Fort Apache (1948)




Director: John Ford.

Cast: Henry Fonda (Lt. Col. Owen Thursday), John Wayne (Capt. Kirby York), Shirley Temple (Philadelphia Thursday), Ward Bond (Sgt. Maj. Michael O'Rourke), John Agar (Lt. Michael "Mickey" O'Rourke), George O'Brien (Capt. Sam Collingwood), Irene Rich (Mrs. Mary O'Rourke), Victor McLaglen (Sgt. Festus Mulcahy), Anna Lee (Mrs. Emily Collingwood), Pedro Armendariz (Sgt. Beaufort), Guy Kibbee (Dr. Wilkens), Grant Withers (Silas Meacham), Jack Pennick (Sgt. Shattuck), Dick Foran (Sgt. Quincannon), Miguel Inclan (Cochise), Ray Hyke (Capt. Gates), Mae Marsh (Mrs. Martha Gates).

The film was the first of director John Ford's US Cavalry trilogy.  Based on life at Fort Apache in southeast Arizona and the pursuit of Cochise, a Chiricahua Apache chief.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Fort Apache.  Lt. Col. Owen Thursday and his daughter Philadelphia are riding a stage coach through the desert headed toward Hassayampa.  Thursday is to be the new commanding officer at Fort Apache on what would become the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation (which is adjacent to and just north of the San Carlos Indian Reservation.).  Thursday says the place is at the end of the rainbow.  He refers to the War Department as ungrateful.  He resents their shunting him to the side to the unknown Fort Apache.  They come into the stagecoach station that is 35 miles north of Fort Apache.  There Philadelphia meets handsome Lt. Michael O'Rourke.  He is also headed for duty at Fort Apache. 

A number of NCOs arrive at the station to give Lt. O'Rourke a ride to the fort in their wagon.  Sgt. Mulcahy is the godfather of O'Rourke and he is sure glad to see his godson.  When Lt. Col. Thursday sees the NCOs he thinks they have come for him.  But no, they didn't even know the Lt. Colonel was coming at all.  Lt. O'Rourke quickly chimes in that the Lt. Colonel can take the wagon and he will ride beside it.  Thursday is a bit miffed at this snub by the fort, but he accepts O'Rourke's offer.    Philadelphia keeps watching Lt. O'Rourke as he rides alongside the wagon headed for Fort Apache. 

At the fort they are not expecting Thursday at all.  They are having a dance party in honor of George Washington's birthday.  Everyone is caught off guard.  Thursday re-meets an old colleague, Captain Sam Collingwood and his wife.  He also meets Captain York.  Lt. O'Rourke is also introduced to the same people.  After the introductions are over, Lt. O'Rourke goes to see his father, Sgt. Major O'Rourke, and his mother.  He has been away from his parents for four years at West Point, New York. 

The next morning Thursday tells his officers that he wants to make this regiment the finest on the frontier.  He refers to the Chiracahua Apaches as "digger" Indians.  Captain York objects to this term and says they are good fighters.  After the meeting is over, everyone leaves, except Captain Collingwood.  He talks with Thursday awhile.  Collingwood says they took different paths.  Thursday rode to glory and he, Collingwood, rode to Ft. Apache. 

Philadelphia is a little peeved at Lt. O'Rourke for not immediately coming to see her after he and she were settled into the fort.  She scolds him and he tries, not very successfully, to defend himself.  Captain York helps him out some to get him off the hook. 

Philadelphia goes to see Mrs. Collingwood.  She was a good friend to Philadelphia's mother.  She asks Philadelphia to call her "Aunt Emily" and Philadelphia obliges her. Philadelphia needs help straightening up her quarters in the dirty old barn.  Emily says that in times of trouble they always call on Mrs. O'Rourke and so she does. This way Philadelphia can get some help and get close to Lt. O'Rourke at the same time.  The women get together and help Philadelphia.  Everyone seems to give her something for the new place.  Francisco gave her a pretty young Mexican girl named Guadalupe to be her cook. 

Fort Grant is flashing a general alarm signal.  Thursday has to rush out with his troops to see what's the matter.  While dad is gone, Philadelphia goes over to see the O'Rourke family.  Sam and Emily Collingwood are already with them having dinner.  Philadelphia is invited in for dinner.  One of the topics of discussion is Sam Collingwood having applied to West Point to be an instructor at the Military Academy. 

Lt. O'Rourke is appointed to be a trainer of the new men.  He has a little trouble getting through to the recruits, so the four NCOs butt in and help him.  They soon get the men into shape.  Lt. O'Rourke is surprised to see them later marching together like experienced soldiers.  The next morning the recruits are given horse riding lessons and it becomes a comical mess as all the recruits try to get on their horses at the same time and keep running into each other and falling off. 

Philadelphia and Lt. O'Rourke go out riding.  They see smoke in the distance.  The Lieutenant senses that something very bad has happened.  They ride to find out what happened.  They find two dead soldiers.  At headquarters the officers learn that Diablo's band left the reservation and are going to join Cochise.  Lt. Col. Thursday becomes furious when he learns that Philadelphia and the Lieutenant have been out riding for three hours now. 

Philadelphia and O'Rourke come riding in fast.  O'Rourke tells the other officers that he saw a repair wagon burned and two troopers dead.  -- roasted.  Thursday is shocked and asks:  "And my daughter saw all that?"  Yes, says O'Rourke.  He goes on to say that there were between 25 or 30 Mescalero Apaches.  The officers figure it must be Diablo's band.  Thursday tells O'Rourke that he took his daughter riding without his permission.  He says that he will not again ride with his daughter.  Thursday then says that O'Rourke will take four men and will go get the dead bodies and bring them back.  The other officers object that the small group might run right into the Mescaleros.  But Thursday insists that the small group go. 

When O'Rourke leaves, Thursday tells Captain York that he is using the detail as a trap for the Mescaleros.  The Indians will attack the detail and then the main cavalry will attack the Mescaleros. 

O'Rourke and his detail reach the burned out site.  The Lieutenant looks through his binoculars and sees the Indians.  They see him too and two bullets ricochet off the boulder in front of O'Rourke.  He tells his men to get the bodies into the wagon and get out of here.  The wagon takes off.  The Indians are on a ridge overlooking the road below.  They give chase.  Just as the Mescaleros are coming close to catching the wagon, the main cavalry arrives and the two groups run headlong into each other. 

After the fight, the cavalry wants to know how come the Mescaleros were so well armed in the fight.  They go to see an Indian agent by the name of Meacham.   Captain York detests the man saying he is always selling rotgut whiskey to the natives.  The Cavalry searches the man's trading post and finds a great deal of whiskey.  And they also find Winchester rifles.  Captain York says that Meacham was sent here by the corrupt Indian Ring in Washington, D.C.  The four NCOs are put in charge of getting rid of the whiskey and the Winchesters. 

All four NCO's start in on the whisky.  And now all are in trouble.  That includes Beaufort, Quincannon, Shattuck and Mulcahy.  Their punishment is to volunteer to for the manure pile detail. 

Captain York goes to see Lt. Col. Thursday.  He says that Cochise knows him and trusts him, so he wants to speak with Cochise alone.  He will bring Private Beaufort along because he speaks good Spanish and Cochise speaks some Spanish. York says that Cochise is a formidable opponent.  In six campaigns in three years he out-generaled them, outfought them and out ran them.  Thursday agrees to let him take Beaufort and go.

Philadelphia pays a visit to the O'Rourkes.  When the Lt. Col. finds out he becomes very angry.  Guadalupe runs to warn Philadelphia.  When Thursday comes in to the O'Rourke quarters, the Lieutenant just tells him that he loves his daughter and he now asks for her hand in marriage.  Thursday objects that she is not of legal age.  Philadelphia says she only has two years to go.  Thursday counters by saying that he is sending her back east.  That way the two young people will have two years to forget each other.

York and Beaufort have a long ride before they finally see flashing lights indicating they are near the camp of Cochise.  They ride to the camp. 

At the fort, they are having the annual NCO dance.  The commander will dance the first dance with Mrs. O'Rourke and Mr. O'Rourke will dance the first dance with Philadelphia.  They dance the Grand March.  York and Beaufort return and come to the dance to see the commanding officer.  York tells the commander that Cochise is coming in to talk accompanied by all his people. 

Thursday is ecstatic.  He sees this as an opportunity to attack and destroy Cochise and his tribe.  York objects to Thursday that he gave his word to Cochise that this was on the up and up.  But the Lt. Colonel doesn't care.  He is determined to ride to glory and get back to more important work and assignments.  The dance party is halted and the men are directed to prepare to mount up and head out for a fight with Cochise.  They have a last dance and outside the hall Philadelphia and Lt. O'Rourke dance to the music. 

The troops head out.  Shortly after he leaves, Captain Collingwood gets his notice of transfer to West Point,

Beaufort tells Thursday that there are 300 wickiups or more ahead.  Thursday has Captain York report to him.  He tells the Captain that he is going to split his forces.  Captain York loudly objects telling his commander not to split his forces.  Chochise is not where the commander thinks.  He is actually to their south.  He says the Indians outnumber them four to one.  Thursday says that Captain York is too impressed by numbers. 

Thursday tells Beaufort to tell Cochise that they have come to talk.  Cochise comes to the walk accompanied by Alchesay of the White Mountain Apaches, Satanta of the Mescaleros and the Chiricahua medicine man Geronimo.   When Cochise sees Mecham, he says that he is a very bad man.  He wants Thursday to send Mecham away or there will be war.  This demand makes Thursday angry and he tells Beaufort to tell Cochise that he is a man without honor.  He says that when Cochise talks to him, he is actually talking to the United States government and the government says they are to return to the reservation.  If they have not started by dawn, the army will attack. 

In the morning the cavalry starts the attack.  Captain York says that the Apaches are down there among the rocks.  Thursday says that's where they are going.  Captain York objects that would be suicide.  Thursday accuses York of cowardice.  He tells the Captain that he will remain on the ridge with the supply wagons.  York takes off, but he takes Lt. O'Rourke with him.  The two officers get the supply wagons up on the ridge.

Thursday takes his men right into an obvious ambush.  Since he is out in front, he gets wounded first and doesn't do much after that.  The cavalry keeps running as if they were going through a deadly gauntlet.  When they reach a dead end, they turn around and run through the gauntlet again.  Only a handful of men are still alive after the second ride through the narrow valley.  They make a circle to stand off the Apaches. 

York and O'Rourke see everything that happened and York has all the supply wagons turned over to serve as defensive positions.  York sends O'Rourke to Fort Grant to get help.  He then rushes down into the valley to save Thursday.  (No one would stop to pick him up.)  York gives the Lt. Colonel his horse and his saber and Thursday rides out to join the survivors fighting in a circle.  Shortly after Thursday arrives, the Indians descend en masse on the last of the soldiers.  By the time the Indians pass the circle, all the soldiers are dead. 

The Apaches keep riding all the way up the ridge.  Then they suddenly stop.  York walks out from the wagons and up to Cochise, who thrusts the cavalry's battle flag into the ground next to York.  Cochise then turns and rides away with his braves.   

Some years later.  Colonel York is now the commanding officer at Fort Apache.  Journalists come to talk with him about the cavalry's upcoming campaign.  They also want to know more about Lt. Col. Thursday.  They ask York if he has seen the famous painting of "Thursday's Charge"?  They say it's a very inspiring painting.  The journalists also says that now Thursday is a hero to every school boy in the country.   York won't say anything bad about Thursday, but he lets the journalists pass out all the praise.  After their talk, Colonel York introduces the journalists to the O'Rourke family:  grandmother O'Rourke, son Lt. O'Rourke and his wife, Mrs. Philadelphia Thursday O'Rourke, along with grandchild Michael Thursday O'Rourke.  Colonel York tells the journalists that Michael is the best man in the regiment. 

Colonel York leads his men out of Fort Apache headed on their next campaign. 


Good movie, but certainly not accurate historically.  The problem is that very little happened at Fort Apache itself.  So the script writers had to come up with a totally different approach.  The one they used was a parallel to Custer's Last Stand.  But there was no such massacre in southeast Arizona.  The campaigns against the Apache were ones of the army desperately trying to corner the Apaches and defeat them and the Apaches constantly staying away from the U.S. Army. The great casualties occurred among the white civilians.  Thousands of whites were killed one or two families at a time.  The Apaches were too smart to take the army head on.  Instead they used guerilla war tactics very effectively.  Cochise in particular was a chief who very consciously avoided a direct confrontation with the US Army.  He knew better. 

Director John Ford used Monument Valley which is in northeast Arizona (and a bit in southern Utah), but the real Fort Apache is on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation in southeast Arizona.  My wife loved the movie because of the accent on Monument Valley.  She loves the American Southwest and so we have seen both Monument Valley and Fort Apache, as well as many other places in the southwest, of course. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

1861 – the Apache Wars begin when Cochise of the Chiracahua Apache is falsely accused of kidnapping a white boy and his family is taken into custody and later hanged. .

by 1869 – Cochise had returned from Mexico to his beloved Dragoon Mountains

1869- Brevet Col. John Green marched from Fort Thomas and recommended the construction of a fort that came to be Ft. Apache at the meeting of the north and east forks of the White River.

1870 (August) – the 60 year old Cochise came in to Camp Mogollon (today’s Fort Apache) in the territory of the White Mountain Apaches.

1871 -- Gen. George Crook arrived at the camp. Crook picked 44 Apache Scouts from the White Mountain and Cibecue bands. They served in the Army for the Tonto Basin campaign of 1872-73.

1871 (September 2) – peacemaker Vincent Colyer arrived at Ft. Apache. He established a sanctuary there for the White Mountain Apaches. Colyer went on to set up five more temporary reservations.

1871 (September 4) – Cochise raided Fort Crittenden. He took 54 horses and 7 mules. Crook became obsessed with capturing Cochise.

1872-1873 – the quarters at Ft. Apache were rows of log "squad huts" and tents.

1872 (February 16) – Deadline for the Apaches to appear on the reservations but President Grant re-emphasizes a peaceful strategy again. He sends in Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard. The General contacts Chochise’s white friend Tom Jeffords who then arranges a meeting between the General and Cochise. Howard visits Fort Bowie with the nephew of Cochise. The General grants the Chiricahua Apaches a large reservation around Apache Pass.

1874 (late May) – Cochise was fading fast because of possible stomach or colon cancer. He appoints his son Taza as his successor.

1874 (June 8) – Cochise dies.

1877 -- many Tonto, White Mountain, Cibecue and Chiricahua Apaches were forced onto what became the San Carlos Reservation. (They lived in terrible squalor there.)

1881 (end of June) – Nana launched Nana’s Raid. In two months he and 15 warriors rode 3,000 miles; defeated the cavalry seven times and attacked more than a dozen towns and ranches.

1881 (end of August) – Nana’s Raid is over.

1881 (end of August) – Colonel Carr comes to get the Prophet or Dreamer known as Nochedelklinne. Nochedelklinne is killed. In the Battle of Cibecue that followed some of the Prophet’s followers and eight troopers were killed. This resulted in the Apache attacking Fort Apache.

1881 (September 1) – Fort Apache is attacked. It was the only time the fort was attacked.

1882 (September) – President Chester A. Arthur brings back General George Crook. At the time about 5,500 Apaches lived on the San Carlos and Fort Apache reservations. Crook spoke with Mexican leaders along the border to let them know he was going to pursue the Chiricahua Apache into Mexico.

1884 (May) – The last band of fugitives came in to San Carlos Reservation. Crook let the Chiricahua settle in at Turkey Creek in Fort Apache Reservation.

1886- After the surrender of Geronimo, White Mountain and Cibecue Apaches who had been relocated were allowed to leave San Carlos and return to their homeland.

1886 (January 11) – Nana agreed to return to Fort Apache.

1886 (end of June) – General Miles traveled to Fort Apache.

1922 – Congress disbanded the military post at Fort Apache – the last Cavalry post in operation in the United States.




David Roberts.  1994.  Once They Moved Like the Wind.  New York, NY:  Touchstone of Simon & Schuster. 




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