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 (1948) is the first of the three John Wayne/John Ford “Calvary Trilogy” movies (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon  and Rio Grande  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.