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Film / Fort Apache

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Fort Apache is a 1948 RKO Western film directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, her then-husband John Agar, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, and Pedro Armendariz. Fort Apache is considered, with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), a part of Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy." The film is an adaptation of the 1947 short story "Massacre" by James Warner Bellah.

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 Bureau of Indian Affairs 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:

  • Adaptation Title Change: The film is an adaptation of the short story "Massacre".
  • 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.
    • A line from Collingwood suggests he is one as well, though he is never seen drinking to excess. The same conversation also indicates it's probably a case of Drowning My Sorrows.
  • Anti-Villain: The Apache, especially Cochise. It's explained early and often in the film that the natives have legitimate issues with the corrupt BIA Agent.
  • Babies Ever After: In the epilogue, O'Rourke and Philadelphia are shown with a young son named Michael Thursday O'Rourke.
  • Balancing Death's Books: A mundane example occurs in Fort Apache. The colonel is dead set on fighting it out to the death against Cochise's forces, but sends back Major York to the supply wagons, telling him to take O'Rourke with him, meaning Sergeant-Major O'Rourke, not his son, the junior officer of the regiment. York tells the Sergeant O'Rourke, who like himself can see that there will be no survivors in the battle, that he is to take O'Rourke with him, and the Sergeant tells him: "Ye will find lieutenant O'Rourke further along," thus indicating that he is to save his son's life.
  • 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 they probably won't believe him and even if they did, at this point the truth would just 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 the Little Bighorn for decades.
    • Everything York says to the reporters can be considered Metaphorically True if you take his response being about the reporter's description of the painting and not the painting's historical accuracy.
  • 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, an ugly bastard and a very good guy.
  • 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, Particularly SGM O'Rourke with his Medal of Honor.
  • Boyfriend-Blocking 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.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: When young Lieutenant O'Rourke seems embarrassed as he is about to train a platoon of recruits, the sergeants comment that young O'Rourke is a gentleman and training recruits is not a job for a gentleman. And then they take it over.
  • Catchphrase:
    • "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.
  • Cavalry Officer: The films of the "Cavalry Trilogy" are all about cavalry outposts in the West and show quite a bit of the conventions and rituals of the cavalry. Various types of Cavalry Officer appear, including some who serve as non-coms or other ranks - veterans of the The American Civil War who had either served in the Confederate Army or with Northern commissions that only lasted for the duration of the war.
  • 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. Then he becomes this once more when he goes back to die with his men.
  • 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 (having served with his father, they've known him all his life, and he even calls them his uncles). 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.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The ending is pretty much one of these for the Apaches; they nearly wipe out the entire regiment and seem to take almost no casualties. The only reason any of the regiment survived was that the Apaches chose to let them live.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: On finding barrels of whiskey that Meacham has been illegally selling to the Apaches (stored in crates marked "Bibles", no less), Colonel Thursday asks Sergeant Mulcahy for his opinion of it. After he takes a sip, he gives Meacham a Death Glare and responds, "Well, uh, it's better than no whiskey at all, sir."
  • 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. (Although not before stick-up-his-butt Thursday reveals himself to be a graceful dancer at the NCO ball.
  • 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.
  • Deconstruction: 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 Affairs 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 ending also shows how history is Written by the Winners when Thursday gets a posthumous Historical Hero Upgrade similar to Custer after Little Bighorn, while Colonel York grimaces as he lies about his "greatness".
  • Deliberately Monochrome: As noted under Scenery Porn below, black-and-white film was used deliberately, for greater contrasts.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Subverted when 2LT O'Rourke is training new recruits. After yelling at one who doesn't understand close-order drill commands, O'Rourke apologizes to the recruit and admits that he doesn't really know how to teach this stuff. The Sergeants then take over for him and serve as straighter examples.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: When Philadelphia Thursday comes into a changing room to freshen up, she sees Lt. Michael O'Rourke bare-chested and washing up, and she can't help but look...
  • Ending Memorial Service: Yorke's speech at the end: Collingwood and the rest. And they'll keep on living as long as the regiment lives. The pay is thirteen dollars a month; their diet: beans and hay. Maybe horsemeat before this campaign is over. Fight over cards or rotgut whiskey, but share the last drop in their canteens. The faces may change... the names... but they're there: they're the regiment... the regular army... now and fifty years from now. They're better men than they used to be. Thursday did that. He made it a command to be proud of.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Thursday regards Meacham as beneath contempt.
  • Fighting Irish: Three, with only the sober Sergeant-Major O'Rourke an aversion.
  • 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.
  • The General's Daughter: Philadelphia Thursday. Lieutenant O'Rourke gets into a lot of trouble for courting his CO's daughter.
  • General Failure: Thursday flip-flops between this and Colonel Badass.
  • 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.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: Neither side is shown as particularly nice. The Apaches torture prisoners while The Government tolerates corrupt treatment of Indians. At the same time there are honorable people on both sides.
  • Handshake Refusal: Thursday pulls this on Collingwood in front of his wife and all of the other officers upon his arrival at the fort, firmly establishing himself as a Jerkass.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Very understated: "You'll find Lieutenant O'Rourke with his troop, sir."
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Collingwood got the short end of a Noodle Incident that torpedoed his career and ended with him Reassigned to Antarctica at Fort Apache. Nevertheless, he is A Father to His Men and beloved by everyone at the fort (except Thursday).
  • 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 a stand-in of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, as the movie is a re-telling of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. York may be a loose stand-in of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, the two officers who led the remainder of Custer's 7th Cavalry Regiment during the battle and held out on Reno Hill until the arrival of General Alfred Terry's column.
    • Jeb Stuart is also name dropped.
  • Honorary Uncle: Sergeants Mulcahey, Quincannon, Beaufort, and Shattuck to 2nd Lieutenant O'Rourke. They have all served with Sergeant Major O'Rourke since at least the end of the Civil War, have all had a hand in raising young Michael, and he calls them his uncles when not in front of the Colonel. Captain York and Captain Collingwood also qualify to a lesser extent. Mrs. Collingwood is an honorary aunt to Philadelphia, being a longtime friend of her mother's, and does a lot more for Phil than her father can be bothered for.
  • I Gave My Word:
    York: I gave my word to Cochise. No man is gonna make a liar out of me, sir.
    Thursday: Your word to a breechclouted savage? An illiterate, uncivilized murderer and treaty-breaker? There's no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise.
    York: There is to me, sir.
  • I Lied: York comes back from his peace parley and happily reports that Cochise has agreed to make peace, only to find out that the mission was a ruse by Thursday to lure Cochise back over the border so Thursday can attack him. York is horrified.
  • I'll Take Two Beers Too: The four sergeants approach the bar:
    Sgt. Beaufort: Four beers, please.
    Sgt. Mulcahy: And I'll have the same. With a whiskey chaser.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: The usual pattern from Westerns—where Indians are shown as bad shots who 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.
  • Jerkass: Owen Thursday is an arrogant, racist, classist, all-around asshole. He is a condescending douche to everyone except his daughter, and while he loves her, he's far too busy being a Glory Hound to pay much attention to her until she starts a relationship with LT O'Rourke. He introduces himself to his new command by needlessly humiliating his former friend Captain Sam Collingwood in front of everyone, and his occasional gestures of politeness feel awfully fake.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Against orders, Thursday picks a fight with Cochise (who's willing to negotiate), then leads a cavalry charge into a well-laid Apache ambush. Needless to say, things don't go well. Thursday becomes a martyr for the US Army, with even his subordinate Captain York (who despised him while alive) claiming "no man died more gallantly."
  • Manly Tears: Sergeant-Major O'Rourke tries to hide them when his son returns home from West Point.
  • Metaphorically True: York's responses to the reporters at the end are all technically true. Thursday did die bravely and brought honor to the regiment which improved the quality of the soldiers at the post. When he responded "correct in every detail," it could be interpreted that he was commenting on the reporter's description of the Thursday's Charge painting, not on the historical accuracy of the painting, itself.
  • 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; looks down his nose at the Apache even more than he does his own men, which is saying a lot; 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 characterization 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, and Custer was privately sympathetic towards the Sioux (his ambition was greater than his sympathy). 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.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Colonel Owen Thursday is a thinly disguised and revisionist take on Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, i.e. a Glory Hound martinet who blindly leads his soldiers into a suicidal charge against the Apache in a manner similar to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
  • Noodle Incident: Something happened in the past to bring shame to Collingwood but glory to Thursday, which also ruined their friendship (note how Collingwood still addresses Thursday by his first name). The only hint given is when Thursday makes his way to the climactic Last Stand and Collingwood says "This time you're late, Owen."
    • There was also an earlier scene where Thursday offers Collingwood a drink and replies that even for him it's a bit early in the day.
    • SGM O'Rourke warns one of his men not to spike the punch at the ball after what happened at the previous year's dance.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • 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.
  • Peeling Potatoes: After a drunken binge, Sgts. Beaufort, Mulcahy, Shattuck, and Quincannon are demoted to privates and are seen shoveling horse manure. They soon get their stripes back out of necessity, but only after they are suitably cowed.
  • Propaganda Hero: Colonel Owen Thursday is mostly an unsympathetic martinet and deeply unpopular with his regiment who he leads into a futile cavalry charge that gets himself and his men killed. In the film's epilogue, he's glorified into a hero under whose memory the regiment will continue to fight Native Americans.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: The titular Fort Apache is this for Lt. Col. Owen Thursday He incites Cochise into a battle to turn it into a Reassignment Backfire. It sort of works, but for his former subordinate Lt. Col. York.
  • Production Foreshadowing: The opening music sequence contains a few bars of "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon". This was the theme music for the film of the same name, the second of Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy".
  • 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."
  • The Savage Indian: How the arrogant Thursday views the Apaches. While he speaks less derisively of the Sioux (likely because they are more famous and the conflict against them is seen as more glamorous), he dismisses the Apache as "digger Indians" and casually violates every rule of diplomacy and honor when dealing with them. The film shows how wrong he is, though. Captain York, after explaining in detail how the Apache have been betrayed and cheated by federal policy and corrupt government reps, declares that Cochise has only done "what any decent man would do when his children are starving."
  • 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.
  • Signature Headgear: Colonel Thursday's iconic, if somewhat ludicrous cap-and-havelock combination which in the final scene is also worn by Colonel York.
  • Soldier vs. Warrior: Bluecoats(soldiers) vs Apaches(warriors). The cavalry are Punch Clock Heroes or Villains or both (depending on how you look at it) doing their job for The Government, while the Apaches are an individualistic Proud Warrior Race who are fighting to protect their families.
  • Sound Off: "It was Sergeant John McCafferty and Corporal Donahue..."
  • Southern Gentleman: Sergeant Beaufort is a "fallen" example. A former Confederate officer, he enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry as a private after the Civil War. While not exactly conforming to the stereotype visually — he is played by Pedro Armendáriz — he is easily the most polished of the regiment's non-coms (some of whom had been brevet officers in the Union army).
  • 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 Bureau of Indian Affairs 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" (Cochise's words literally mean "an evil man, who does not speak the truth"). It's pretty obvious by his tone that Beaufort wouldn't piss on Meacham if he was on fire, so he likely took the opportunity to throw in his own opinion.
  • That's What I Would Do: Why York tells Thursday that the Apache are hiding among the rocks, waiting to ambush the regiment. Thursday, who has no respect for the Apache, doesn't listen, and leads his regiment to destruction.
  • 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 pointedly refuses (the battle is about to start), tells a soldier to pick up the glove and return it to York before relieving York of his command and sending him back with the supply wagons in seeming shame...
  • Tonto Talk: Averted in the negotiations with Cochise, where we have a somewhat reverse situation: the focus is not on Cochise not being able to speak English, but on the negotiating officer York not being fluent enough in Apache. Therefore, York decides to use a Spanish interpreter to interpret for Cochise, who is rather fluent in Spanish.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: The villain of this arc is Thursday, yet again.
  • The Unreveal: Despite the lengthy discussion of the family tree at the Collingwood dinner table, Miss Thursday never really tells us who was born in Philadelphia.
  • Verbal Backspace: When Mrs. O'Rourke asks Mrs. Collingwood how her son Michael looked, Philadelphia blurts out, "Oh, he looks wonderful!"; when both ladies look at her, she stammers, "I mean, I'm sure he'll be a fine officer."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: As noted, the main plot is a retelling of the Little Bighorn, transplanted to Arizona; Custer, like Thursday, was regarded as The Neidermeyer by his men. Custer, like Thursday, led his men blindly into an ambush. As with the cavalry regiment in this film, Custer and the half of the regiment with him died to the last man while the other half of the regiment, commanded by Major Reno and Captain Benteen, survived.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Owen Thursday is a lousy commander who provokes an avoidable war with the Apache and gets a lot of men (including himself) killed for no reason other than his own ambition. Afterwards, the press and the government build him up as a hero.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: As evidence of Apache prowess, York tells of an attempted raid by the Sioux which met with a bloody disaster at Apache hands.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Thursday and Captain Collingwood used to be pretty tight, and their wives were best friends, but some Noodle Incident put an end to it. Collingwood, Nice Guy that he is, seems to hold no grudge and greets Thursday warmly when the latter arrives during the Officers' Ball. Thursday responds by treating Collingwood like something he stepped in, needlessly humiliating him.
  • Worthy Opponent: York and Cochise regard each other that way, and would prefer not to fight each other unless absolutely necessary (and are both willing to take pains to avoid such a necessity). Colonel Thursday on the other hand...
  • You Are in Command Now: At the end, Thursday realizes he's led half his regiment 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, and is clearly not happy about it, as the fight didn’t need to happen in the first place and some of the men who died with Thursday were his best friends.