Learning from “Fort Apache”, recovering our past.

Summary: One reason we’ve become weak is our amnesia about American history, to an astonishing extent overlaid by myths and falsehoods. Some of our best classics can help us recover this lost knowledge. Oddly, these are often despised due to our indoctrination to believe they are all myth and propaganda. In today’s post, a retired philosopher reviews Fort Apache — one of the greatest westerns.

Fort Apache
Available at Amazon.


Review of “Fort Apache”

Directed by John Ford.
Staring Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and Shirley Temple.
RKO Pictures (1948).

By Kelley L. Ross, posted at Friesian.
Re-posted with his generous permission.


One expects John Ford’s classic western Fort Apache to exhibit the typical mindless racism of other western movies of its era. Indeed, the Turner Classic Movies version begins with an introduction that, among other things, warns the viewer that the image of American Indians presented in the movie is not “politically correct.” The host perhaps had not actually watched the movie, for Fort Apache is definitely not what one expects and, politically correct or not, the American Indians it presents to the viewer are not the sort that are typical in other movies.

The movie centers around Henry Fonda’s character of Lt. Col. Thursday. Thursday is a martinet, a bigot, and a fool–not the kind of character we usually see Henry Fonda playing. His assignment at Fort Apache, he makes clear, is beneath his abilities. He thinks he should be off fighting serious Indians, like the Sioux, and he totally ignores the warnings of Capt. York (John Wayne) that he should not underestimate the Apache warriors they may have to face in battle. Thursday doesn’t learn better until it is far too late.

Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple in "Fort Apache"
Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple.

Much of the movie is taken up with apparent subplots concerning the Colonel’s daughter (Shirley Temple) and army life at the Fort. This allows for some display of the social relationships involved and for the movie’s comic relief. Most of the comic byplay centers on the Irish non-commissioned officers. Reviewers seem to regard this material as ridiculous and offensive, but there is a lot more going on than that.

The senior NCO, Sgt. Maj. O’Rourke (Ward Bond), has a son who has just graduated from West Point, Lt. Michael O’Rourke (John Agar). Lt. O’Rourke has arrived at the Fort with his orders at the same time as Col. Thursday and his daughter. Lt. O’Rourke and Miss Thursday, in a series of silly encounters that may be counted as part of the comic byplay, hit it off immediately, and before long O’Rourke makes it clear that he is seriously interested in Miss Thursday and that his intentions are honorable.

At that point the comic byplay and apparent subplots come together with the main focus of the movie: Col. Thursday cannot tolerate the thought of his daughter marrying Lt. O’Rourke. His stated objection is that officers cannot socially get involved with non-commissioned officers. This doesn’t wash, since Lt. O’Rourke is an officer, and even a West Point graduate. The Colonel then must restate his objection as against the non-commissioned status of the Lieutenant’s father. This seems lame, especially in relation to something else we have learned. Col. Thursday at one point asked how Lt. O’Rourke happened to go to West Point. Sgt. Maj. O’Rourke told him that it was by a special Presidential appointment, and Col. Thursday says he always understood that special Presidential appointments were only given to the sons of winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sgt. Maj. O’Rourke answers that such was his understanding also. Thus, viewers of the movie, and the Colonel, are left to infer that Sgt. Maj. O’Rourke received the Congressional Medal of Honor during his service in the Civil War.

So what is Col. Thursday’s problem? Why doesn’t he want his daughter to marry a young West Point graduate whose father possesses the Congressional Medal of Honor? Although never actually stated in the movie, which may confuse the reviewers, it is plain enough that the Colonel’s problem is that the suitor and his family are Irish.

It is now too easily forgotten, although better remembered in 1948, that social prejudice and discrimination against the Irish were a significant feature of American history, not just because they were Catholic, which would have been bad enough to some old Yankee family, but because they were notoriously drunken and violent–just the kind of thing (at least the drunkenness) that we see represented in the “comic relief” of the movie.

So the whole somewhat silly subplot about Miss Thursday and Lt. O’Rourke actually tells us something important about the main story of the movie: Col. Thursday is a bigot who cannot see beyond the ethnicity of his subordinates to their obvious and proven moral qualities. This blindness and foolishness is all too consistent with the rest of his character. As we soon discover.

The main plot: cavalry vs. Indians, arrogance vs. respect.

Miguel Inclan as Cochise.
Miguel Inclan as Cochise.

The failings of Col. Thursday’s character result in the tragic denouement of the movie. The Apaches, led by Cochise (Miguel Inclan), have decamped from their reservation and fled to Mexico.Capt. York (John Wayne) volunteers to go down and speak to Cochise, accompanied only by Sgt. Beaufort (Pedro Armendariz) to help in translating.

This brings up another interesting aspect of the movie: Although we see many comical Irishmen in Fort Apache, we do not see what we might expect from other Hollywood movies of the same era: comical Mexicans. Instead, we see Sgt. Beaufort, who is a first rate soldier and man, but who we also see speaking a fair amount of Spanish in the movie, and who, when he and York cross over into Mexico, pauses to drink a toast to his mother country, Mexico. We are thus left in no doubt that Sgt. Beaufort is of Mexican derivation, honors Mexico, and still speaks Spanish, even while he otherwise seems to be 100% American and the equal, or better, of anyone else in the Regiment.

This is a striking persona for Sgt. Beaufort, even today, when it is now often politically urged that Mexican-Americans can never be “real” Americans, either because they cannot really be accepted by “Anglos” or because they should not want to be so alienated from their Mexican “heritage” as to think of themselves that way. Fort Apache has no problem with anyone becoming “real” Americans, while retaining their ethnic identity. Even the comic behavior of the Irish is clearly good humored and has nothing like the patronizing or racist overtones it would have had, had Mexicans been chosen for the comic byplay.

Capt. York and Sgt. Beaufort persuade Cochise to return across the border and negotiate peace. On hearing this, Col. Thursday immediately decides to attack the Indians instead. Capt. York is outraged that his word to Cochise should thus be betrayed, but, as it happens, Cochise is too wary to depend on York’s guarantees. Thursday is forced to negotiate because the Apaches are clearly prepared for battle, and, despite the Colonel’s faithlessness, an insult to Capt. York’s honor is not effected, yet.

Now come the supreme moments of Fort Apache. We do not meet the kind of Hollywood Indians we might expect. Cochise and the others are not half-naked figures in loincloths. Instead, they are rather well dressed, as Southwest Indians certainly were, and are. Nor does Cochise speak in some kind of pidgin English or in some unintelligible Indian language, which may or may not be authentic, and to movie audiences might amount to the same thing as pidgin English anyway. No, he speaks fluent and eloquent Spanish, as Cochise certainly could have, which can be partially or completely understood by much of the movie audience, simultaneously translated by Sgt. Beaufort.

This produces a very different effect from most other movies involving American Indians, whether those are old movies presenting Indians as sub-human ciphers for evil, or newer ones, like Dances With Wolves, that go over to the opposite extreme (e.g. presenting most Anglos as sub-human ciphers for evil).

Sgt. Beaufort and Cochise in Fort Apache
Sgt. Beaufort and Cochise.

Cochise speaks with tremendous presence, dignity, good sense, and reasonableness. His only complaint, as it happens, is the Indian Agent on the Reservation, a corrupt and vicious person who is responsible for sickness and death among the Apaches. Cochise is perfectly willing to talk peace if the Agent is sent away, otherwise, “war is better.” As it happens, we already know all about the Agent, since the Regiment has discovered the bad liquor that he illegally sells to the Indians, and his weapons smuggling. One might think the Agent would have been arrested and tried; but Col. Thursday evidently regards that as beyond his jurisdiction. Now it turns out that Thursday also regards the Agent as somehow Sacrosanct, despite his behavior and crimes, just because he is a “representative of the United States Government.” The complaints of Cochise are therefore beneath consideration, and the Apaches must simply do as they are told.

Although Sgt. Beaufort and others protest that Cochise is simply speaking the truth, as they all know well, Thursday has nothing but contempt for the Indians, insults them, and stalks away, confident in his ability to handle anything that the Apaches might do. His ignorance, arrogance, bigotry, and inability to listen to informed advice will now have terrible consequences.

The next day, as the Regiment prepares to attack the Indians, a cloud of dust seems to indicate that they have fled. Capt. York advises the Colonel that this is certainly a trick, and that the Apache warriors are doubtlessly waiting in ambush in the rocks ahead. Col. Thursday simply doesn’t believe him and orders the Regiment into a formation merely for pursuit. Capt. York objects that such a source of action would be suicidal, and the Colonel now chooses again to insult the Captain’s honor by calling him a coward and ordering him to the rear. This is too much for Capt. York, who literally throws down his gauntlet, challenging the Colonel for his insult. Thursday says he will either fight a duel or court-marshal York, but meanwhile York is still to return to the rear–with Lt. O’Rourke, a provision probably intended to deprive him of the “glory” of the battle, but which in the event preserves him from the massacre.

And massacre is what we get, as all seem to understand except the Colonel himself. The Apaches are waiting, and Col. Thursday is one of the first to have his horse shot out from under him. Capt. York actually rides in to rescue the Colonel, but then Thursday does the only morally redeeming thing he has done the whole movie: He recognizes his folly and then insists on returning to the men to die with them, which he does, also apologizing to Sgt. Maj. O’Rourke.

Fort Apache

Col. Thursday’s final act of courage produces the final, bitter irony of the movie: He officially becomes a hero, and the last scene of the movie jumps ahead to a bizarre interview in which York, now a Colonel who has inherited the Regiment, gives a jingoistic talk to journalists who are covering the Indian war. He doesn’t mention that the heroic late Col. Thursday was a bigoted fool who started a completely unnecessary war against an enemy who only wanted to be treated with a little respect, common sense, and justice.

The magnitude of the trouble that has resulted was foreshadowed earlier when a “Chiricahua medicine man” named Jerome, or “in Spanish, Geronimo,” was ominously introduced as a member of Cochise’s party. Geronimo is the one York evidently will have to deal with now.

The surreal nature of the scene with the reporters might make one wonder if it was shot for a different movie. Then we notice that, even if the reporters say things we know to be untrue, and Col. York does not contradict them, nevertheless York speaks carefully enough so as not to say anything actually untrue himself, and does so in such a way as not to arouse suspicion. York, it seems, has accepted that he must live the lie created by Thursday’s folly. How he thinks about that privately, we are only left to speculate. Other things have worked out well enough. Miss Thursday and Lt. O’Rourke end up married. These pleasant aspects, like the jingoistic reporters, barely conceal the stupidity, folly, and futility that characterized the climax of the action and its consequences.

The strange and unexpected end to the movie is a kind of portent for the attitude of later movies. It would be rare for a couple of decades to see American Indians presented as so noble, reasonable, and familiar, or the doings of the U.S. Cavalry as so treacherous and foolish, compromising even the wisdom and good faith of men like Capt. York. Why such a story with such a moral could have been told in 1948 but not later, even by the same director and actors, is a good question. But it is noteworthy that it was told, and told in some respects in a more honest way than we find when it became fashionable to idealize “Native Americans” and other ethnic groups that after the 60’s were regarded as “oppressed” in American history.

There was a complexity to the past that was not only lost on many at the time, but is still lost to many at the present, although the preferred simplistic/moralistic interpretations may have changed. Sitting Bull in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and Geronimo at Theodore Roosevelt’s Inauguration, were not quite the same as Queen Zenobia in chains dragged by the Emperor Aurelian for his Triumph, after the conquest of Palmyra. Americans no longer went to live with Indians, as Sam Houston had at the beginning of the 19th Century, but many still had a sense that America was a land that Indians could not be blamed for defending, even if their way of life was doomed to vanish.

The complexity of these attitudes can be found in Andrew Jackson, who accomplished the infamous removal of the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the Southeast, resulting in the “Trail of Tears” for the Cherokees, and who is sometimes credited with originating the phrase, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” {Wrongly; it’s attributed to Philip Sheridan.} Nevertheless, Jackson’s only real objection seems to have been against tribalism.

Fort Apache thus reminds us of some the complexity of past attitudes. If we are to worry about moralistic oversimplifications, we must recognize that they occur as easily in the present as in the past.

Technical Notes

On a technical note, Fort Apache is of some interest in that the fort doesn’t really look like the forts we see in later movies. There is no stockade around the site and so no gates to be opened or closed. The later image of such forts became so stereotyped, that the lack of walls is conspicuous and astonishing. Instead the Fort is mainly a collection of buildings — buildings, at it happens, that are clearly in California, not in the Arizona or Utah locations of many of John Ford’s movies, or of much of Fort Apache itself.

The hills above Chatsworth, at the western end of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, are the site of the scenes at the Fort, and of most of the other scenes in the movie that involve any other buildings, or include any of the actresses in the movie. Scenes involving long shots, or the cavalry or Indians riding through the countryside, are the ones apparently shot in Arizona or Utah, though not in the mountains of southeast Arizona where the Apaches actually lived, and live. The occasional shift from wide open desert spaces to the chaparral hillsides of Southern California as adjacent locations can be jarring.

Kelley L. Rross


About the author

Dr. Ross retired in 2009 after 22 years as an instructor at the Department of Philosophy of Los Angeles Valley College. See his LinkedIn profile. He joined the Libertarian Party in 1992 and has run several times for the California State Assembly and Congress.

Editor of The Proceedings of the Friesian School website.

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