It’s a Western truism that the cavalry always saves the day. But who will save the cavalry? Fort Apache ends with a grandiose attempt to put a positive spin on a massacre. John Wayne speaks in character—and as a summation of all that’s gone before:
They’ll keep on living as long as the regiment lives. Their pay is thirteen dollars a month, and their diet is beans and hay. They’ll fight over cards or rotgut whiskey, but they’ll share the last drop in their canteens. Their names may change, and their faces, but they’re the regiment. The regular army, now and fifty years from now. They’re better men than they used to be. Thursday did that. He made it a command to be proud of.
Although the massacre happened because of Thursday’s foolish decision to mount a charge against Cochise’s superior forces, Wayne, as York, does not tell us that. Yet we’ve seen Thursday’s mistakes and their consequences, not the least his death and York’s taking command. And if you’re at all cynical, you’ll recall that the winners both write history and make films about it. In this case, Fort Apache is a cinematic chapter in the long-term campaign of Indian removal. The defeat matters less than the depiction of the heroism of the cavalry, including Thursday, who, taking responsibility for his mistake, apologizes to his men before he and they die.
York does everything he can to keep Thursday from going through with the attack, which gets him relieved of his command, and ordered to get O’Rourke, who wants to marry Thursday’s daughter, and go to the rear of the lines. Having broken the charge, Cochise and his troops ride off into the distance.
With the exception of the climactic massacre scene, the focus is on daily routines, allowing us to get to know the men—and sets us up for the big final speech. At times, it feels like the Western version of a hangout film, but it’s hard not to detect the building tension, which starts with Thursday’s arrival to take command in the opening scene.
Played by Henry Fonda, Thursday is hardly a stretch from what, according to a biographer, Fonda was like at the time: a major-league asshole. Unlike the good-guy roles Fonda was known for—which required him to really act—in the role of Thursday, Fonda lets us see him for what he is, which is more than hinted at by his multiple busted marriages and fractious relationship with his daughter, Jane (chronicled in considerable detail by You Must Remember This).
Thursday is an outsider the moment he arrives. Having returned from a European assignment, accompanied by his daughter, Thursday has a sizable job ahead of him, which he inevitably botches in a number of ways. Barely hiding his ambition and thirst for power, he sees this command as putting brakes om his career. Not only does he have a stereotypical view of the Apaches; he regards his own men as little more than whisky-soaked brutes and thinks he can ingratiate himself by offering to have a breakfast drink with one of the men, only for the man, to Thursday’s surprise, to sensibly turn him down.
York is caught in the middle. For almost the entire film, Wayne underplays, continually holding back his feelings, while reminding us that his character knows the men—and Cochise and the Apaches—far better than his commanding officer does. York makes the most of every chance to bring Thursday around, only to have Thursday smack him down every time he does—a sure sign of Thursday’s insecurity and an ominous portent of things to come.
When Thursday discovers that newspaper reporters treat Cochise as a major political figure, he envisions his own rise to fame through his taking him down. With his usual arrogance, Thursday plans to trick Cochise into meeting with him, thus drawing Cochise out of Mexico, then launching an attack.
The size and scope of Thursday’s gamble is visually echoed by the impressive landscape of Monument Valley, a cinematic staple of director John Ford. Cochise has taken advantage of its vast spaces knowing that his troops will be hard to track.
Yet he’s in a desperate situation, having no choice but to cross the U.S. border to Mexico for the sake of his people’s survival: staying within the border means slow death from alcoholism and starvation, both brought about by American policy, which has confined Native Americans to poorly-managed reservations. Thursday’s deceit is just a drop in the historical bucket of bad-faith negotiations by the U.S. government.York rides out, with a translator, to arrange the meeting. Upon his return, Thursday announces the plan, to York’s utter dismay, and orders the men to prepare for the attack.
In the preamble to the massacre, Thursday discovers that Cochise’s troops are not where he thought they’d be: out in the open which would help to even the odds. Instead, they’re dug into the rocks.
The meeting is perfunctory, staged only because Thursday is willing to honor the agreement York made to meet. Thursday demands that Cochise obey the U.S. government’s orders to stay within the border. Cochise refuses.
Thursday’s charge is filmed in primarily medium shots, with occasional low angle close-ups capturing the adrenaline rush of the horses in flight, kicking up dust. The music swells. A legend is being created, drawing from the historical account of General George Armstrong Custer’s famous defeat at Little Big Horn: the massacre by the Sioux was caused by his bad decision making and failure to follow orders, all of which were covered up afterwards.
York’s lie about Thursday omits what York thought about the charge—he told Thursday it was “suicide.” Thus, hides in plain sight how Thursday’s contempt for those Native Americans from the Western territories leads to an almost nihilistic disregard for survival.
While Thursday took down many men with him, such contempt radiates, on a smaller scale, in the portrait of Stephen Meek in Meek’s Cutoff (2010). An obnoxious guide who clashes with the settlers who’ve hired him, he repeatedly fails to fully grasp the crisis in front of them: they’re lost and running out of water. When they encounter a non-English-speaking Native American, Meek argues with the settlers about this man’s motives. The settlers speculate that the man can help them find water, while Meek insists upon a heavy-handed dose of frontier justice based on what he regards as the man’s guilt before his innocence.
The showdown between Meek and the wife of one of the settlers spells out less a definitive victory or defeat, and more of an impulse to question the idea of frontier justice and who should enforce it. Director Kelly Reichardt draws attention to the small, but critical, details largely overlooked in Fort Apache—that measure the bare terms of life and death in the Western territories.