FORT APACHE (John Ford, 1948)

The first and most brilliant part of John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy is Fort Apache; the only Ford film to star both Henry Fonda and John Wayne, it pits two characters against each other who epitomize different aspects of the military impetus: purity and practicality; careerism and leadership; military orders and military order. Although this powerful film also lays additional claim to one of Ward Bond’s few good performances even for Ford, it is most important for the clash between Lt. Col. Owen Thursday and Capt. Kirby York. In tandem they represent both the impossibility of the military, or of any other police force, to determine America’s fate and of its ultimately coming together.
     Wayne is magnificent; however, Fonda’s acting surpasses Wayne’s. In my essay on Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath I wrote the following: “As Fonda plays him, Tom [Joad in The Grapes of Wrath] is an Everyman precipitously poised at crossroads where (to us who watch) great decency and great viciousness seem equal possibilities. Fonda’s Tom Joad, then, is the quintessence of human possibility. After the war, Fonda’s masterful portrait of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, loosely based on Custer, in Ford’s mind-socking Fort Apache (1948), shows, by contrast, humanity very nearly past all possibility. . . . One of them heartrending, the other unexpectedly so, these two performances from a staggering career can remind us how cleanly Fonda could get to the marrow of the American male—here, as one who is dangerous against authority, and as another who is equally dangerous with authority. So very differently these two men behave, as on the dance floor, where Owen’s joyless military polish and correctness contrast with Tom’s heartfelt klutziness and simple pleasure. Yet, in the imaginative space that Ford and (until their falling-out) his favorite actor fill in with such precision and depth, some perplexing, elusive thread of character hints that Tom Joad and Owen Thursday are alternate possibilities of the same fractured soul, that each of them has latched onto a different way of feeling whole, useful, meaningful and at home in the United States, where for better or worse they find themselves.”
     After the holocaustic confrontation between Thursday and the Indians, in which Thursday sacrifices himself, like Capt. de Boeldieu in Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (1937), for the future of his nation, in Thursday’s case, most immediately and personally for his daughter and her beloved, Lt. Michael O’Rourke, York assumes command and, in replacing Thursday, a philosophical position halfway between Thursday’s and his own former one. The press presses; what happened on the battlefield? York promotes what he feels is a necessary lie, which will give the military as well as the nation it represents another short-term shot in the arm, while Ford, in baring media subservience to the lie, “prints the truth” and moves us to investigate the discrepancy. He would return to this material with even sharper focus and even more of his signature Brechtian distancing in his masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

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