The classic Western has many moods, but the tone of John Ford’s “Fort Apache” (1948) is decidedly dark. Its clouds gather slowly, relieved sometimes by deceptive moments of gaiety and light, but still the storm comes on. Loosely based on the events of Custer’s Last Stand, “Fort Apache” is technically a John Wayne picture, although Wayne takes a secondary role, while the full weight of hubris and its subsequent punishment fall on the shoulders of Henry Fonda as the doomed colonel who stubbornly leads his men to death.
Fonda plays Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday, who arrives with his sprightly daughter, Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), at Fort Apache only to upset the balance of the residents’ lives. Determined to win glory and prove himself to the world, Thursday ignores the experience and advice of those around him, including the seasoned Captain York (Wayne), and pushes toward a disastrous encounter with the Apache chief, Cochise, and his warriors.
Ford balances comedy and tragedy in his scenes and his actors, reflecting the ebb and flow of ordinary life, even in times of crisis. Without Thursday, the denizens of the fort have formed a benevolent community of friendship and mutual respect, but their new leader soon undermines their peace with his arrogance and contempt. He even forbids his daughter to keep company with the fort’s favorite son, although the young lovers persist in their romance in spite of his authority. As Thursday, Fonda gives a brilliantly layered performance; he knows to soften just enough every now and then to keep us hoping that he’ll live to see the error of his ways, even though his doom is clearly written on his brow. Temple is pertly pretty as Philadelphia, an energetic rather than an elegant girl, but filled with a pioneer spirit that promises much for her survival in this untamed frontier. Wayne watches the events unfold with a grim recognition of the coming end, but his presence is a comfort to the viewer because we know that he can be trusted when everything else falls apart.
Other supporting players also contribute to the film’s powerful effect. Ward Bond is jovial and kind as the O’Rourke family patriarch, and George O’Brien has a particularly moving role as Captain Collingwood. Anna Lee and Irene Rich make the fort’s women solid and sympathetic, and Guy Kibbee is very good as the sociable doctor. The role of young Michael O’Rourke was the first screen appearance of John Agar, who happened to be married to Shirley Temple at the time. The couple would divorce in 1949, but Agar’s acting career continued, and he went on to appear in a number of noteworthy Westerns, including Ford’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949).
For more of John Ford’s Westerns with John Wayne, see “Stagecoach” (1939), “The Searchers” (1956), and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). Explore other sides of Henry Fonda with “Jezebel” (1938), “The Lady Eve” (1941), and “12 Angry Men” (1957). You can see more of teenage Shirley Temple in “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” (1947). With well over 200 screen appearances, the marvelous character Ward Bond can be found almost everywhere, from “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) to “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “Rio Bravo” (1959).