Fort Apache (1948): Classic Movie Review

Fort Apache starring John WayneMovie Review of the 1948 classic Fort Apache:

Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, James Warner Bellah
Photography: Archie Stout, William H. Clothier
Editor: Jack Murray
Cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Ward Bond, Pedro Armendáriz, George O’Brien, Victor McLaglen, Miguel Inclán, Hank Worden

My self-rehabilitation project re: John Ford took a decided turn for the better when I came across Fort Apache. It’s nicely effective, perfectly enjoyable, and Ford to the core, a western with John Wayne set in Monument Valley.

Monument Valley, even shot in a harsh dusty black and white, remains imposing as ever, its wide open spaces and the alien shapes of its mountains and rock formations establishing a backdrop that keeps one off balance, identifying with the isolation of the characters. In a way it’s a distraction—yet in another way as much a character as anyone walking around on two legs. It’s oppressive, bearing down on the story more and more as the story develops, the characters for the most part eventually just lost in it, as at least one of them simply becomes just lost.

The film features a terrific screenplay from Frank S. Nugent which patiently gives over most of its first half to developing the characters and conflicts and laying the foundation of the thing before proceeding to a nicely realized climax at the onset of the action scenes, whose battles thus become all the more effective. With the stakes fully defined, the viewer is left simply to gape at the magnificent spectacle as it unfolds, and for once I felt like Ford’s reputation was earned, that I could relax in the hands of a masterful storyteller and just give in to it.

In many ways it’s a very typical Ford picture. The Civil War is still a recent memory, and it sometimes seems that as many characters fought on one side as the other, which creates more tension in the viewers (at least this viewer) than it seems to in anyone inside the story. Instead, there’s just a lot of the usual high-spirited high-jinx going on, so beloved of Ford and his followers—no end of Irish blarney, hearty guffaws, and unseemly pratfalls, particularly when men are all dressed up for an event. Drunkenness is taken for granted, a way of life for some, for better and for worse. And, of course, the elaborate rites of male camaraderie are presented as generally superior to more constricting relationships with women.

In fact, as a class, women tend to rank only somewhat ahead of horses—and a bit behind good whiskey. But that’s not unusual for Ford, nor westerns, nor indeed for the times. As always (just ask Peter Bogdanovich), “the times” is less excuse than explanation in these matters, and in any event simply must suffice. Ward Bond addresses his wife as a matter of routine as “Woman” (as in, “Woman, don’t be concernin’ yerself with things that don’t concern ye”). Yet Bond, a supporting player, also happens to own one of the very best performances here of many, and part of that includes an obviously profound esteem that his character has for his wife. The pride and humility he evinces simply in his bearing, the way he holds himself and moves with such quiet, pained dignity, is one of the real marvels to see here.

The real star of the show is Henry Fonda as Colonel Owen Thursday, a 19th-century military martinet (who explicitly denies exactly that at one point) seething with resentment at being assigned to an outpost on the fringes of the Western frontier. But there’s a lot of complexity to his character—he’s occasionally capable of being fair when it would be more convenient for him not to be, he appears to deserve his commission as arguably the smartest person at the fort, and if his displays of courage veer too often toward the foolhardy, they are no less courageous for that. His character succeeds as a result of both Fonda’s neatly controlled performance and Nugent’s fine screenplay.

John Wayne gets top billing over Fonda but it seems to me that he plays much more of a supporting role, which I think actually suits him well. This could be artifact of my reflexive distaste for him, but at least I’m starting to see with this performance that he does have some tonal range and can play more than a surly lout. He does a nice job of projecting the struggle that his proud and defiant character suffers under Thursday’s command. He’s a good soldier in a difficult position and Wayne is better than adequate at staying within that.

There are a number of such surprises from the cast—Shirley Temple as Thursday’s daughter (oddly named Philadelphia), an adolescent determined to marry against her father’s wishes, is charming. John Agar as her suitor is decent as the usual awkward earnest young man in a John Ford picture. Troupers such as Hank Worden (and Ward Bond) are always a pleasure. And it’s refreshing to see Native Americans cast to play Native Americans, particularly in a picture from this period (aka “the times”).

As usual, Ford’s musical interludes go right to certain hearts of American experience under the burden of a good deal of corn. Yet somehow they work particularly well for me here. There’s a dance sequence that occurs just before the third act that I really love—stiff, mannered, even rather silly, it nonetheless conveys better than perhaps anything else how intent these pioneers were in establishing and preserving their ideas of civilization in an environment hostile to them—both the dignity of the effort, and the benightedness of it, too.

JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.


  • Kent Gravett

    No doubt it iis one of his best. Always wondered why in Black and White, but Ford was launcing his own production company, needed csh, and maybe the budget made that decision for him. However, the evntual blackness of the story fits well with an absence of color. It has a kind of tragic ending and a great lie to wrap up the fim which Ford expalins in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: print the legend at ll cos. Those who have seen this great film will know what I mean. I object to the dance sequence being classified as silly. In fact it is quite stirring in that it shows the dedication, discipline and honor these men hold to their place in that world. It also foreshadows that we will lose most of them–many who do not seem to deservce as we like them. Sorry the reviewer has problems with Ford. As a friend of mine said one time “He can just “mick” you to death.” So what? It makes for the fibre in his films. Glas the reviewer is finally coming around to Ford’s undeniable greatness. As native American said to be on one of my visits to Monumen Valley: “He was a good man, no matter what anyone says.”

  • Anna P

    I happen to like both Ford films as well as John Wayne.
    JPK EVIDENTLY hasn’t seen many John Wayne movies. Many of them have humorous moments in them which I like. The one I
    didn ‘t care for was “Green Beret.” I had trouble handling some of the scenes. His movies also introduced me to Ben
    Johnson who I like very much.

  • bonnerace

    Ford was great. Fonda was superb and it was very unusual to see him in a role like this. Wayne was in his definite strong area. The supporting cast was outstanding. The “calvary” pictures as these were called, all told different views of stories interesting to see. Fonda, however, made this unusual. A man who was pissed off about his assigned post, his anger, stress and view of life seemed to be coming out of every pore. WATCH!

  • Tom Herbert

    This film is part of the great Ford trilogy with John Wayne. The second of the two, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, shows Wayne in another offbeat character, for him, which he handles well. You start to see Wayne age. But as always, John Ford takes advantage of the scenery to supurbly create a feeling of isolation, as he also did in Fort Apache.
    You can also see the change in both Ford’s and Wayne’s attitude toward Native Americans. There is more respect shown to a group people that were abused, lied to, swindled and generally regarded as nothing but savages without dignity. Later this change is again shown in McClintock. Even though that film is not a Ford classic, but it is a Wayne classic.

  • Buster49

    I’m a big John Ford fan although the humor in some of his post-WWII films can get to be a bit much. Luckily it doesn’t dominate in his films. I like “Fort Apache” but feel that “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” is a tighter screenplay and better overall. I t has nothing to do with being in color. I love b/w films. I like that John Wayne took a comparative back set in “Fort Apache.” It made his Kirby York that much more interesting.

  • Stan

    I have always listed this as one of John Wayne’s top films of all time. Ford as Director makes the movie what it is though. With that being said Henry Fonda though is the most compelling figure in the flick. His stubborness is the lynch pin that leads to not only his own undoing but many under his command that suffer for his short sightedness. So many levels to this movie and one you can watch many times and enjoy the look and feel of the west in one of this country’s most shameful periods of history.

  • Mark H.

    It’s a favorite of mine. The only downside
    is Shirley Temple. It’s a good thing she
    made her money as a child star because she
    didn’t make the grade as an adult actress.
    Her performance in this movie HAD to be one
    of the worst ever. JMO

  • Harold

    Cannot understand the reviewer’s remark about his “reflexive distaste” of John Wayne and the dig about his ability to play more than a “surly lout”. There may be more but I can only think of two that this mis-characterization might be applied to: “The Searchers” and “True Grit”. The vast majority of Wayne’s films he was a lovable tho sometimes stern military officer but even in his most “surly” roles he always came out showing his heart of gold. The reviewer really needs to get out more, watch a few more movies with Wayne starring. Seems to have a very limited experience with the roles Wayne has played, and played the character he was assigned.

  • Harold

    Add one more, “Red River”.

  • williamgee

    “Fort Apache” obviously helped JPK in his recuperation from whatever ailed him. He has written a thoughtful review. This is a classic John Ford movie. But I do not agree that Wayne plays his role as a supporting player. Both he and Fonda are very strong in their roles and that strength is what creates the conflicts that are critical to this story and why it works so well.
    It worked the same way in Ford’s later “Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” with Wayne co-starring with James Stewart.
    Growing up I was never a John Wayne fan. But the older I got, the more I appreciated his range and his movies. Go figure.

  • Alfred Dreher

    I find Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and then The Searchers as all fine John Ford and John Wayne films. It would be tough to pick a favorite but would have to be the latter.
    I have grown to be a bigger John Wayne fan over the years, as never appreciated his acting as a kid.

  • Steve Phifer

    I watched the complete Cavalry Trilogy (“Ft. Apache,:” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” & “Rio Grande”) last weekend. I had always thought “Ft Apache” to be my least preferred of the three. After watching them in the order they were made and understanding more of how this unintentional trilogy came to be, I now have no favorites. Each film shines in its own orbit. In “Ft. Apache,” the ending is tragic and solves nothing. In the other two, Wayne’s characters try to stop war and largely succeed. Taken as a whole, the Cavalry Trilogy deserves its place of honor among the great Westerns and “Ft. Apache” was the first!

  • Tiny Tim

    I think John Wayne’s “surliest” performances (e.g. Red River and The Searchers) are among his best. Also, “troupers” appear on stage or in the movies, but “troopers” chased Indians around on horseback. Nowadays they hang out in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • Chuck Neumann

    Odd, the reviewer doesn’t care for John Ford and has a distaste for John Wayne, yet he likes Fort Apache. Maybe he hasn’t watched many Ford/Wayne films. To call Wayne a surly lout in his films shows he hasn’t watched many of them. As far as Shirley Temple’s name in the film, if you have a last name of Thursday you can name our child after Philadelphia – the kid is already marked.

  • eduardo rodriguez

    En realidad el film es una alegoría y recuerda el fin de George Custer en Little Big Horn. ¿O la actitud del personaje de Henry Fonda no es parecida a la Custer en aquella batalla?.
    Tiene como homenaje a la caballería la escena final donde John Wayne, que sabía la verdad del fin del Comandnate de la tropa, deja que todos piensen que murió como un héroe, a pesar del error estratégico de ingresar en un desfiladero donde estaban los apaches chiricahuas.
    Brillante film de John Ford. Como todos sus westerns…

  • Susan H

    “FORT APACHE” is my favorite of the “3-FORD TRILOGY”. Shirley Temple does have a humourous aspect to it, as well as her meeting and marrying John Agar in it. I love Dick Foran, doing the singing serenade as “Quincannon” in the movie for Temple and Agar. (He was “Boze” in “The Petrified Forest”
    This is the only of the three I bought. And, am happy with it. (Personally, “She wore a Yellow Ribbon” doesn’t live up to my expectations, except that it has more John Wayne.) I like the humour of the “stiff” Fonda coming to Fort Apache, and there is a lot of humour in it if you look for it. (EX: When the Irish “brigade”/family men have to pour out the liquor, the line “IT’s a Man’s Duty we have to perform today, men!”) is a good one. As well as the whole inspection in there, like Wayne finding the weapons in the bible, Fonda finding the weights off, etc. etc.
    The end? A little corney, with the son of FONDA – in a way, Wayne plays 2nd to Fonda, but he REALLY has the scoop on the way the place is run. That, I think, is why he has Agar’s character and Wayne’s wait on the mountain (though, Wayne brings Fonda the saber to him when he has lost his weapons) – he knows they will be good when he is gone. (And, for his daughter, who disappears for the other two – for reasons stated already!).
    GIVE ME FORT APACHE ANYTIME! (And, I also like
    other Ford movies, such as “HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY”

  • Fred Buschbaum

    Great film, the tension thick enough to cut with a knife. Two officers from different military and civilian backgrounds great protaganists. As to the “woman” thing, as soldiers they needed to hold on to as much civilation as possible and their “code” of behavior. For me, however, the final scenes with Wayne talking to the reporters and talking about Fondas actions as heroic and in almost the same breath explaining the upcoming winter campain which he had tried to stop the need for during the film was just like some of todays military coverups to save the image of the army.

  • Joy

    The bi-play between the characters, male and female in this movie do reflect the standards of the time. Both the time it was made and the times it was set in. Womem took their husbands name completly then and almost ceased to exist if photos of the period are anything to go by. Has anyone ever met a woman called…..Mrs Herbet Evans or Major John Smith? That is the way photos of families where labeled at the time.
    That aside it is a fantastic movie and John Waynes performance is subtle for him, something understated and very interesting. If you want to read about the other “interesting” things that happened on that John Ford set I can recommend Harry Carey Jr’s book In the Company of Men….it’s a good read if you’re into John Ford. I own every movie that is on DVD by this man….he was a train blazer in the Western Movie genre.

  • Clay Robinson

    I wish if someone is going to write a review of a movie they would check their facts before– just a few remarks to set the record straight: Henry Fonda played Col. Owen Thursby not Thursday. Capt York (Wayne) corrects a newspaperman on this very point in the climatic scene when he covers for Thursby’s foolish attempt at glory –not courage.
    Wayne’s character is the courageous one when he trys to prevent his CO from making a military -tactical, albeit tragic, mistake. He then insures history tells the legend. (This is what Ford had Stewart say in Liberty Valance.) Wayne’s character is the protagonist- there is no conflict or tension without his character’action and words. Otherwise Fort Apache would be just another action packed western with the cavalry being wiped out at the end. In the last scene Ford makes his point even if it is heavy handed.

  • Clay Robinson

    Ford’s casting in this film is supurb even in the case of Shirley Temple. Ford wants this character to be presented as child-like: naive and silly and daddy’s little girl. In this way her character stands juxtaposed to the women-wives of the other officers. These women soldier on at home while the men go out to risk death. Examples are First Sgt. O’Rouke’s wife and the former COs wife both of whom’s husbands are killed along with Thursby in a useless exercise of “duty”.
    Also Ford always employed Native Americans from the Navaho and Pueblo tribes in his cavalry movies and in these two early examples, Apache and Yellow Ribbon, even in speaking parts in their meetings with Wayne’s character. Unfortunately in his later Cheyenne Autumn Ford failed to employ N.Am in the leading roles, which makes it one of his least acclaimed films.

  • JPK

    Clay Robinson, I wish if someone is going to correct someone else on their facts that they would check their facts before. See Henry Fonda credit at IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040369/), which has been known to be wrong of course, but take it up with them. (It’s also “Thursday” in the English subtitles on the DVD, but what do they know?) I don’t recall the correction of the newspaperman that you’re talking about in the late scene, but maybe that’s just me and IMDb too.

    Thanks all for your spirited comments and feedback. Good stuff!

  • bill robinson

    One of the problems with almost all, if not all, western movies featuring the cavalry is the uniforms. The soldiers got issued their first uniforms, but after that, if they wanted to replace something, they had to buy it. As a result, they bought the used uniforms of soldiers leaving the service and when on active duty wore whatever they could find EXCEPT their issued uniforms. A cavalry outfit in those days looked like a collection of today’s homeless. It wouldn’t be hard to get this right, but no one has.

  • sugarpussoshea

    I am sooo sorry that JPK is a writer for movies, etc. and really doesn’t seem to appreciate John Wayne. I liked him fine as I was growing up – but see the really brillant performances more with every viewing. I can see where someone may consider this a supporting role – Duke Wayne was a very generous actor who gave space to other actors. He didn’t have to use any gimicks that others needed to dominate the screen, it just came naturally.
    I don’t speak spanish – but from what I cud figure out, Eduardo says this is an allegory for Custard’s last stand. I alsolutely agree – and, of course, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” seems to be the code of the ole west. In his westerns, Ford does seem to try to portray some of the abuse put upon Native Americans from white men who spoke with fork-d tongues thru his entire career – not just after “Wounded Knee” was released. This was part of my american history lessons and I always appreciated some of the truth among the legends that Ford was so brillant at putting on the silver screen. My life has been enriched with the Ford/Wayne productions and I do thank them.

  • Gord Jackson

    I never really cared for John Wayne until I saw John Ford’s “The Horse Soldiers” and discovered him to be a far better actor than I realized. From there, I checked or re-checked out many of his other films; “The Searchers”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “True Grit”, “Rooster Cogburn and the Lady”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, “Rio Bravo”, “El Dorado”, “The Quiet Man”, “The War Wagon”, “The Sons of Katie Elder” and what has turned out to be my personal favourite Wayne film and performance, “Red River.” And what comes across to me loud and clear is the man’s ability to not so much act as react. I’ve forgotten whether it was Howard Hawks or John Ford who passed on that piece of sage advice about ‘reacting’, but Wayne took it to heart, making him arguably the screen’s finest actor at it. So important, often under-valued and all-too-often overlooked, the ability to convinclingly ‘react’ to what is going on around you gives the character being essayed a credibility that nothing else will.

  • Judith R

    Thank you Gord Jackson, for your comments on John Wayne. An all-around American actor who was never afraid to show his love of our country, family, and friends, whether in a movie or in his personal life. The “Duke’s” movies will always live on.

  • Joy

    When you are talking about John Waynes acting you can’t go past John Fords comment after he saw Wayne in Stage Coach. In an interview later he said he use the actor then because before than “He never knew the son-of-a-bitch coult act! That’s a direct quote.

  • http://www.facebook.com/whatever41 Cynthia LaRochelle

    Ford and Wayne, one terrific combination. Some of the most memorable westerns ever conceived. John Wayne declared “The Searchers” was his favorite, and it’s mine also. I never tire of it. He threw his whole self into the roles he was give. He was tough, but he could also show a tender side. Sooooo, to each his own,, you either like Wayne or don’t. That’s what our country is all about “freedom to choose”.

  • rufnek43

    I agree the film in one sense is more about Fonda than Wayne, but although I haven’t actually counted the minutes, I’m pretty sure Wayne is on the screen more than Fonda. And Wayne was a better actor than a lot of people ever gave him credit far–not better than Fonda who could play believeably a bigger variety of roles, but better than he’s usually credited.

    As far as Ford, his westerns are generally more realistic than other directors, especially modern directors. The “silly” Grand March that officially opens the dance did exist and is still performed at Civil War reenactment dances. It’s a march in both name and performance, simulating the extension of a military line–infantry or cavalry–from a column of fours start. Seen–and especially participated–in real life, it is even more awesome than in the film. The waltz performed in the film uses the exact steps popularly danced in the late 19th Century. Military maneuvers are also realistic. And you’d be astounded to see actual reports on the huge consumpion of liquor in that and earier periods. The high rate of alcoholism, the large percentages of workers’ paychecks squandered on liquor, and the resulting frequent abuse of spouses and chiildren in early America up into the early 20th century is what drove the prohibition movement in the US.

    The Owen Thursday character, of course, is loosely based on Gen. Custer, a real hero of the Civil War and the youngest Union general who had trouble adapting to to being a colonel in an essentially peacetime Army policing Indians to prevent deprevations on white settlers pouring into their Western territory. Like too many Army officers, Custer had a poor opinion of his Indian adversaries and a high opinion of himself, with fatal results. Custer died in the centennial year of America’s Declaration of Independence and was the biggest US defeat by Indians at that time, so it naturally was broadly reported. What turned Custer into the legend that still exists today is the determination of his widow, Libby, to make him a hero and his death something more than a foolish, ambitious overreach by a too-proud man. This also was helped by copies of a panoramic but unrealistic painting of “Custer’s Last Stand” that were distributed by a sympathetic brewer and hung in saloons across the East and West.

    One topic which I can never let pass is Wayne’s great “patriotism” just because he cheered the Vietnam War in which he or any of his family served. During World War II, however, when older, better established celebrities such as Clark Gable, Glenn Miller, and John Ford himself voluntarily served, John Wayne requested and received a deferment as a married man with children (my father was married, had a child-me–and, unlike Wayne, was employed in an essential industry–finding and producing the oil on which the Allies sailed to victory in that war. Yet my dad and others like him enlisted within weeks of Pearl Harbor. So while Sabu, born in India but a naturalized US citizen, was flying missions as belly gunner on B17s, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was leading commando raids behind German lines, and James Stewart, who enlisted in the Army Air Corps well before the start of the war, was leading deadly bombing missions over Germany, Wayne was home building his movie career by starring in war films like They Were Expendable.” Ford himself frequently razzed Wayne for “sitting out the war.”
    Even Ronnie Reagan enlisted and made stateside films for the Army, a job Wayne easily could have handled.

  • rufnek43

    Meant to say of course Wayne and family members did NOT serve in the military during the Vietnam era.

  • Banner39

    For my money you can not beat Wayne and Ford. Their kind will never come again.

  • Jer

    For the record, the title “WOMAN” meant more than what it is today. The scene were John Agar returns to his parents “Home”, he enters, Ward Bond almost can’t contain his emotions or tears, and he says, “woman of the house, your son is home”, “woman” is a word of endearment,respect,and yes love.