Fort Apache (film)

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Fort Apache
Spanish-language Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Produced by
Written byFrank S. Nugent
Based on"Massacre"
1947 story The Saturday Evening Post
by James Warner Bellah
Music byRichard Hageman
CinematographyArchie Stout, ASC
Edited byJack Murray
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • March 27, 1948 (1948-03-27)[1]
Running time
125 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.1 million[2]
Box office$3 million (US rentals)[3]

Fort Apache is a 1948 American Western film directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda.[4][5] The film was the first of the director's "cavalry trilogy" and was followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), both also starring Wayne. The screenplay was inspired by James Warner Bellah's short story "Massacre" (1947). The historical sources for "Massacre" have been attributed both to George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn and to the Fetterman Fight.[6]

The film was one of the first to present an authentic and sympathetic view of Native Americans. In his review of the DVD release of Fort Apache in 2012, New York Times movie critic Dave Kehr called it "one of the great achievements of classical American cinema, a film of immense complexity that never fails to reveal new shadings with each viewing ... among the first pro-Indian Westerns" that portrays the Native Americans with "sympathy and respect".[7]

The film was awarded the Best Director and Best Cinematography awards by the Locarno International Film Festival of Locarno, Switzerland. Screenwriter Frank S. Nugent was nominated for best screenplay by the Writers Guild of America.


After the American Civil War, highly respected veteran Captain Kirby York (Wayne) is expected to replace the outgoing commander at Fort Apache, an isolated U.S. cavalry post. York had commanded his own regiment during the Civil War and was well-qualified to assume permanent command. To the surprise and disappointment of the company, command of the regiment was given to Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Fonda). Thursday, a West Point graduate, was a general during the Civil War. Despite his Civil War combat record, Lieutenant Colonel Thursday is an arrogant and egocentric officer who lacks experience dealing with Native Americans, and in particular local tribes with their unique cultures and traditions.

Accompanying widower Thursday is his daughter, Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). She becomes attracted to Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O'Rourke (John Agar), the son of Sergeant Major Michael O'Rourke (Ward Bond). The elder O'Rourke was a recipient of the Medal of Honor as a major with the Irish Brigade during the Civil War, entitling his son to enter West Point and become an officer. However, the class-conscious Thursday forbids his daughter to see someone whom he does not consider a gentleman.

When unrest arises among the Apache, led by Cochise (Miguel Inclan), Thursday ignores York's advice to treat the tribes with honor and to remedy problems on the reservation caused by corrupt Indian agent Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). Thursday's inability to deal with Meacham effectively, due to his rigid interpretation of Army regulations stating that Meacham is an agent of the United States government, so entitled to Army protection (despite his own personal contempt for the man), coupled with Thursday's prejudicial and arrogant ignorance regarding the Apache, drives the Indians to rebel. Eager for glory and recognition, Thursday orders his regiment into battle on Cochise's terms, a direct charge into the hills, despite York's urgent warnings that such a move would be suicidal. Thursday relieves York and orders him to stay back, replacing him with Captain Sam Collingwood (George O'Brien).

Following Thursday's orders, York spares the younger O'Rourke from battle. Thursday's command is nearly wiped out, but a few soldiers manage to escape back to the ridge where Captain York is positioned. Thursday himself survives, but then returns to die with the last of his trapped men. Cochise spares York and the rest of the detachment because he knows York to be an honorable man.

Subsequently, now Lieutenant Colonel Kirby York commands the regiment. Meeting with correspondents, he introduces Lt. O'Rourke, now married to Philadelphia Thursday. A reporter asks Colonel York if he has seen the famous painting depicting "Thursday's Charge". York, about to command a new and arduous campaign to bring in the Apaches, while believing that Thursday was a poor tactician who led a foolhardy and suicidal charge, says it is completely accurate and then reminds the reporters that the soldiers will never be forgotten as long as the regiment lives.




The Irish theme to the background of some of the troopers may be a nod to the service on both sides during the Civil War, as does the recruit who had allegedly served under Nathan Bedford Forrest. The role of Sergeant Major Michael O'Rourke (and his son) may be a thinly disguised tribute to 'Paddy' Patrick O'Rorke killed leading the 140th New York Volunteer Regiment in a desperate charge to shore up the right flank of Strong Vincent's Brigade on Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2 1863.[citation needed]


Some exteriors for the film's location shooting were shot in Monument Valley, Arizona. The exteriors involving the fort itself and the renegade Indian agent's trading post were filmed at the Corriganville Movie Ranch, a former Simi Hills movie ranch that is now a regional park in the Simi Valley of Southern California.


The film recorded a profit of $445,000.[8] In 2013 dollars, this amounts to U.S. $4,365,450.[9]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in its 2008 AFI's 10 Top 10: Nominated Western film[10]

Other rankings[edit]

Fort Apache is commonly ranked among the most significant films of the "cowboy/western" genre, including these rankings:[11]

  • "Top-Grossing Westerns from 1930-1972 and Plot Classification" per Wright, W. (1975) in Six guns and society: A structural study of the Western (pp. 30-32). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • #43 in the "Top 100 Westerns": Western Writers of America
  • #28 of 92 in "Chronological Listing of Major and Representative Western Films" (Cawelti, 1999)
  • #28 in "Chronological Listing of 100 Major and Representative Western Films" (Hausladen, 2003)
  • #19 in "Top 100 Western Films (1914-2001)" (Hoffmann, 2003)
  • #11 in "AFI’s 50 Western Nominees" (American Film Institute)
  • #25 in "100 Greatest Western Movies of All-time" – (American Cowboy Magazine, 2008)

Additionally, the principal actors were ranked (for this and their other films):

  • #6 (Henry Fonda) and #13 (John Wayne) in the "AFI’s 50 Greatest American Screen Legends", American Film Institute

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Fort Apache: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved May 10, 2014.
  2. ^ Brady, Thomas F. "U-I BOYS 2 STORIES TO BE MADE FILMS: Studio Acquires 'Beauty and Beast' and 'Velvet Fleece' -- Kanin to Produce Former", New York Times (September 19, 1947: 27)
  3. ^ "Top Grossers of 1948", Variety 5 January 1949 p 46
  4. ^ Variety film review; March 10, 1948, page 10.
  5. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; xxx.
  6. ^ Howze, William (2011). "Sources for Ford's "Cavalry trilogy:" The Saturday Evening Post and James Warner Bellah". Section of Howze's doctoral dissertation.
  7. ^ Kehr, Dave (March 23, 2012). "How the West Was Filled With Loss". New York Times. Retrieved June 3, 2018.
  8. ^ Richard Jewell & Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1982. p228
  9. ^
  10. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on July 16, 2011. Retrieved August 19, 2016.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  11. ^ Smith, Travis W.: "Place Images of the American West in Western Films," (doctoral disseration abstract) 2016, Kansas State University, retrieved November 1, 2020

Further reading[edit]

  • Crowther, Bosley (June 25, 1948). "Fort Apache, RKO Western, With Fonda, Wayne and Temple, Bill at Capitol". The New York Times.[permanent dead link] In his contemporary review, Crowther writes "apparent in this picture, for those who care to look, is a new and maturing viewpoint upon one aspect of the American Indian wars. For here it is not the "heathen Indian" who is the "heavy" of the piece but a hard-bitten Army colonel, blind through ignorance and a passion for revenge. And ranged alongside this willful white man is a venal government agent who exploits the innocence of the Indians while supposedly acting as their friend."
  • Levy, Emanuel. "Fort Apache (1948)". Recent, highly favorable review of "John Ford's superb black-and white elegiac Western".
  • Schwartz, Dennis (August 15, 2001). "Fort Apache". Ozus' World. Schwartz summarizes the film as "a reworking of the Custer myth, in a film that over sentimentalizes Army life and chivalry."

External links[edit]