Shirley Not Another Ford Western
For those who only care about whether a movie is entertaining or not should know that "Fort Apache" is entertaining on the simplest level. It features some good performances, has moments of action as well as comedy and whilst there is a good central storyline it also features a range of subplots which contribute to a very entertaining movie, an old fashioned western. But for those who need more, who need layers of deeper context to discuss then "Fort Apache" also delivers with it's tale of society and racism amongst other things. Being capable of both, being a movie which can be watched for just entertainment or to be studied is just one of the reasons why "Fort Apache" is a very good movie which isn't really a surprise seeing that it is a John Ford movie.
Less than happy with his new orders, Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda - Firecreek) and his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) make their way to Fort Apache where he discovers that things are a little laid back. Whilst demanding that his men act like soldiers Colonel Thursday plans to use this posting to claim the praise he deserves by destroying Cochise (Miguel Inclán) and his Apache's. Despite being told by Captain York (John Wayne - Stagecoach) that his plans to attack the Apaches is wrong, Colonel Thursday's single-mindedness leads him into a dangerous battle with the Indian Chief having tricked him in returning to the reservation he left.
Watching "Fort Apache" now you can't but help think that the central storyline, that of Colonel Thursday trying to stamp his authority on the troops he inherits is a bit unoriginal. There have been various movies since which have delivered similar stories and I would imagine there were some before "Fort Apache" was released in 1948. But appearing to be unoriginal isn't a problem as John Ford handles the storyline brilliantly especially in highlighting the contrast between Colonel Thursday and the way things work at the Fort. This is where one of those deeper layers comes in because the Fort has the atmosphere of a new settlement, an almost family community to it where as Thursday is a rigid authoritarian who doesn't do the whole social aspect. It is a clever layer well worked especially with one of the subplots, a romance between Thursday's daughter Philadelphia and 2nd Lt. Michael O'Rourke, being pivotal to the issues which Colonel Thursday perceives.
But "Fort Apache" is more than just about a Colonel trying to whip a bunch of troops into shape there is a racial element as well as Thursday who feels cheated by his posting to the Fort plans to attack the Apache's in a way of making a name for himself. It not only brings in some splendid action as this storyline culminates with a battle between the Cavalry and the Apache's but also an element of loyalty. We watch as Thursday's narrow mindedness when it comes to the Apache's frustrate Captain York who is more aware of the true situation going on with the Apaches and in fact they feel cheated by the government who a few years earlier made a treaty with them. But being a Cavalry man York remains loyal to his Colonel despite often disagreeing with him. It's just one more layer to "Fort Apache" which makes it more than just another western but at the same time making it entertaining.
And in between these two storylines there are subplots such as the romance between Philadelphia and O'Rourke as well as the fact that the young Lt. is in fact related to many of the troops at the Fort. All of these subplots don't work as padding but act as embellishments to the main storyline, providing meaning and often comedy. In fact there is a strong stream of comedy flowing through out "Fort Apache" no more so when Ford focuses on the family element, the fun loving, drink swilling Irish men who are basically the heart of the Fort.
All of this makes "Fort Apache" an entertaining movie but it is made even better by some very good acting. Henry Fonda is marvellous as Colonel Thursday, delivering every aspect of this man who feels betrayed by his superiors for being given such a meaningless position whilst also narrow minded in his viewpoint on what life should be. There is scene after scene which demonstrates how narrow minded Thursday is but none more so in the scenes shared with John Wayne as Captain York. Now it has to be said that this isn't John Wayne's best performance but that maybe because he is sharing the lead with Fonda who dominates every scene he is in but that doesn't mean that Wayne delivers a bad performance. In fact this is one of those occasions where Wayne doesn't just deliver a facet of his legendary persona but creates a unique and likeable character.
Whilst Henry Fonda and John Wayne very much lead "Fort Apache" the supporting performances from the likes of John Agar, Ward Bond, George O'Brien and Dick Foran make for entertaining characters. And then there is Shirley Temple as Thursday's daughter Philadelphia who not only radiates beauty but delivers a sweet, charming character. She creates this young woman who is thrown into life at a Fort and embraces the family aspect, the feeling of community which causes her to come up against her disciplinarian father who doesn't agree with it or her relationship with Michael O'Rourke.
What this all boils down to is that "Fort Apache" is a marvellous western because whilst there is plenty which can be discussed from the storyline, much more than I mention here, it also remains entertaining at the simplest level. From the solid storylines, interesting characters and the blend of drama, romance, action and comedy it delivers a complete movie which with the good performances of John Wayne and Henry Fonda as well as that of Shirley Temple is a pleasure to watch over and over again.