On a recent afternoon I booted up a DVD, John Ford’s Fort Apache. I haven’t seen it in years, and as I watched it I was reminded why it’s considered a classic, and maybe not for the reasons everyone picks. For me it was watching Henry Fonda in yet another of his fine performances. Fonda showed over and over he was not only a movie star, but a great actor.
Okay, I know John Wayne got top billing, but John Wayne always played one part, and that was the Duke. Wayne’s onscreen character repeated itself dozens of times in movies. Fonda, an actor first, played a wide variety of parts and was good at all of them.
In Fort Apache he played Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday, a West Point graduate. Thursday was once a general, but is now reduced in rank. He’s been put in command of a U.S. Cavalry fort near the Apache reservation. He has brought his young daughter, Philadelphia Thursday, with him. Col. Thursday is not happy with his assignment and lets everyone within earshot know it.
No smooth sailing: This isn't the Good Ship Lollipop. They're on their bumpy, dusty way to Fort Apache.
The movie takes its time setting up, by letting us in on the characters’ lives. Philadelphia, played as a coquette by 20-year-old Shirley Temple, is smitten with Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke (John Agar, in his first movie role and who was then her real-life husband), who will be reunited with his parents, Sergeant-Major and Mrs. O’Rourke (Ward Bond and Irene Rich) at the fort. Colonel Thursday is unhappy with his daughter’s interest and forbids the lieutenant from seeing her. But before that we are treated to a great scene with Philadelphia sitting down to dinner with the O’Rourkes, where she explains the origin of her name. It is one of the funny scenes in the movie, and Temple’s performance is excellent. (Ford was notoriously hard on female actors, and Shirley was no exception.)
But despite that glimpse at a more domestic side, this is life in an army fort. We are taken back to Colonel Thursday, who tells his officers, “I’m not a martinet.” But he is. At least he fits the definition of martinet as I understand it. He is demanding and unforgiving of any mistakes or lapses, even down to the uniforms. As he leads his men to meet the Apaches he tells Capt. York (Wayne), that he and the rest of the men are out of uniform; their hats should be creased like fedoras, and they should not have their galluses (suspenders) on the outside. They might be riding to their deaths, but they must look sharp!
One of the truly great scenes in the movie has nothing to do with battles or Apaches. It's in the non-commissioned officers’ dance, where Col. Thursday is reluctant to do his part, but does it anyway. He is to lead the Grand March with Mrs. O’Rourke, and what follows is a march as precise as any close order drill, with the wives (and Philadelphia) as partners of the soldiers. Through it all, Fonda remains stone-faced, his West Point training as an officer and a gentleman overriding his natural revulsion to such an activity.
At the end of the march he dances solo with Mrs. O'Rourke, and for a brief moment he lets himself go, as he and his partner go into some energetic moves. It's a great scene, and you can see it here, from a (sorry about that) low-resolution clip on YouTube. (If you encounter a black screen, sorry again, but that’s YouTube’s doing, not mine):
Fort Apache is remembered for its battle scene with the Apaches, and not for the dance scenes, but for me they brought a humanity to the movie and to the character of Col. Thursday. The dance is cut short by an alarm that the Apaches are approaching, and despite a plea for understanding of Cochise and his Apaches by Capt. York, Thursday then quickly goes back to the military way of dealing with the recalcitrant Indians.
And that military way leads to the hard-headed soldier’s inevitable bad end.
Fort Apache was filmed in 1947 and released in 1948. It was right after the largest war in the history of the world. The audience knew and recognized the archetypes in the film: the button-downed hardliner played by Fonda (most of the men who had been in uniform had encountered one or two of them in their time), the strong captain, the gruff sergeant-major. Hell, I wasn’t even in that war and I recognized all of them!
The film was the first of director John Ford’s “trilogy,” followed by She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. They are all epic Westerns. Fort Apache tells its story in a very different way from modern movies. It allows itself to build, with any action scenes between soldiers and Indians not coming for an hour. And when they do encounter the Apaches (played by local Navajos), there’s a startling anachronism.
As the camera pans past a line of Apaches we see for just a second a speeding panel truck in the far background.
It’s hard to believe someone missed this in the editing room, and it’s a mystery why it was never removed from the film at any time after it was made. It is a careless mistake. Such bloopers pop up in countless motion pictures, but when such a thing is seen it brings us back to reality, away from the silver screen images. We quickly go back to the artificial reality, though. We willingly accept it because it just so much fun to let ourselves be drawn into the story.