Consistent they may have been in their collaborations with one another, John’s Ford and Wayne always hit the ground running. In part thanks to consistent themes, but the supporting cast that aided this duo were always beyond the pale. Make no mistake, the Henry Fonda name may appear within, his accordant charms with the western genre are not to be underestimated, but he feels like the second fiddle to Wayne’s marching band momentum. Fort Apache does well enough to pair the two together, in a western that sees an analysis of heroic perception, and how audiences will always latch on to the charismatic hero, no matter their grey morals and cutthroat missions.
This character-study utilises the backdrop of the usual western tropes well, its Civil War-era shows characters who survived the war, but lost their dignity and respect. Owen Thursday (Fonda), sees his new post at the eponymous Fort Apache as a chance to redeem himself and his flagging military career. His obsessions and fixations with honour and strict, disciplinary actions lead to violent, erratic choices that endanger the lives of his men but bring him one step closer to realising his dream of honour and glory. Such is power, the corruption seen within Thursday is presented as sad and worrying, rather than that of a warmonger without reason. His use of power may be self-serving and immoral, but the drive and unwavering, steadfast brutality Fonda brings to the character is an engaging one.
He bounces well off of the more humane and mellow moments Kirby York (Wayne) can provide. Still a man of military power, but the laid-back rebel audiences have come to love. Wayne and Fonda have delightful chemistry with one another, the riffs of good and bad are mixed with typical satisfaction. Ford never grasps for anything beyond the usual, expected tropes that the genre had carefully carved out for some years. While its leading performances are strong, the supporting characters are of little interest. They feel separated from one another, never linking together beyond the odd appearance of a leading man to steady the ship, to guide the budding soldiers and hopeless romantics within the ranks of service.
Fort Apache may be regarded as one of Ford’s best westerns, but that title does not make it so. The existence of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers put that claim to rest rather effectively. While it does have typical and expected components of the Ford western style, Fort Apache struggles to provide any interesting supporting performances, and feels as if it goes through the motions toward the end. Standard and expected, but there is still a good time to be had thanks to the tremendous, staple efforts of Ford and Wayne, two men that would define a great, golden era portion of the western for years to come.