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Fort Apache (1948)

Westerns movie directed by John Ford

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An Enduring Classic

  • Jul 24, 2003
This is my favorite among the several westerns which Ford directed. When seeing it again recently, I was again struck by how relevant this film is to the contemporary business world, more specifically in terms of issues which concern leadership and management. In his recently published Why Smart Executives Fail, Sydney Finkelstein identifies a number of specific lessons which can be learned from "spectacularly unsuccessful" executives such as Dennis Kozlowski, Jean-Marie Messier, and Jill Barad. In an article published by Fast Company magazine (July 2003), he lists seven self-defeating and destructive habits:

1. They see themselves and their companies dominating their environment.

2. They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and their corporate interests.

3. They think they have all the answers.

4. They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn't 100% behind them.

5. They are consummate spokespersons, obsessed with the company image.

6. They underestimate obstacles.

7. They stubbornly rely on what worked for them in the past.

In Fort Apache, Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) displays all of the seven habits identified and then so brilliantly discussed by Finkelstein. Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) repeatedly tries without any success whatsoever to dissuade his commanding officer from behavior which ultimately results in his (Thursday's) death and the slaughter of most of those under his command. Near the end of the film in his final remarks to journalists, York defends "Thursday's Charge," not to protect Thursday's reputation but to protect the honor of those whom the vainglorious Thursday led to their deaths. York also wishes to preserve the honor of the U.S. Cavalry.

Brilliantly filmed in black-and-white by Louis Clyde Stouman and Archie J. Stout, Fort Apache captures the natural beauty but also the isolation in which the fort is located and to which the obviously unhappy Thursday is assigned following the reduction of his rank. (No reasons are given for the assignment and demotion, both of which Thursday bitterly resents.) Ford includes several sub plots, notably the mutual attraction of Lieutenant Michael O'Rourke (John Agar) and Thursday's daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) and the role of the corrupt government civilian official, Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). Of course, several members of the Ford Repertory Players (Pedro Armendariz, Ward Bond, Dick Foran, Ben Jonson, and Victor McLaglen) are also in the excellent cast.

The focus of the film, however, is on the conflict between Thursday and York. More specifically, between Thursday's stubborn commitment to mindsets and habits such as those Finkelstein identifies and York's determination to avoid further hostilities. York respects Cochise and the Apaches whereas Thursday views them with contempt. Worse yet, Thursday tragically underestimates their judgment and skills as warriors. Of course, York knows better. Much as Cochise wants to avoid bloodshed, Thursday leaves him no choice after insulting him in front of other Apache leaders (including Geronimo) as well the cavalry officers nearby. I shall never forget Cochise's profound sadness when realizing that there is no longer any hope for peace. The results of "Thursday's Charge" are a foregone conclusion.

Even after 55 years, this film remains visually stunning and retains its dramatic impact. For these and other reasons, it is among my favorite westerns and, in my opinion, the best of the westerns which John Ford directed.

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About the reviewer
Robert Morris ()
Ranked #169
Professionally, I am an independent management consultant who specializes in accelerated executive development and breakthrough high-impact organizational performance. I also review mostly business books … more
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About this movie


John Ford's 1948 classic stars John Wayne as a Cavalry officer used to doing things a certain way out West at Fort Apache. Along comes a rigid, new commanding officer (Henry Fonda) who insists that everything on his watch be done by the book, including dealings with local Indians. The results are mixed: greater discipline at the fort, but increased hostilities with the natives. Ford deliberately leaves judgments about the wisdom of these changes ambiguous, but he also allows plenty of room in this wonderful film for the fullness of life among the soldiers and their families--community rituals, new romances--to blossom. Fonda, in an unusual role for him, is stern and formal as the new man in charge; Wayne is heroic as the rebellious second; Victor McLaglen provides comic relief; and Ward Bond is a paragon of sturdy and sentimental masculinity. All of this is set against the magnificent, poetic topography of Monument Valley. This is easily one of the greatest of American films.--Tom Keogh
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Director: John Ford
Genre: Western
Runtime: 125 minutes
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
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"An Enduring Classic"
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