THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Saturday, December 15, 2012


# 17
FORT APACHE (Argosy/RKO, 1948)

DIRECTOR: John Ford; PRODUCERS: John Ford and Merian C. Cooper;  WRITER: Frank S. Nugent from a story by James Warner Bellah;  CAMERA:  Archie Stout

CAST:  John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Ward Bond, George O'Brien, Victor McLaglen, Pedro Armendariz, Anna Lee, Irene Rich, Guy Kibbee, Grant Withers, Miguel Inclan, Jack Pennick, Dick Foran, Francis Ford, Movita, Hank Worden, Frank Ferguson

This is the first of Ford's cavalry trilogy, though in historical chronology it occurs between the other two, and that is where most film historians and critics place it in terms of quality.

Henry Fonda and John Wayne

 "Gentlemen, I did not seek this command, but since it's been assigned to me, I intend to make this regiment the finest on the frontier.  I fully recognize that prolonged duty in a small outpost can lead to carelessness -- and inefficiency and laxity in dress and deportment.  I call it to your attention that only one of you has reported this morning properly dressed.  The uniform, gentleman, is not a subject for individual, whimsical expression.  We're not cowboys at this post -- or freighters with a load of alfalfa." --Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda)

Two years earlier Ford had filmed his version of the Wyatt Earp legend in the incomparable (and historically inaccurate) MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (Fox, 1946); in FORT APACHE he films the Custer legend.  However, instead of dealing with the specific historical personage, Ford thinly disguised Custer as a fictional character, Col. Owen Thursday (portrayed by Fonda, who at this point was Ford's favorite actor).  To further disguise the basis of the story it is transported to the Southwest with the foe being Cochise and the Apaches, rather than Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the northern tribes.

Apache warriors portrayed by Navajo

Col. Thursday, like Custer, had been promoted to the brevet rank of general during the Civil War, but had now, again like Custer, been demoted to his pre-war rank of lt. colonel.  He has been shipped West to take command of a desert outpost, Fort Apache.  The veteran soldiers at the fort discover that the colonel knows nothing about fighting Indians.  They soon realize he is only after fame, glory, and a restoration of his former rank.

In the end, Thursday makes the same mistakes as Custer and experiences the same results, including the acquisition of legendary status.

John Ford was quoted as saying "We have legends about people like Custer.  He's one of our great heroes.  He did a very stupid thing.  But a legend is more interesting than the actual facts."  Perhaps that is why he changed the locale and the name of the character; he did not want to be a party to the destruction of the legend.

FORT APACHE was Henry Fonda's eighth starring role in a Ford film.  It all began with the delightful DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (Fox, 1939), but was about to come to an end.

Their last collaboration was MISTER ROBERTS (WB, 1955).  In fact, Fonda did not appear in any films between FORT APACHE and MISTER ROBERTS, the reason being that he was appearing on Broadway in the stage production of the latter. When it came time to make a movie from the play, Ford was chosen to direct and Fonda was cast in the lead role.

Major tension soon arose between the director and the star.  Fonda, as a result of his years playing the role on the stage, apparently felt that he had made the role his own and resented Ford's attempts to stamp his own brand on the character and the story.  Things became so bad that Ford even took a swing at Fonda.  

After the exterior shooting was completed Ford had to drop out of the project in order to undergo surgery due to a gall bladder attack.  Mervyn LeRoy replaced Ford and filmed all of the studio interior shots except for two that were directed by the screenwriter, Joshua Logan.

John Ford and Henry Fonda, one of the greatest director-star teams in film history, never again worked together.

Frank Nugent was a former New York Times movie critic who was married to Ford's daughter.  FORT APACHE was his first movie screenplay.  With Ford's blessing, he set out to humanize the Apaches and treat them with more respect than Bellah had accorded them in his original story.  Nugent would also write the screenplays for Ford's SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO, 1949) and THE SEARCHERS (WB, 1956).  All told, he and Ford would work together on eleven pictures.
John Wayne is very good as the veteran Indian fighter who attempts to educate Col. Thursday to the ways of the West, but to no avail.  Shirley Temple is Philadelphia Thursday, the colonel's daughter, who, against the wishes of her strict father, falls in love with the young lieutenant played by John Agar.

offscreen John Agar and Shirley Temple were husband and wife

This was the film debut for Agar, who had married Shirley Temple three years earlier.  She was only 17-years-old at the time.  After appearing in one more film together, she filed for divorce and retired from the screen.  Agar would portray another young lieutenant in the second film in the cavalry trilogy, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO, 1949).

George O'Brien came out of retirement as a favor to Ford to appear in the film.  He had starred in Ford's two best known silent Westerns: THE IRON HORSE (Fox, 1924) and THREE BADMEN (Fox, 1926), as well as several other early Ford films.  During the 30's he starred in two superior B-Western series at Fox and RKO.

Dick Foran had been on of Hollywood's first singing cowboys (his first film was released two months after Gene Autry's first feature film), but was now relegated to supporting roles in larger-scale pictures.  However, he does get to show off his Irish tenor voice in the film with a solo performance of "Sweet Genevieve."


" Fonda is effectively cast against type as a stubborn martinet who rubs his own men -- as well as neighboring Indians -- the wrong way." -- Leonard Maltin

"Mass action, humorous byplay in the Western cavalry outpost, deadly suspense, and romance are masterfully combined in this production." -- Variety

"Folks who are looking for action in the oldest tradition of the screen, observed through a genuine artist's camera, will find plenty here." -- Bosley Crowther in the New York Times

" is the simplest and most uncomplicated expression of the [cavalry] theme.  The ideal of the cavalry is never brought into question, only individuals within it...the firm belief expressed virtually that there is a oneness about the cavalry, a wholesomeness that makes the sacrifice of individuality worthwhile....Never again is Ford so sure about the sacrifice of the individual." -- J.A. Place in The Western Films of John Ford

"The film swings like a pendulum between the monotone of dull barracks life and the screaming high pitch of the Indian wars; but unfortunately for FORT APACHE, the action on screen doesn't get underway until too late to wake a lethargic audience." -- Cue

"A masterpiece." -- Phil Hardy in The Western

"For once Fonda fails to suggest the reserves of compassion and strength which had made him Ford's favorite actor.  John Wayne, indeed, growing in stature with every performance for Ford, takes the picture away from Fonda in the role of the experienced Indian fighter...." -- Andrew Sinclair in John Ford

"The plot twists are often unexpected and the characters never as simple as one expects....Rio Grande is lustier and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON more mature but FORT APACHE is grand entertainment, justly regarded as a classic Western." -- Brian Garfield in Western Films

" of John Ford's better Westerns...Henry Fonda is surprisingly effective as the Custer figure...and John Wayne is in top form....But the sub plots -- low comedy from Victor McLaglen, romance between Shirley Temple...and John Agar...are below par...." -- Steven H. Scheuer

Director John Ford in his favorite location

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