John Ford may have turned John Wayne into a movie star with 1939's Stagecoach, but the Duke wasn't the director's preferred star over the next decade. In fact, Henry Fonda headlined most of Ford's major films during the 1940s, including The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946), and one expects that Wayne's eventual prominence was a result of Fonda's departure for Broadway, where he starred in Mister Roberts for several years. Thus, Ford's 1948 Fort Apache arrives at a number of crossroads: It was the first picture in the director's "Cavalry Trilogy," all based on short stories by James Warner Bellah; it marked Fonda's semi-retirement from Hollywood; and John Wayne was given the opportunity to act opposite Fonda, whose role in the John Ford stock company he would soon replace. Fonda stars as U.S. Army Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, a well-heeled, by-the-book officer who's been given an unwelcome assignment after spending several years in Europe, he's sent to remote Fort Apache, where he is to assume command of the garrison. Thursday thinks little of the "tenpenny post," and even less of the region's Apache tribe. However, the more seasoned officers and sergeants at Fort Apache know that the Apaches are not to be taken lightly. One of them, Capt. Kirby York (Wayne), even goes so far as to suggest that the United States government has broken its word with the Apache reservation's chief, Cochise (Miguel Inclan). But there's scant time for recriminations when a group of Mescalero Apaches, led by the renegade Diablo, strike out at the Army, killing two men. Rash and thoughtless, Col. Thursday declines a truce with the Apaches and orders an attack, which the post's men know will result in heavy casualties.
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John Wayne earned top-billing over Henry Fonda in Fort Apache at the time, Fonda was the more-respected actor, but Wayne had carved out a popular career for himself after the stunning success of Stagecoach, and within the next few years he would become the first Hollywood actor to launch his own production company. Nonetheless, this was only Wayne's fourth film for John Ford, and if he was accustomed to taking ensemble roles in Stagecoach and They Were Expendable, in Fort Apache he does admirable journeyman's work. Perhaps in no other film was Wayne asked to take on a role that didn't seem tailor-cut to his individualist persona (be it The Ringo Kid or Ethan Edwards) and make the best of it, but his Capt. York is a nuanced, often subdued, and disciplined officer, and it's a part that several other actors could have managed nicely. Wayne never quite loses himself in the character, but York is a sort of grace-note in the actor's filmograpy. Also breaking typecasting was Henry Fonda as Col. Thursday the character was loosely based on George Custer, and here he's a terror, a commander bound by his convictions and dismissive of his subordinates, all of whom resent his classism and his nit-picking. By film's end, Ford manages to uncover Thursday's hidden nobility, but only his myth seems to remain (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962 would cover similar myth-making territory). In fact, Fort Apache is one of John Ford's most profound anti-war statements, best summed up by Cochise, who tells Thursday that a war only means that too many young men will die. As with so many Ford westerns, Monument Valley once again lends its epic landscape to the story, while moments of humor can be found, in particular with the new recruits and their horseback-riding drills. Filling out a subplot is Shirley Temple as Thursday's daughter (the colorfully named Philadelphia Thursday) and John Agar as a young officer who romances her at the time, they were actually married. Warner's DVD release of Fort Apache features a strong full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from an excellent black-and-white source print, while audio is clear on a DD 1.0 track. Extras include "Monument Valley: John Ford Country" (14 min.) and a theatrical trailer. Keep-case.