Cole Thornton, a gunfighter for hire, joins forces with an old friend, Sheriff J.P. Hara. Together with an old Indian fighter and a gambler, they help a rancher and his family fight a rival rancher that is trying to steal their water.
Deep into the territory of the great Apache chief, Cochise, the demoted Civil War general, Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday, reports for duty as a commanding officer at the remote U.S. cavalry outpost known as Fort Apache, along with his daughter, Philadelphia. There, the arrogant commander will soon lock horns with the realistic and sensible second-in-command, Captain Kirby York, who, as an expert in the local Apaches, disagrees with Thursday who wants to make a name for himself in the Arizona frontier. In the end, is it wise to engage in battle when personal glory is all you seek?Written by
I think that a list of John Wayne's five best pictures has to include Fort Apache. It's the first and best of the cavalry trilogy that he did with John Ford. Oddly enough he has less screen time here than in the other two, due to the fact that he was co-starring with another big Hollywood name in Henry Fonda.
It's first and foremost the story of a clash between two men who see the United States Army in very different terms. Fonda is a former general who's seen glory in the Civil War, but has been shunted aside. He wants to get back on top in the worst way. He's exiled to Fort Apache in the Arizona territory while the big headlines concerning the Indian wars are going to the campaign against the plains Indians which was true enough.
Wayne has also seen some glory in the Civil War. But he's a professional soldier and just wants to live long enough to retire. In fact Ward Bond who is the sergeant major at the post has also dropped down in rank, he was a major in the Civil War and a Medal of Honor winner. This was a common occurrence at the end of the Civil War. During the war, promotions came swiftly because of battlefield service. Something called a brevet rank was instituted a kind of temporary promotion. You could be a brevet brigadier general and have an actual rank of something like major. After the Civil War as the U.S. Army shrunk to its pre-war size, soldier reverted to previous ranks. This was something John Ford was keenly aware of when he made Fort Apache.
Ford's stock company was never better. Even minor bit parts are woven nicely into the whole story. And his photography of Monument Valley, it's beauty and vastness was never better even when he used color. Look at the scenes with John Agar and Shirley Temple riding and with Wayne and Pedro Armendariz on their way to parley with Cochise. Really great cinematography.
Ford had a couple of inside comments in the film. In a scene where Henry Fonda is getting an incomplete message from the post telegrapher, the telegrapher who might have strolled in from a Cagney-O'Brien film informs his commander that the message was interrupted "in the middle of the last woid." With both Irish and southern recruits in Fort Apache, a Brooklynese telegrapher would not have been out of place.
George O'Brien and Anna Lee, play Sam and Emily Collingwood who both knew Henry Fonda's Owen Thursday way back in the day. It's hinted that O'Brien had a drinking problem and that's why he's at Fort Apache, but he's looking for a transfer out. It comes as the regiment is moving out against Cochise.
Charles Collingwood was the second in command to Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar. Nelson became a British hero martyr, historians know about Charles Collingwood. When newspapermen at the end of Fort Apache remark about men like "Collingworth"not being remembered, it was John Ford making a statement about the worth of all the men who contribute their lives to defend their nations not just the leader heroes.
That remark by the way is the stage for one of John Wayne's finest acted scenes in his career. A soliloquy photographed through a cabin window about the life of the professional soldier, the camaraderie, the toughness, the bravery required of these men and how they deliver for their nation.
In a later film John Ford uses the line that in the west "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Henry Fonda's quest for martial glory was a blunder, but his story for the sake and tradition of his regiment is whitewashed and he becomes an inspiration.
Of course some of the lowbrow comedy that one expects from John Ford is here aplenty with the four drinking sergeants and their efforts to make soldiers out of the recruits. Led by Victor McLaglen, the quartet rounds out with Dick Foran, Jack Pennick, and Pedro Armendariz. See how they dispose of the contraband they are charged with destroying and its consequences.
Fort Apache also takes the side of the Indian here. Cochise played by an impassive Miguel Inclan is a figure of strength and dignity. Later on Jeff Chandler in another film brought speech to the dignity and that role launched his career. Cochise is the only true major figure in the film. He bedeviled the U.S. Cavalry for over a decade in Arizona Territory with guerrilla tactics Mao Tse Tung would have envied.
Fort Apache is a grand ensemble film and you will not be bored for one second in watching it.
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