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Film: Fort Apache

Fort Apache is a 1948 Republic Pictures Western film starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, her then-husband John Agar, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Pedro Armendariz, and directed by John Ford. Fort Apache is considered, with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), a part of Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy."

Essentially a fictional retelling of the Battle of Little Bighorn, relocated to Monument Valley and using Apache instead of Sioux, the film details the arrival post-Civil War of by-the-book West Point graduate Colonel Owen Thursday (Fonda) to a remote and run-down cavalry post deep in Indian territory. Thursday quickly works to shape up the ragtag group of soldiers, occasionally butting heads with his underling Captain York (Wayne), a less educated but more experienced officer especially with dealing with the local tribes. When the Apache under Cochise rise up against the corruption of a government Agent, Thursday sees the brewing conflict as a chance to reclaim some of the glory he had during the Civil War, despite the protests by York that the Apache have legitimate grievances, and that the Apache are better fighters than Thursday thinks.

The movie's subplot involves Thursday's daughter (played by Temple) Philadelphia (don't get started on where she gets her name) falling in love with the fresh-from-the-academy Lt. O'Rourke (Agar). Colonel Thursday doesn't approve of the potential match, primarily because O'Rourke's father (also stationed at the fort) is an enlisted man, but it's implied also due to then-prejudices against the Irish.

Not to be confused with the 1981 Fort Apache, The Bronx, which is about an NYPD precinct in South Bronx (although the "Fort Apache" part is invoked).

This film is associated with the following tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Most of the Sergeants play up this trope, especially Mulcahy (McLaglen). When the Sergeants spike the drink at the dance, it's Mulcahy who finishes off the whole bowl when the dance is cut short.
    • Also the fort's medical officer, in a more gentlemanly way.
  • The American Civil War: A lot of the characters are at least partly defined by what they did in the war, and in particular the higher ranks they had in it. Owen Thursday obviously was a general of volunteers who after the war was restored to his lower regular army rank. Sergeant Beaufort was a Confederate major, and Sergeant-Major O'Rourke an infantry captain in the Irish Brigade of the Union Army. And there was that mysterious action in the war that brought glory to Thursday and shame to Collingwood.
  • Anti-Villain: The Apache, especially Cochise. It's explained early and often in the film that the natives have legitimate issues with the corrupt Agent.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Years after Thursday wiped out half his own troops, York is in command of Fort Apache and is preparing a campaign to capture the latest Apache rebel Geronimo. Chatting with reporters covering the campaign, they mention a flattering portrait of Thursday's doomed last stand hanging in Washington DC, discussing how heroic Thursday must have been in leading that charge. York, knowing the real story but also knowing that the truth would hurt army morale, goes along with the false story. This is also Truth in Television as people covered up the blunders made at the real Battle of Little Big Horn for decades.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: In spades with Lt. Mickey O'Rourke, who is very much presented as Mr. Fanservice early in the movie. Inverted with Sergeant Mulcahy.
  • Bling of War: Thursday insists that his officers' uniforms conform strictly to regulations, putting a stop to the more practical dress they had worn until then. And at the big dance they are all wearing full dress uniforms and medals.
  • Catch Phrase: "Any questions, Captain?" "No questions."
    • Becomes an Ironic Echo at the end when Thursday charges back into the massacre to join his doomed men.
      • And York picks up the Verbal Tic when he becomes the commanding officer at Fort Apache.
  • Colonel Badass: Col. Thursday ... well, sort of... at least until he orders the infamous Thursday's Charge, which results in the utter destruction of half the regiment.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: The film explores this a lot especially with family relationships vs. army, starting with a scene at the beginning in which the Sergeants first flawlessly salute 2nd lieutenant O'Rourke, then playfully spank him. And then big softy Sgt. Mulcahy goes all misty-eyed as he proudly introduces his godson to Philadelphia. The thing is that these concurrent relationships result in different hierarchies — Sgt.-Major O'Rourke is his son's and Col. Thursday's inferior on duty, but still on occasion can assert his authority as a father on Lt. O'Rourke (unless Mrs. O'Rourke decides to assert hers as Woman of the House) and can show Col. Thursday the door when he intrudes into his home.
  • Dances and Balls: There are two - an officers' ball in honour of Washington's birthday and the Non-Commissioned Officers' Ball. It is no coincidence that both are rudely interrupted by Colonel Thursday.
  • Death Equals Redemption: To his credit, when Thursday realizes what he'd done, he charges back into the ambush knowing it will mean his death. His death also means that Thursday's daughter Philadelphia will be free to marry the young Lt. O'Rourke, and O'Rourke's father lampshades this by pointing out that Thursday can apologize in the afterlife to their grandchildren.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: See Scenery Porn.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Thursday regards Meacham as beneath contempt.
  • First Name Basis: Collingwood and his wife to Owen Thursday - a memento of the times when they were equals and close friends.
  • Foreshadowing: during the introductions between Thursday and the Apache leaders, one of the Indian lieutenants is presented as Geronimo. At the end of the movie, York is leading his troops out to capture Geronimo, now leading another uprising against unjust conditions.
  • Glory Hound: To some extent Colonel Thursday. Defeating the despised Apache becomes a much more attractive proposition to him after he finds out that Cochise is famous enough to make national newspaper headlines.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Very understated: "You'll find Lieutenant O'Rourke with his troop, sir."
  • Historical-Domain Character: The most prominent is the Apache leader Cochise. One of his supporters is Geronimo. Robert E. Lee gets name-dropped by Col. Thursday while giving out orders to set up a trap using Lt. O'Rourke as bait. Thursday himself is an stand-in of Col. George Armstrong Custer as the movie is a re-telling of the Battle of Little Big Horn.
  • I'll Take Four Beers Too
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: The usual pattern from Westerns, where Indians are shown as bad shots that engage in headlong charges that make them easy targets is inverted in the scene where the cavalry charges recklessly into a canyon and is picked off by Apache sharpshooters from both sides.
  • Injun Country: The setting, and the fort's raison d'etre.
  • Manly Tears: Sergeant-Major O'Rourke tries to hide them when his son returns home from West Point.
  • Naked First Impression: Lieutenant Mickey O'Rourke is first seen by Philadelphia bare-chested in the stage-coach station's washroom. She does not avert her eyes.
  • The Neidermeyer: Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (modeled on the real-life George Armstrong Custer) is an arrogant martinet to his own men (even after explicitly saying that he is not); out of class snobbishness, obstructs the path of True Love between his daughter and a young lieutenant because the latter is the son of an Irish noncom; sees war as a path to personal glory; provokes a conflict with the Apaches that better diplomacy could have avoided; and, worst of all, gets most of his regiment slaughtered through tactical incompetence and stubborn refusal to listen to Captain York, who knows the Apaches much better. For all of that, York credits him with improving the quality of the regiment through his strict discipline.
    • Owen Thursday's charactization as an arrogant, aging martinet with no social skills whatsoever, is actually rather different from the flamboyant Custer, whose attitude to non-regulation dress and hair was actually the opposite of Thursday's. What they have in common is bitterness towards the government which in their view did not properly recognize their brilliance in The American Civil War and a fatal show of incompetence in their last battle.
  • Nice Hat: Colonel Thursday's iconic, if somewhat ludicrous cap-and-havelock combination which in the final scene is also worn by Colonel York.
  • Not So Different: York clearly empathizes with Cochise and would probably do just what he did in his place. But he continues to do what he feels is his duty.
    • Cochise knows this from the exchanged glance they have at the parley, which is why he stops the Apache attack right in front of York and turns back, showing his respect.
  • Overprotective Dad: Col. Thursday. He doesn't want his daughter Philadelphia seeing that dashing young Irish lieutenant, so much so that he sends O'Rourke on a seeming suicide mission to fix telegraph cables as bait.
  • Peeling Potatoes: After a drunken binge, Sgts. Beaufort, Mulcahy, Shattuck, and Quincannon are demoted to privates and are seen shoveling horse manure.
  • Retirony: Captain Sam Collingwood is trying to get moved from the eponymous Fort to an instructing position at West Point. When his wife finally gets the letter saying that his transfer went through, he is riding off with the regiment to confront the Apaches. Someone tells her to go, to run and tell him that he should come back, but she says "Sam isn't a coward", and then twists the knife by handing the letter back to the message-boy, saying "Keep it. For the captain's return."
  • Revisionist Western: This was one of the earliest Westerns to depict with some sympathy the plight of the Indians. The Apache are suffering at the hands of a corrupt government Indian Agent, with little recourse but to flee the reservation to force the military's hand to get rid of that agent. Instead, it's the racist Thursday, who's dismissive of Apache fighting skills and itching for a glorious military victory, who aggravates the situation and [leads half his men to their doom. And when Captain York stands alone as the Apache charge at him, they stop right in his presence and turn back, demonstrating that they honor soldiers who respect them and aren't the violent savages depicted in other Western films of the day.
  • The Savage Indian: How the arrogant Thursday views the Apaches.
  • Scenery Porn: It's John Ford directing a Western. There's Monument Valley in all the exterior shots.
    • Camera-man Archie Stout used infrared black-and-white film stock to create more vivid landscapes. However, it meant the actors had to wear dark-toned make-up to appear normal on screen.
  • Shout-Out: The Chase Scene with the four Sergeants and Lt. O'Rourke recreates the climactic chase from Ford's own Stagecoach, including many individual shots. In all likelihood Ford filmed it in the exact same spot in Monument Valley.
  • Sound Off: "It was Sergeant John McCafferty and Corporal Donahue..."
  • The Squad: While there's a whole cavalry regiment in this movie, we really see the Sergeants — O'Rourke, Beaufort, Mulcahy, Shattuck, and Quincannon — doing their part.
  • Tactful Translation: Slightly inverted, in that Cochise calls the Indian agent Meacham "un hombre malvado, que no dice la verdad," which Sergeant Beaufort renders as "a yellow-bellied polecat of dubious antecedents and conjectural progeny." (It literally means "an evil man, who does not speak the truth.")
  • Throwing Down the Gauntlet: York spends half the movie trying to explain to Thursday that the Colonel needs to respect the Apache better. When Thursday derisively slams one last suggestion back in York's face accusing the Captain of "cowardice," York has had enough and throws down his glove at Thursday's feet, demanding satisfaction. Thursday ignores it and relieves York of command, sending him back with the supply wagons in seeming shame...
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: The villain of this arc is Thursday, yet again.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: As noted, the main plot is a retelling of the Little Big Horn, transplanted to Arizona.
  • The Wild West
  • Worthy Opponent: York and Cochise regard each other that way. Colonel Thursday on the other hand...
  • You Are in Command Now: At the end, Thursday realizes he's led half his army to their deaths, and he refuses York's offer to drag him to safety. Asking for York's saber (to rejoin his doomed men), Thursday snorts "When you command this regiment, and you probably will, command it!" With Thursday's death, York does gain command.
For a Few Dollars MoreIndex of Film WesternsThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Bicycle ThievesFilms of the 1940sGermany Year Zero
The Final CountdownMilitary and Warfare FilmsFlags of Our Fathers

alternative title(s): Fort Apache
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