Uncovering Forgotten History through Fiction: Fort Apache

Recently, I watched the old John Wayne movie Fort Apache with my grandfather.  He suffered a bad fall so we’ve made the best of it by watching one of his beloved John Wayne movies each night.  Thank goodness for my dad’s DVD collection!

While this old film might seem like something I should not focus a post on, it is perfect for the next installment of “Uncovering Forgotten History though Fiction.”  Before I say why this is an important film, let me begin with a general summary.

Fort Apache film poster; courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fort Apache film poster; courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fort Apache (1948) is the first of the three John Wayne/John Ford “Calvary Trilogy” movies (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949] and Rio Grande [1950] were the others).  The common factors were that Wayne starred, Ford directed, and the setting was Monument Valley.  The film opened with the arrival of Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) and his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) on the frontier en route to Fort Apache.  Along the way they met Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar), who was also en route after graduating from Westpoint.  O’Rourke’s father (Ward Bond) was the fort’s Sergeant Major.  Conflict ensued from the groups arrival at the fort.  Captain Kirby York (Wayne) was expecting to take command, but Thursday was sent.  Thus they frequently clashed over issues, the greatest being how to handle the growing Native American unrest.  Philadelphia became attracted to O’Rourke, causing tension between the young officer and his father with their commander.  The assorted conflicts all come to head in the film’s battle, each in their own way.  The battle with the Native Americans is this post’s focus.

Now you might be wondering how I drew forgotten history from this movie?  I might not have if it wasn’t for Mr. Gordon Sheaffer’s recent series of posts on Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer on his blog Practically Historical.  If not for the refresher course his posts provided on Custer and the Plains Indians Wars, I might have completely overlooked the connection since I hadn’t studied this topic since high school.  Here’s a link to all of Mr. Sheaffer’s posts (thank goodness for WordPress tags!).

Near the end of Fort Apache, there is a battle scene that is allegorical of Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn:  Thursday’s Charge.  In both cases, we see a fight to the death with the Native American’s winning.  However, they are done using different strategies.  Custer divided his troops in half at Little Big Horn with the idea to circle the encampment.  This was the very idea Colonel Thursday initially chose.  However, in Thursday’s case circumstances changed the plan as he and his men were ambushed, less the pack train, York, and O’Rourke who were ordered the stay behind.  Just like in Custer’s case, Thursday’s troops were quickly surrounded.  According to history, we know Custer and the men directly under his command perished but most men from the second column, which was commanded by Major Marcus Reno, and the scouts who stayed behind survived.  Looking at just the men with Custer and comparing that story to Thursday’s, the exact same thing happened. Also, in each case the commanding officers underestimated the size of the force they went up against.

Additionally, both Custer and Thursday left behind Gattling guns.  Custer did not want the hassle hauling the guns would cause; he preferred the speed.  In Thursday’s case, we never learned why the guns were not taken.

If the battle comparison was not enough to convince you the story is an allegory, there is more.  The final scenes of the movie fast forward several years.  We learn Thursday’s Charge was considered a major deal.  It was discussed in Washington D.C.  from the moment news reached the capital and was still a hot topic.  It was treated as though it was a major battle and that Thursday was a martyr.  A painting had even been commissioned of the charge.  Per usual for the era in which the movie was set, the Native Americans were villainized and blamed for the American deaths.  Thoughts that something could have been handled differently to prevent the massacre were left to the surviving officers (Reno and York).  This is very much what happened in Custer’s case and his actions are still hotly debated.  In both cases we wonder if the commander was really a martyr or if was his judgement was lacking.

Perhaps the writers intended Fort Apache to be an allegory.  Perhaps it was merely historical fiction strongly based on actual events.  Maybe it served to express events in a way that detached them from the hotly debated reality.  We may never know.

And don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled the entire movie.  The story lines about York, O’Rourke, and Philadelphia are completed after the battle scene.  Plus I barely even previewed the conflicts and romance that occurred in the first two-thirds of the movie.

Does anyone have any questions or additional observations?  Do you think you’ll watch this classic movie if you hadn’t already?

To learn more about Custer’s Last Stand and Little Big Horn:

The Battle of Little Bighorn,” National Parks Service.

The Battle of Little Bighorn,” Wikipedia.  Normally, I would not list Wikipedia, but the article is well written and the external links are wonderful.  Scroll down the check them out!

Custer’s Last Stand,” PBS.

Update: 6/12/21: Updated link to Mr. Sheaffer’s site.


16 thoughts on “Uncovering Forgotten History through Fiction: Fort Apache

  1. What’s interesting to me is that Shirley Temple had a role as an adult. I thought she was only a child actor. I wonder if she gave up acting after Fort Apache. I haven’t heard of her in anything else.

    • Shirley Temple had multiple roles as a teenager/young adult; it’s just they are not as well known as her child acting roles. She’d have four more movie roles after Fort Apache. She opted to retire from movies in 1950 at age 22 to pursue an education and family. Beginning in the late 1960s, she took ran for a political office then became a political activist.

  2. Shirley Temple and John Agar were married before the filming of this movie. See if you can recognize the chemistry between them next time you watch it.

    • I never realized Shirley Temple was married twice; I only knew of the one to Charles Black. I’ll have to rewatch the movie someday soon to see what you mean. Thanks for pointing that out!

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  5. I found Fort Apache to be an interesting and complex movie. The opening connection to Custer is interesting but does not give the movie nearly enough credit. It is anything but a glorification of Thursday, and has some interesting things to say about the treatment of Native Americans.

    • Hi Jeff. Sorry for the delayed reply. I agree, Fort Apache is a complex movie and it is not a glorification either. It’s a story not only of the characters, but how the Native Americans were able to defeat a narrow-minded leader. The plot just happens to parallel something that happened in real life.

  6. I always wondered the backstory with Collingwood. What was he late for? Where? Apparently this act led to his being a pariah or demoted.
    If yo know I’d like to know; Thanks.

    • Hi, while I do not have a definitive answer I did find a TCM forum online that speculates on this topic: https://forums.tcm.com/topic/36498-fort-apache/. The only for sure facts are that Collingwood and Thursday knew each other from before and Mrs. Collingwood was friends with the late Mrs. Thursday. Some of the movie’s tensions may be from not providing the backstory between Collingwood and Thursday as it keeps us speculating.

  7. I like your comparison and also like how you noted the same about how the subordinates were left to contemplate how the situation could have been handled better. Thank you for your observations.

  8. Good, well balanced article. Thanks for your effort. I just watched this movie the other night and heard the Thursday character was based on a character and incident similar to Custer’s but which actually took place in the SouthWest. Apparently not. But in the end, I found my way here.

    As far as your links to Gordon Sheaffer’s work is concerned, the “.net” domain has become “.org. Clicking on the links here (with the .net domain) takes me to a broken link page. I changed the “.net” to “.org” and his works appear in good shape.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for you comments! I hope this article was helpful. And thank you for pointing out the broken link. I’d forgotten to update that when Mr. Sheaffer updated his domain name a couple years back. Sorry about that.

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