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The great film director John Ford needed a hit after the end of World War II. His first effort after the war, The Fugitive (1947), starring Henry Fonda, was met with critical derision and audience indifference. In fact, Ford's production company, Argosy Pictures, had a devil of a time finding a new project that financiers would back and also attract audiences. Ford and Argosy could not afford another noble failure like The Fugitive, a film that even Ford acknowledged at the time was a risky venture.
Ford had met the writer James Warner Bellah in India during the war. The two became acquainted, and Ford took notice of Bellah's series of cavalry stories that were being printed in The Saturday Evening Post. Argosy bought from Bellah a number of his stories, for prices that usually ran around $4,500 apiece. One of these stories, "Massacre," served as the basis for Fort Apache (1948), the film that marked Ford's return to critical and commercial success. Of course, adapting the story was no simple task, as many of Bellah's own personal beliefs ran contrary to Ford's, and naturally some of the author's strong views found their way into "Massacre." One of Bellah's tenets that Ford disagreed with was the depiction of Indians. Bellah's viewpoint, never straying far from a racist doctrine, saw Indians as the "red beast in the night." Nevertheless, Ford went out of his way to grant Indians a dignity and sense of humanity, as he does in Fort Apache, by clearly making the Indians not the villains, but the victims of government-sanctioned rogues.
Despite the dispute over the Indians, Ford and Bellah agreed on one thing: the valor and pride of the military. And to capture this long-gone military tradition of the U.S. Cavalry, Argosy hired a researcher named Katherine Spaatz and sent her to Arizona to interview an old cavalry sergeant's widow. Spaatz also talked to her own grandmother, who began her marriage to a soldier in the famed Seventh Cavalry in Arizona during the 1880s.
As the script was nearing completion, Ford, together with producer and Argosy co-founder Merian C. Cooper, realized they lacked a title for the film that would become the first of an informal trilogy of cavalry pictures, the others being She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950). So the duo held a contest amongst the Argosy employees with a promised prize of $100 going to anyone who came up with a winning title. The story's original title, "Massacre," was considered too graphic. Other briefly considered titles: War Party, Dragoon (which was suggested by special effects artist Ray Harryhausen who was on the RKO lot working on Mighty Joe Young, 1949), Indian Fighter, Glory, Thursday's Folly, Trumpet Call, Boots and Saddles, Indian Country, Rampage, Valley of Death, The Apache Fight at Dawn, Red, White and Untamed, and Failure Then Defeat. Ironically, it was John Ford himself who suggested Fort Apache. There is no record whether or not he claimed the $100 for himself.
Producer: Merian C. Cooper, John Ford
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: James Warner Bellah (story "Massacre"), Frank S. Nugent
Art Direction: James Basevi
Cinematography: William H. Clothier, Archie Stout
Costume Design: Michael Meyers, Ann Peck
Film Editing: Jack Murray
Original Music: Richard Hageman
Principal Cast: John Wayne (Captain Kirby Yorke), Henry Fonda (Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday), Shirley Temple (Philadelphia Thursday), Pedro Armendáriz (Sergeant Beaufort), Ward Bond (Sergeant-Major Michael O'Rourke), John Agar (Lieutenant Michael Shannon O'Rourke), Victor McLaglen (Sergeant Festus Mulcahy), George O'Brien (Captain Sam Collingwood).
BW-128m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Scott McGee