro Armendáriz.
Genres: Action, Adventure, Western
Keywords: captain secret apache slaughter colonel military tortured to death american civil war 19th century
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