“What a country!” Henry Fonda’s Colonel Owen Thursday exclaims in the first scene of John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948). Pulling out a notebook he contemptuously spits out the names of the towns he has passed through en route to his new outpost: “Mule Creek, Dead Man’s Squaw, Schmitt’s Wells, Hangman’s Flats, Haciampa . . . at the end of the rainbow, Fort Apache.”
Thursday is a representative of what Peter Robert Lehman, in his doctoral dissertation “John Ford and the Auteur Theory,” calls the “literate East.” Nothing is more important to Thursday than making a name for himself, specifically by finding his way into first the Eastern newspapers, then the history books. He reacts to his assignment to a “mudhole” where he will have “little chance for glory or advancement” as though it were a death sentence. In this respect he is very different from John Wayne’s Captain Kirby York. Consider their first words to one another:
YORK: I’m Captain York, sir. I bid you welcome, General Thursday.
THURSDAY: I’m not a general, Captain. A man is what he’s paid for. I’m paid in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
YORK: I remembered you as a general from the war, sir.
York makes a habit of “forgetting” rank when he thinks it’s appropriate, as he does later in the film when he persists in referring to Pedro Armendáriz’s character as Sergeant Beaufort even after he has been demoted to private. As York demonstrates during his first meeting with Cochise, the chief of the Chiricahua Apache, a person’s rank or title is, to him, secondary to the amount of respect that person does or does not command. It is only after he approaches Cochise in a pose of supplication that he addresses him as “Jefe,” making it clear that he does not consider this to be an empty title:
Thursday, on the other hand, has a problem “remembering” names. Moments after meeting John Agar’s Second Lieutenant Mickey O’Rourke, Thursday introduces him to his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) as “Lieutenant O’Brian.” Later he singles out Mickey as being the only man present correctly in uniform by drawing attention to the attire of “Mister . . . Murphy.” This immediately follows a conversation with Mickey’s father, Sergeant Major O’Rourke (Ward Bond), during which Thursday makes the comment “this place seems to be full of O’Rourkes” (establishing the fact that he knows full well what Mickey’s name is). On a third occasion he forgets the name of his cook Guadalupe (Movita), again mere minutes after being introduced to her.
At first blush, Fort Apache simply appears to be offering us a pair of contrasting worldviews. Thursday believes in what he reads: a man is what he’s paid for. Names matter far less than reputation, status, and rank, and can be used to put an inferior in his or her place. Cochise cannot possibly be waiting in ambush because military strategy is something learned from books at West Point, and he, being an illiterate “breech-cladded savage,” has never been there. York, on the other hand, believes in what he sees and what experience has taught him. A title given is worth nothing; a title earned is worth everything. Cochise is down there, among the rocks, because he has proven himself my equal, and “if I were him, that’s where I’d take up position.” Thursday’s worldview gets him killed, along with most of his men. York’s enables him and the men under his command to survive. Thursday, obviously, is wrong, and York is right.
But how then do we explain what happens at the end of Fort Apache? Some time has passed since Thursday’s defeat. York, now the Colonel in command of Fort Apache, has just finished debriefing four newspaper reporters from the East. The conversation turns to Colonel Thursday:
REPORTER 1 (admiring the portrait of Thursday that hangs on the wall): He must have been a great man. And a great soldier.
YORK: No man died more gallantly, nor won more honor for his regiment.
REPORTER 2: Of course, you are familiar with the famous painting of Thursday’s charge, sir?
YORK: Yes, I saw it when last in Washington.
REPORTER 3: That was a magnificent work. There were these mass columns of Apaches in their war paint and feather bonnets, and here was Thursday leading his men in that heroic charge.
YORK: Correct in every detail.
So York whitewashes Thursday’s mistakes. But that’s not all he does: before the scene ends York dons a havelock identical to one worn by Thursday earlier in the film, suggesting that he has willingly become Thursday:
What’s going on here? John Ford himself, in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich published in the book John Ford, provides one explanation:
BOGDANOVICH: The end of Fort Apache anticipates the newspaper editor’s line in Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend.” Do you agree with that?
FORD: Yes — because I think it’s good for the country.
If we accept this at face value, then the film is arguing that Thursday redeemed himself by bravely dying with his men. It’s saying that whatever errors he made are unimportant, for they advanced a higher cause: Thursday made the regiment “a command to be proud of,” and because of him it’s filled with “better men now.” York, having realized this, recognizes that while his way might have been better in the short run, in the long run America needs heroes like Thursday if it’s to fulfill its Manifest Destiny and expand from sea to shining sea. Yes, Thursday was a bit much at times. That’s why York and his men have retained the bandannas that they wore during their pre-Thursday “cowboy” days:
However, in every other respect they’re Thursday’s men now. Long live the (properly dressed) regiment! But wait: should we accept Ford’s statement at face value? After all, as Tag Gallagher points out in John Ford: The Man and His Films, Fort Apache “‘prints’ the facts, while exploding (and explaining the legends).” And then there’s this “famous painting” business. The reporter’s description of this “magnificent work” seems to be based on the painting by Cassilly Adams that Anheuser-Busch commissioned shortly after the Battle of Little Big Horn called “Custer’s Last Fight”:
Fort Apache‘s actual depiction of Thursday’s last few moments, though, (as William Clell Howze notes in his doctoral dissertation “The Influence of Western Painting and Genre Painting on the Films of John Ford”) recreates a painting by Harold Von Schmidt called “The Fetterman Massacre” that ran alongside “Massacre,” the story by James Warner Bellah that the film is based on, in The Saturday Evening Post:
There’s a tangled web of associations at work here (the movie is based on a story which ran in a magazine coupled with a painting based on real-life events which is recreated in the movie, which includes a fictional painting that misinterprets the events in the movie, as does the painting it’s based on, which was based on real-life events, which may have inspired the story, etc.) which reinforces an argument that Gallagher makes about Fort Apache that I agree with: whatever his intentions were, Ford’s film makes us uncomfortable by “showing us that fine, noble people cause evil — and reminding us that, however much we decry what they did, we are not about to undo their work.”
This is what makes Fort Apache so interesting. From a distance of nearly 100 years, Ford seems to be saying, there can be no “right” or “wrong.” All we can know for certain is how we got here, where we are today: we can’t necessarily say that things would have turned out better had Colonel Thursday listened to Captain York. Nor can we accurately gauge what impact York’s decision to allow Thursday to become a hero has had. So he celebrates The Regiment and paints a rounded portrait of life on a frontier outpost. He gives us both the legend and the facts and leaves it to us to sort out which is which and what is what, and starts us wondering what effect these stories that inspire schoolboys have on the world.