Fort Apache seems like a good start for thinking about John Ford’s films in the current context. It comes at a precise moment in Ford’s output and is possibly one of his most misunderstood films. Tag Gallagher in his magisterial book on Ford (University of California Press 1986), posits a ‘periodisation’ of Ford’s long career. He suggests five periods, taking the first as an ‘apprenticeship’ between 1917 and 1926. Period 1: 1927-35 is ‘Introspection’ and Period 2: 1936-47 is ‘Idealism’. Fort Apache is then the first film of the Third Period (1948-61), ‘Myth’. (The ‘Final Period’, 1962-65, is the ‘Age of Mortality’.) In the ‘Idealism’ period Ford had directed big ‘prestige’ pictures, including his two ‘straight’ literary adaptations How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath and his study of Young Lincoln. He’d made two ‘art films’ in The Long Voyage Home and The Fugitive. He’d also been to war and served his country well. He was a popular and ‘serious’ filmmaker producing films respected by his industry peers. Then, just as European producers and aspects of Hollywood production were turning towards forms of realism and stories about social issues, Ford seemed to turn in on himself and make highly personal films, which were often couched in popular genre terms. One very pragmatic basis for Ford’s decision was to make money for his company Argosy Pictures. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Ford tended to work ‘with’ major studios through his own company (which he started with Merian C. Cooper). He had lost money on The Fugitive after taking only minimum payment for his wartime work.
Fort Apache is the first film in Ford’s unofficial ‘7th cavalry trilogy’. All three films were adapted from short stories by James Warner Bellah that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1947. The story ‘Massacre’ became Fort Apache and, as adapted by Ford’s new scriptwriter Frank Nugent, it fictionalised aspects of General Custer’s actions in 1876, changing the Native American warriors to Apache rather than Plains warriors from further North. Ford’s Custer-like character is a West Point officer with no knowledge of ‘Indian Affairs’ who refuses to listen to his officers with real experience – but it’s also much more than that.
The opening to the film is quite brilliant at introducing the narrative and all the layers of meaning. The credit sequence offers a montage of shots from scenes across the whole narrative and the narrative proper begins in Monument Valley, which during this period becomes a kind of ‘Fordlandia’ seemingly extending across Arizona and Texas (it is actually between Utah, where Ford also shot on location, and Arizona). A stagecoach is heading for a staging post and on board is a sarcastic, stiff-necked officer Lt. Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda). With him is his lively daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). Fonda had starred in four of the top Ford pictures between 1939 and 1946 and in The Fugitive. Temple was the star of Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie in 1937. At the post Philadelphia is delighted to find a bare-chested 2nd Lt. John O’Rourke (John Agar) who is waiting for transport to take him to Fort Apache, returning after his commission at West Point.
The Scottish inn keeper and the stagecoach driver and guard are all old friends and recognisable Fordian characters. To emphasise this it is Ford’s older brother Frank, playing the stagecoach guard, who hawks with astounding accuracy to make the spitoon several feet away dance a little jig. When the fort’s ‘ambulance’ arrives it’s manned by a quartet of sergeants led by another Ford regular Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Mulcahy, who will turn out to be O’Rourke’s godfather (McLaglen was the star of Ford’s first Oscar winner The Informer (1935) and he played alongside Shirley Temple in her Ford film in 1937. If we’ve noted the credits we can probably guess that Ward Bond will be the boy’s father and we know that Wayne is in the film and that he will be the opposite of Fonda as a presence. The crucial exchange in the staging post is the news that the telegraph wires are down – a potential sign of Apache action. With this information and the arrival of the three ‘outsiders’, Ford has effectively set up his narrative. We note that the Fonda character is a WASP Bostonian who gets O’Rourke’s name wrong twice and treats him curtly while Philadelphia is already smitten (Temple and Agar were married just before shooting started). At least Thursday buys a round of drinks.
This is quite a long film for a Western (128 minutes) and the first part is almost a ‘cavalry fort procedural’ with new recruits to be trained, dances to be organised and the daily life of the fort before the first evidence of Apache action is presented. Then the battle between Fonda’s West Point martinet and Wayne’s Captain Kirby York as the soldier with local knowledge will begin in earnest. But there are other layered narrative strands. Philadelphia and John will have a romance even if Colonel Thursday’s social class rigidity (and army tradition) outlaw it. The sergeants will fall from grace, led by Mulcahy and there is yet another ‘couple narrative’ with the outgoing captain Collingwood (another Ford actor, from the 1920s, George O’Brien) and his wife (Anna Lee, yet another Ford actor from How Green Was My Valley who would go on to other Ford roles later). If actors appeared for Ford and he liked them and what they did, they invariably appeared for him again. The one star name I haven’t mentioned so far is Pedro Armendáriz. He was one of the great Latin American actors of the period and had worked on Ford’s previous picture, The Fugitive (1947), made in Mexico. His role in Fort Apache as Sergeant Beaufort is as the interpreter who enables Thursday to speak to the Apache leader Cochise using Spanish (Cochise is played by the Mexican actor Miguel Inclán). But Armendáriz must have riled Ford on his next picture as one of the three leads in 3 Godfathers (1948), because he never appeared for Ford again (and Henry Fonda only appeared in two further films in which Ford directed alongside others). Ford had his ‘stock company’. He was hard but loyal towards his actors who accepted and embraced his methods or didn’t repeat the experience.There are several well-known Ford character players in the fort including Mae Marsh as one of the officers’ wives and Hank Worden as a raw recruit. Both would go on to play multiple roles for Ford.
Ford’s films of this period are ‘personal’, almost keeping narratives ‘within the family’. Part of this communal family ‘feel’ also comes through the use of music – for marches, for dances and as folk songs/romances. Music is a feature of all three cavalry pictures, reaching a peak in Rio Grande (1950) with the Sons of the Pioneers. In Fort Apache the NCO’s dance is a high point and for me the most important scene in the film. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment, so let’s just say it is Ford at his finest in exploring protocol and comradeship and Western culture. When the dance ends with Capt. York’s return and Thursday’s decision to betray York, Ford makes a clear statement. Ford was working with RKO but he didn’t use any contracted studio creatives. The music was score scored by one of the many European émigrés in Hollywood, the Dutch composer Richard Hageman. He had worked with Ford on three previous films and would continue on the next three before his retirement in 1954.
As with the music, Ford had his own preferred cinematographers. Ford had poor eyesight and eventually wore a patch over one eye. Before that he wore dark glasses. However, he had a brilliant internal eye and knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. As Gallagher points out, Ford worked with big names like Gregg Toland and Arthur Miller, with their own distinctive styles, yet their films with Ford always looked like ‘Fordian films’. Archie Stout had photographed many Westerns in the 1930s including some of John Wayne’s B Westerns. His son was part of Ford’s wartime Photography Unit. Ford trusted him and admired his black and white work. On his Monument Valley shoots Ford would often use infra-red stock to achieve high contrast. One of Harry Carey Jr.’s stories about Ford sees Ford quizzing him about compositions and telling him that “if you can work out why the horizon is near the bottom of the frame in some shots and near the top in others, then you might become a picturemaker”. We can be sure Archie Stout new precisely why and delivered some of Ford’s most distinctive shots just as his director required. Ford also had William Clothier on Second Unit and he would become cinematographer on later Ford films such as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Archie Stout is one of my heroes because he worked with Ida Lupino on three of her early features as director.
Fort Apache made the money that Ford had aimed for – though Red River with Wayne made more in the same year. But if it was popular with audiences, the critical reaction was mixed. In the UK, the short Monthly Film Bulletin review praised the look of the film and the spectacular action and picked out John Wayne’s performance but the anonymous reviewer thought there were two many shots of mesas and buttes and riders silhouetted against the sky. They also had no time for Shirley Temple and the narrative strand of the romance. This last criticism is echoed in some American reviews. On the plus side the influential New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther praised Ford’s representation of the Apache as a breakthrough. It is the seeming contradiction inherent in the closing scenes of the film that has proved a stumbling block for many critics. Since the story is based on the historical events involving the death of George Armstrong Custer, I’m not spoiling the narrative by analysing the ending of Fort Apache.
Thursday not only ignores York’s advice but pushes aside his objections about breaking his word to Cochise. Thursday is depicted as a racist from the East, obsessed with his own honour and adherence to Army regulations. The reason he is so bad-tempered throughout is that he believes he has been doubly punished by an ungrateful US Army. His wartime promotion to General was downgraded after the war ended (this was standard practice, not a personal rebuke) and he was sent to the “God-forsaken outpost” of Fort Apache. By contrast, Kirby York accepted his posting after similar success in the Civil War and has found a way to negotiate with the Apache and also to be at ease with the community of the fort. Why then does York at the end of the film praise Thursday’s bravery and attachment to discipline when asked a question by a journalist visiting the fort? The answer, I think, is embodied in the way in which York praises the whole cavalry regiment and maintains that those lost in Thursday’s fatal charge are not gone but ride on with the everyday soldiers who now defend the frontier.
When York, now Colonel, rides off to finish the picture he is wearing Thursday’s kepi and neck cloth. We are here in the territory of ‘fact’ and ‘legend’ in Ford, presented more directly in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Gallagher argues that in most of the films of this ‘Myth’ period, Ford’s focus is on community and often the military community. In his historical films he explores how these communities survived and grew. It is clear that Thursday is a threat to the community, but that to denigrate his memory would hurt the community by undermining the image of the military. But that’s a relatively clear explanation. Ford does more because he shows the ways in which all the members of the community contribute to upholding the social codes of Army life, even if it means they will be individually hurt, so in a crucial scene, Emily Collingwood does not attempt to stop her husband, whose recall to Washington has just come through, from riding out with Thursday. To do so would be to cast him as running from danger. A review of the film by Dennis Schwartz includes comments on Ford’s Irish characters and this:
. . . while the women on the outpost are made into saints. Emily Collingwood (Anna Lee), the wife of Captain Collingwood, is a picture of an ideal wife, who makes Philadelphia feel at home, while the sergeant major’s wife, Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich), is the perfect Army wife and whatever she does is seen as noble.
The danger is in trying to see Ford’s depictions of the historical American West as ‘realist’ – though they are imbued with carefully researched accurate details. I think all the women in Fort Apache have important roles in the narrative and in this case they operate partly within the mythic narrative of army life and partly within the family melodrama which exists within the fort and which is in turn mixed up with the formal codes of social interaction. Thursday treats the O’Rourke family with disdain, safe in the knowledge that as 2nd Lt. O’Rourke is the son of an enlisted man and therefore not a ‘gentleman’ he cannot court Philadelphia. Sgt. Major O’Rourke was highly honoured during the Civil War and this enabled his son to enter West Point. Mrs O’Rourke understands these social codes. Note in detail how Ford directs the Grand March and the dance that follows during the NCO’s ball when Mrs O’Rourke must dance with Owen Thursday and her husband with Philadelphia as the ‘Colonel’s Lady’. Irene Rich does so much here with a few glances (She first worked with Ford in 1921 as a leading lady and then often with Harry Carey Sr. and Will Rogers, two major Ford collaborators.)
Several aspects of Fort Apache, including the representation of the Apache warriors (who apart from Cochise, never speak) will have to wait for commentaries on the rest of the cavalry trilogy, but I don’t want to leave the film without mentioning Richard Dyer’s analysis of Fonda and Wayne together in Stars (BFI 1979, 165-168). Dyer offers an early analysis of how Wayne has developed his performance skills in terms of his body movements and gestures in Fort Apache (see the still at the head of this post). I was impressed by this and it prompted my first attempts to work on the film in the 1980s. Since then I’ve read more about how Wayne learned about performance from both John Ford and Harry Carey Sr. and the big group of cowboy performers from early Hollywood. Quite why Fonda was replaced by Wayne in Ford’s casting at this point isn’t totally clear. Much of it was because of the change in the kinds of films Ford wanted to make, but I have seen some suggestions that Fonda himself changed around this time. Perhaps it was something to do with politics? Again, we’ll have to return to this later. The late 1940s became a fraught period when Wayne and Bond became leading ‘hawks’ and anti-communists during the HUAC and McCarthy periods. Ford’s politics were complex and he routinely mixed actors he knew were strongly opposed to each others views – as we will see in later posts.
There is a re-worked and expanded version of these notes produced for an online discussion event available to download from the ‘FREE Education Resources to download’ page.