Friday, June 1, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for June on TCM

John Ford's 1948 epic Fort Apache is based on the short story Massacre by James Warner Bellah with a screenplay by Frank Nugent. Tremendous research went into this post-war production with its cavalry setting and a myriad of characters. Following his experiences in WW2 director Ford felt a special bond with the military and the day-to-day life of soldiers and wanted to impart that feeling to the screen.  

Fort Apache tells the story of a Custer-like officer, Colonel Owen Thursday played by Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath). Colonel Thursday feels he has been dismissed politically with a posting in the west that offers no chance for advancement and glory. He is an arrogant man, dismissive of others not of his class. He is ignorant of the native population and unwilling to learn.

20-year-old Shirley Temple (Wee Willie Winkie) plays the Colonel's daughter, Philadelphia Thursday. While the straight-backed Thursday makes a cold first impression with those at the Fort, Philadelphia, all dimples, smiles, and heart on her sleeve is an instant favourite. In turn, she is smitten with the newly-minted Lieutenant O'Rourke played by then real-life husband John Agar. The young lieutenant is the pet of the Fort, being the son of Sergeant Major O'Rourke played by Ward Bond (The Fugitive).

Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, Irene Rich, Henry Fonda

Fort Apache is the story of the people who live and work in it. The ladies of the fort include Anna Lee (How Green Was My Valley) as Mrs. Collingwood, wife of Fort Apache's interim commander, and Irene Rich (Angel and the Badman) as Mrs. O'Rourke, wife of the Sergeant-Major and mother of the Lieutenant. These two women represent two possible futures for young Philadelphia.

Grant Withers, Victor McLaglen, John Wayne, Henry Fonda
George O'Brien, Miguel Inclan, Pedro Armendariz

Captain Collingwood played by George O'Brien (The Iron Horse) had been expected to become commander of Fort Apache. His history with Thursday, and an unfortunate past decision had left Collingwood with the label of a coward and stymied his career advancement. Captain York played by John Wayne (Stagecoach) is an officer who came up through the ranks and has a thorough knowledge of the frontier gained from experience. Conflicts naturally arise between the by-the-book Thursday and the men who have adapted to a rough life outside of the textbooks. This conflict will result in tragic consequences.

Shirley Temple, John Agar, Anna Lee, John Wayne
Guy Kibbee, Dick Foran

One of the things I enjoy most about a Ford picture, particularly those with a Nugent screenplay, is that they bring us into a society fully formed to make of it what we will. Complete biographies for the characters were created before the screenplay was begun and the audience is respected enough to be able to understand the nuances of the dialogue and the shared looks among characters.

Being a Ford picture we also have, as in life, humour and music. It feels absolutely right that a character like Thursday, so hidebound can be surrounded by the rollicking humour of the sergeants and the recruits. Although to give him his due, Thursday has one of the funniest lines in the movie when dealing with the larcenous sutler Meachan played by Grant Withers. The charming musical interlude in Fort Apache is provided by Dick Foran lending his whisky-soaked tenor to Sweet Genevieve.

John Wayne as Kirby York

Archie Stout and William Clothier are the cinematographers and there are scenes in the desert which are absolutely breathtaking. I had seen the film quite a few times before realizing how beautiful it is visually.

Fort Apache gives much for the viewer to absorb as a historical piece and a character study. Perhaps Thursday and York had much they needed to learn from the other. Fort Apache is full of noble sentiments, and the triumphs and tragedies of everyday people. It has vivid and heartbreaking action. The stirring epilogue is Ford telling us when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Whether it is for good or ill, the legend propels us forward.  

TCM is airing Fort Apache on Sunday, June 17th at 10:30 pm.


  1. A great film and the best story of Ford's Cavalry Trilogy. Don't you want to just wring Henry Fonda's neck in this? A nice tie in with Ford's wonderful The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in so far as how legends are created.

  2. A beautifully filmed movie, and I love the characters. The moment when Ward Bond subtly informs the arrogant Fonda that he was a recipient of the Medal of Honor. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the print the legend ending. But, that is the stuff of Hollywood as well as the stuff of the history books.

  3. If ever a man's neck needed wringing, it was Col. Owen Thursday.

    I get a kick out of the frustration in Anna Lee's delivery of her line "Oh, Owen Thursday - that man!" Says it all.

  4. JTL, I don't know that Ford was approving of "print the legend" or just making us aware that this is how life works. It does get a wee bit sticky, but I cut him slack because it's only his third film after the war. What am I saying? It's John Ford. I always cut him slack. Yeah, like me needs me to do that.

    I have had conversations with folks over the years who don't see the "print the legend" ending. Sigh. No wonder Ford had to spell it out for them in "Liberty Valance".

  5. Can't go wrong with John Ford and John Wayne - and throw in Henry Fonda proving he was more than just your above-average mister nice guy next door - and you have one great film. I'm not really a western gal, but I love great movies and this is one of them. Thanks for a great post.

  6. Thanks, FlickChick. Sometimes we find a great movie outside our favourite genres, and that's a wonderful surprise.

  7. I love the "print the legend" ending it drives home the whole point of the movie.

    And this is one of my favorite Fonda performances. He's brilliant as the arrogant, too strong-willed Thursday. I wonder if Leone saw this before casting Fonda as "Frank".

    The Script is great too, just when I write off Thursday as a total jack ass, he'd do/say something that showed he wasn't all bad. Everyone is a well rounded character.

  8. RC, the great script and characters bring me back to "Fort Apache" as there is always something to discover and appreciate.

  9. "I have had conversations with folks over the years who don't see the "print the legend" ending. Sigh. No wonder Ford had to spell it out for them in 'Liberty Valance'".

    Whoa. It never occurred to me that the print the legend ending - no matter if one liked or disliked it - wasn't obvious. You're right, Ford must have anticipated this.

  10. One of the reasons I love westerns, is because of the beautiful scenery..

    This film has a lot going for it... great actors, great director, Monument Valley, humor, emotion, action and suspense.

  11. JTL, as a creator yourself, have you experienced the surprise of putting your stuff out there and being misunderstood?

  12. Dawn, I love a really good western. It's my observation that many of the best work of the top creative minds in Hollywood can be found in westerns - composers, directors, actors and cinematographers. Long live the western!

  13. A great pick, of course! I'm a fan of all of Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy." I know that Ford's fans highlight the stunning the B&W photography, but I can't help wonder what these films would have looked like in color.

  14. I am enchanted by the B&W, but I will admit to occasionally wondering what "Rio Grande" and "Fort Apache" would have looked like in colour as well.

  15. Excellent review. One of my favorite Ford movies, showing his trademark mixture of hope and cynicism.

    P.S.: Colorized versions of Fort Apache and Rio Grande used to run frequently on the various Turner cable networks. For years I thought Rio Grande was a color film!

  16. Thanks.

    TV can mess you up. There are some movies I saw for the first time on a B&W TV set and am surprised to discover they are Technicolor extravaganzas.

  17. Fort Apache is a beautifully filmed movie. Not, one boring moment... Good pick!!

  18. John Ford movies are spectacular. I have seen Fort Apache more times than could be counted. In fact it's one of those movies that I owned on video, bought on DVD, and about two weeks ago I got my blu-ray. Great movie, an a great post. Thanks.

  19. Love, love, love this movie. Thanks for pointing out that the character bios were written before the script... I didn't know this but it makes perfect sense and a much better script.

  20. Dawn, Lasso The Movies & Silverscreenings, it is a pleasure to hear from other "Fort Apache" fans. TCM is showing the movie on Father's Day after the Essentials Jr. screening of "Rio Bravo". I hope a lot of families let the kids stay up late to catch "Fort Apache". To my mind, it might have been the better 8 o'clock choice, but ... they didn't ask me!

  21. I really can't add anything to what you've written. It is indeed a rich, magnificent movie and I take away something different from it each time I see it.

    I love the sense of community the film showcases. From the opening credits, showing the dance at the fort, lets us know this will be as much about the fort as a unit of living as it is about fighting Indians.

    A great post, CW, on a great movie.



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