#13 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This is a complex portrait of a man sent to the furthest outskirts of civilization with a chip on his shoulder and desire for glory. He has to manage his command in the face of a potential Indian threat, and that new command is laxer than he wants. And then there’s Shirley Temple having a romance with one of his officers. This is the first Ford film where I feel like the movie was going for a four-quadrant approach (which wasn’t really an explicit concept for a while afterwards), including elements that should appeal to a broad spectrum of an audience to help attract more viewers. That’s not to say that this movie is bad by any means. It’s actually very good. However, what keeps it from being great are a couple of little subplots that really don’t add much to the core idea of the film.
Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) has been sent from his post in Europe to the remote Fort Apache in the Southwestern United States. He picked up his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) in Boston to bring her along, meeting the fresh from West Point Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke (John Agar, Temple’s then husband) and joining him on the final leg to the fort. Colonel Thursday is an arrogant, vainglorious man who feels unappreciated by the Army brass that sent him out into the desert, and his first concerns when he gets there is finding a way to make a big enough impression with the military leadership in Washington to get him back out. He is also preternaturally inclined to dislike the young lieutenant who catches the eye of his daughter, eventually finding reason to separate them as much as one can in an enclosed fort.
Once at the fort, the movie turns into a slice of life film for about half an hour as we get to know the people of the fort including the wives of officers, O’Rourke’s father Sergeant Major O’Rourke (Ward Bond), four lower sergeants (including Victor McLaglen), and a group of new recruits. We also get the start of the romance between the younger O’Rourke and Philadelphia, a meet cute where Philadelphia pouts a lot. It’s okay stuff, but it’s not the most compelling romance I’ve seen. I think the conflict between O’Rourke and Colonel Thursday is supposed to feed the central idea of the film about Thursday’s borderline descent into madness in his pursuit for glory to save his career (a very David Lean-like thematic idea, if you ask me), but I’m not entirely clear at how much of the romance is really necessary for it. There’s a bit where Thursday talks about the difference in class between officers and NCOs that may be part of it, but that’s the closest the movie really seems to come to actually connecting the subplot to the central idea. I may be stretching.
However, that scene, while I question its utility in the story in which it was places, is actually kind of fantastic. Philadelphia, after O’Rourke has received orders from his commanding officer (Thursday) not never speak to her again, shows up at the O’Rourke family house with the lieutenant, his father, and his mother, and invites herself in for tea while they eat dinner. Colonel Thursday barges in, and every line that is delivered with mixtures of rage, indignation, and obstinance by the three male characters are also delivered in the most professional manner possible. These are three men at the edges of exploding at each other (O’Rourke Sr. at his commanding officer who’s breaking protocol by walking into his house uninvited and filled with personal demands, Colonel Thursday at his lieutenant for disobeying his orders about his daughter, and O’Rourke Jr. at his commanding officer for denying him something he sees as outside of army concerns), their emotions obvious but just underneath the surface. It’s really compelling stuff, but more as part of Thursday’s story than the subplot around O’Rourke’s romance with Philadelphia.
The other subplot that honestly gets completely dropped after about the halfway point is a group of new recruits to the fort. Michael O’Rourke begins drilling them before the four sergeants take over. These recruits (most notably Hank Worden) get a couple of sequences where we watch them train and become soldiers in lightly comedic fashion. It feels like setup for them contributing in a battle late in the film, but they literally just vanish from the film at one point. It’s ultimately to the film’s benefit that they go, leaving the latter parts of the film to focus on the actual story at hand, but that doesn’t change the fact that they take up space early. Honestly, I feel like they should have just been cut from the film.
The four sergeants, though, are the exact kind of entertaining side-characters that Ford had learned to use so well way back in his silent film days. McLaglen, Dick Foran, Pedro Armendariz, and Jack Pennick (McLaglen and Pennick in particular veterans of many Ford productions going back decades), and they fit well into the film. They don’t have arcs, get into small adventures, and feel like distractions until these well loved characters get thrown into the final action sequence and actually enhance the emotional weight of the tragedy destined to occur. In a movie where the main character is an unlikeable man who makes huge mistakes that get people killed, it’s important to have some people there at the same time that we can empathize with.
Almost a thousand words in, and you know what I haven’t mentioned? John Wayne is in this movie. In fact, he’s top billed, and he’s a supporting character. This is very much Colonel Thursday’s movie, but Wayne’s Captain Kirby York plays an important part in Thursday’s journey. He’s there, I believe, as the audience’s eyes into this world, watching Thursday’s seemingly errant and uncaring behavior play out. When Indians cut the telegraph wire to the next fort one hundred miles away and kill two troopers, Thursday orders O’Rourke to take a wagon and four men to deal with the situation despite the obvious potential for a trap. Kirby is outraged, but when O’Rourke leaves the room Thursday orders Kirby to go and ready his platoon to follow, setting their own trap. We can feel what Kirby feels, that maybe this arrogant superior officer is just hiding good sense.
The Indians are a small war band that have left the reservation to the north to join Cochise in Mexico because of the horrible conditions on the reservation made all the worse by the Indian Agent Meachum (Grant Withers). Kirby gets sent to negotiate with Cochise to get him to go back to the reservation willingly, but Thursday misleads Kirby and has no intention of negotiating with the Indian leader. Cochise violated his treaty with the United States by leaving the reservation, no matter the reason, and Thursday will put Cochise back there. Despite being outnumbered and with advice from those who know Cochise, the Apaches, and the area better than him, Thursday orders an attack.
Thursday himself is a wonderfully flawed character. There are moments earlier in the film where we can see the wheels turning as he considers what would happen to his reputation if he were the officer to bring Cochise to heel. He can’t raise his profile if he wins by replacing an Indian Agent (that he doesn’t think he has the authority to remove either) and negotiating well with Cochise, the treaty-breaker. No, in the army he must win through martial means, and that means battle with a man he considers a savage who never studied at West Point and couldn’t understand tactics as well as Lee or Genghis Khan. And yet, when he’s shot off his horse at the start of the doomed charge into the canyon, he refuses to retreat to safety. When Kirby rides in to rescue him, stripped of his command before the battle for questioning the decision, Thursday asks for and receives Kirby’s horse and saber to ride back to his men. There’s no escape for them, but he’s going to hold to his decision no matter how bad. There’s a certain honor in how he refuses to leave his men to die alone, choosing to share their fate even with an out to get himself to safety. Colonel Thursday is a wonderfully complex character, and Fonda plays him rather well. It’s interesting to see this performance after The Fugitive where Fonda played pretty much the exact opposite. The guy had some talent for the whole acting gig.
The film ends on a postscript about heroism being manufactured separated from reality as Kirby talks with some reporters a few years later while he’s about to go out on another campaign against the Apache. I see people taking this as the point of the film, but I see it more as an ironic coda. Thursday was a failure as a tactician and leader who led his troops into a slaughter he could have avoided, and the point of the film is the character of Thursday himself being the kind of man who could lead to that result. That people afterwards warped him into some kind of tragic hero is ironic, not really the whole point of the film that had never really considered the idea until the post script, the sort of thing that, in this era, almost always feels like is there to satisfy one of the key tenets of the Hays Code, that the good guys must win. Kirby looking out the window and talking about the bravery of the army in the face of danger is that sort of ending, and we get there by Kirby having to talk around the failures of Thursday as a leader and change the topic to the real bravery that Thursday had betrayed. Again, this movie is surprisingly complex.
And then Philadelphia and O’Rourke are there with their baby because of course they are.
Really, it’s a movie about Thursday that gets lost in the weeds of a couple of different subplots that aren’t really necessary in its first half and then laser focuses back on Thursday for the final half. I don’t think anyone would have been willing to effectively cut Shirley Temple out of her first film as an adult, but that’s probably what should have happened. Still, with the film as it is, it’s a very good film that’s just ten to fifteen minutes of cuts away from greatness.