John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy and the Civil War

ECW welcomes guest author Tom Elmore

Few men in the history of American cinema have been more acclaimed than John Ford. The six-time Oscar-winning director has been a major influence on a who’s who of filmmakers including Orson Wells, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.[1]

Among Ford’s major cinematic achievements are the three films commonly referred to as his “Cavalry Trilogy”: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. All were based on stories by James Warner Bellah that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Because the stories had poor dialogue and racist views of Native Americans, Ford, wisely, pared each tale down to the bone, had the dialogue re-written, diluted the racism and retold them in his own unique style.[2]

At first glance, the plot in all three films seems alike; the U.S. Cavalry battles Native Americans in order to keep peace in the region. In addition, all the films are centered on veterans of the Civil War. While the war is over, its lingering effects on those soldiers are still present, though how the men handled their post-war lives is quite different. [3]

There are no African-Americans depicted in any of these films. Nor is there any mention of the racial strife that was happening back east. These stories exist in their own little universe.

John Ford in 1946.

Fort Apache (1948)

The film centers on Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), who served as a general in the Civil War and was previously posted in Europe. He views his assignment to the remote Arizona outpost, Fort Apache, as punishment. Upon taking command, he immediately offends and angers his entire senior staff, many of them Civil War veterans. Thursday demands that the entire fort dress like soldiers and not like “cowboys.” He also openly tells them that none of them can expect any glory, though Thursday is determined to make some for himself. As the film progresses, it is clear that Thursday is a soldier who trusts in theory and history and not in the present when it comes to warfare. If someone opened up his chest they would see an army manual instead of a heart.[4]

The officers initially greet their new commander with open arms and offer him advice about the region’s Native Americans, notably, Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), an experienced officer who understands and respects the local native population. Though not mentioned in the film, according to an early treatment of its script, York was a colonel in the Civil War, but in contrast to Thursday he shows no resentment to his demotion nor his posting.[5]

Thursday, however, rejects almost all of York’s suggestions leading to conflict between the two men, and ultimately the destruction of Thursday’s command, though he is able to make peace with those whom he had offended before his end.

Thursday’s and York’s situations were not unique. After the Civil War many officers who held high ranks by commissions in the United States Volunteer Army or by brevet (or honorary) rank were dropped to their regular army rank. And like Thursday, many of them were angry and bitter, looking for ways to get their higher ranks restored. Perhaps the most notable was George Custer, on whom Thursday is loosely based.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

This is the only film of the three shot in color. Ford studied the paintings of Fredric Remington and successfully brought the artist’s romanticized vision of the west to film. Still, he delivered a rather gritty view of the cavalry. For his stunning cinematography, William C. Hoch won an Oscar.[6]

The film is set at a small, remote outpost named, appropriately, Fort Starke, where the pay is low and promotions are slow. The troopers seem to walk as much as they ride and they return from patrols with dirty uniforms, to an often cold and muddy fort. Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne playing a character 20 years older than he was) is a decorated career U.S. Army officer and a Civil War veteran just days away from his retirement. Before he reluctantly leaves the army, about the only life he has ever known, he leads one last patrol. His aide is First Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaughlin), another career soldier who served with Brittles in the war and who is also about to retire.[7]

Brittle’s go-to man for tough and dangerous missions is Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson), a likable, easy going trooper with a deep Southern accent. Tyree, who is very knowledgeable about the region’s Native Americans, was a captain in the Confederate cavalry, and often makes references to the “Yankee War Department.” Although he and Brittles were on opposing sides the two have great respect and admiration for each other.

Another ex-Confederate is a private known as “Trooper John Smith” (Rudy Bowman-uncredited). His real name is Rome Clay, a former Confederate cavalry general under whom Tyree served.

Smith is mortally wounded in an Indian ambush. Prior to the burial, Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick), the wife of the commander of Fort Starke, makes a small Confederate flag to be place on the grave of “Trooper Smith.” When Tyree and two other soldiers thank her, she says “I was proud to do it.” At the graveside service, Brittles calls Smith “a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman;” and gives permission for the small flag to be placed on Gen. Clay’s coffin, while an honor guard gives him a military salute.

While the Civil War is often referred to in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, there is little, if any, bitterness or animosity between former combatants. Tyree’s pro-Southern outlook is viewed with amusement and not anger. Working together they are able to prevent an Indian war. Thus Ford shows an idealized version of the North and the South coming together.

Rio Grande (1950)

Ford made this film as part of a deal. He could do his dream project, a film adaptation of Maurice Walsh’s The Quiet Man, provided he made a hit western. Ford needed only five weeks of filming to deliver his end of the bargain.

The Civil War looms larger in Rio Grande than in the two previous films. A quasi-sequel to Fort Apache, the film centers on Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne) who rode with Lt. Gen. Phillip Sheridan during the Shenandoah campaign of the Civil War. Currently he is stationed in Texas near the Rio Grande River, where the Apaches are a threat.

During the war, under a directive from Sheridan, Yorke gave orders to burn the house of the family of his wife, Kathleen Yorke (Maureen O’Hara), causing a 15-year rift in their marriage. The person who did the deed was Sgt. Maj. Quincannon (McLaughlin), a longtime aide to Yorke, who still has guilty feelings about it.[8]

The two lives get complicated when Yorke’s son, Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom the colonel has not seen in fifteen years, is assigned to Yorke’s command after flunking out of West Point and joining the army as a private. Adding to the colonel’s difficulties is the surprise appearance of his estranged wife to buy out her son’s enlistment. To say that relations between Mrs. Yorke, her husband, her son, and Sgt. Quincannon (who crosses himself when he first sees her) are far from ideal, is an understatement.

Then as if Col. Yorke did not have enough on his hands, Sheridan (J. Carol Naish) arrives and tells him, “I sacrificed the happiness of your home once Kirby to the needs of war. Now I’ll probably ruin your army career. I’m going to issue you an order, and give it to you personally. I want you to cross the Rio Grande. Hit the Apache and burn him out.”

Sheridan also adds that if the mission fails, Yorke will be court-martialed, but promises that “the members of the court will be the men who rode down the Shenandoah with us. I’ll hand pick ‘em myself.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, Yorke’s efforts to put down the Apaches and rescue children the Indians have taken to Mexico, Yorke is reconciled with his wife and son. At the end of the film, as the troops march in formation, Dixie is played, suggesting that the Yorkes are reunited, just like the nation.

Though the film shows how the war affected some families, here the often mentioned “brother against brother” theme is replaced by duty versus family. We also see how former commanders looked after those who served under them during the war. Gen. William T. Sherman, in particular, was known for this.

In the cavalry trilogy we see varying effects of the Civil War on the lives of the characters. For Lt. Col. Thursday and the Yorkes, it left bitterness and deep and profound scars. For others, it was just a chapter in their lives. The common theme in all the films is that those who were affected by the Civil War, both veterans and civilians, can put past differences aside, often for the common good.

This notion of reconciliation, in a much subtler way, was present in The Quiet Man (1952), where the people of the fictional Irish town of Innisfree ignore their religious differences, which tore Ireland apart for centuries, to bring lovers Sean Thornton (Wayne) and Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara) together.

This of course, was John Ford’s stylized and idealized view of the world. Ironically, Ford could be difficult to work with and often held long grudges. Yet, either in spite of it, or because of it, Ford made some of the greatest films in Hollywood history, while leaving a mark on how people view history.[9]

[1] Eyman, Scott. 1999. Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. New York: Simon & Schuster. Pg.16, 243, 565. (Henceforth Print)

[2] Print, Pgs. 327-329 According to his son, Bellah was “a fascist, a racist and a world-class bigot.”

[3] Cast and crew information for all these films comes from their listings in the Internet Movie Data Base

[4] Matheson, Sue. 2016. The Westerns and War Films of John Ford. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, Pgs. 147-153.

[5] Prater, Maj. Jeffery C., 1989. John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy: Myth or Reality? Unpublished Thesis for the U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Ks. Pg. 32 Ford had biographies of the principal characters written out.

[6] Print, Pgs. 350, 357. Ford considered making a biopic about Remington, but negotiations with the artist’s estate failed.

[7] Eyman, Scott. 2014. John Wayne the Life and Legend. New York: Simon & Schuster. Pg. 189 (Henceforth Wayne) Wayne considered this one of his best and favorite roles.

[8] Gallagher, Tag, John Ford-The Man and His Films. 1986 University of California Press, Berkley, Ca. Pg. 26. This plot twist was inspired by the destruction of the South Carolina plantation home of C.E.W. Smith, Ford’s father-in-law, by forces under the command of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in 1865.


[9] Print, Pgs. 564, 565, Matheson, Pg.290

11 Responses to John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy and the Civil War

  1. This was fascinating. I’m pretty sure I saw Yellow Ribbon but haven’t seen Fort Apache or Rio Grande. I’m going to watch all three in order. That’s an order .

  2. thanks for this great piece of Hollywood history … i have seen all three films and noted the presence of former Confederates … but i never made the Ford connection — nicely done!

  3. There were some great scenes and lines in Fort Apache. One such scene is when Col. Thursday ‘discovers’ that Sgt. Major O’Rourke, played by the great Ward Bond, is a Medal of Honor recipient while serving in The Irish Brigade during the Civil War. Then there is The Duke’s character Capt. York telling Col. Thursday “Well, if you saw them, sir, they weren’t Apaches.” There were others. A great film and my favorite among ‘The Trilogy’.

    As for any ‘messages’ or possible observations or interpretations, the American military has always been a ‘melting pot’ to some degree. As time had advanced, that has become more so. In the years these movies were released, President Truman had ordered the desegregation and integration of the American armed forces. John Ford was known to be a champion of civil rights, so if ‘reconciliation’ was a message from these movies, he might have missed a great opportunity to address that aspect of life in America by not including black actors. I have seen figures that give the numbers of black soldiers serving in the West at 10% of the total forces over a thirty year or so period after the War. Regardless of any other considerations, they all stand as great films, to me anyway!

  4. John Ford was born Jack Feeney, one or both parents were from County Galway. In “Rio Grande, “they sang a fairly daring rebel song for the time. “Bold Fenian Men.” This at a time when Irish rebel songs were not particularly favored.

    One great thing about John Ford Westerns – for the time – they presented American Indians in reasonably positive portrayals. Nice summary, thanks.

  5. I watched Fort Apache for the first time last night based on recommendations i read here. it had its moments. i laughed a few times at the antics of the irish sergeants but generally i thought it was riduculous. the formal dances just seemed absurd. Two of them no less! the love story was a theatric necessity but irrelevant to the story. i expected the young lieutenant to be killed in battle and die a heroes death. instead he is sidelined by col thursday along with the john wayne character. the climax where the cavalry and henry fonda are surrounded and wiped out was an obvious rip off of Custers last stand. the beau geste white cloth on the back of Fondas kepi and later Waynes kepi just looked stupid. on the positive side: the cavalry are equipped with sabres which they brandish during charges. i dont know if that was done in indian wars but it was a nice throwback to civil war. i appreciated references to the “late war”, robert E Lee, Jeb Stuart, Irish Brigade, etc.” the cavalry carry authentic single shot breech loading trap door carbines, just like custer’s men used at little big horn. the injuns had repeating winchesters. the number of extras (indians and cavalry troopers) was very impressive and looked like a real cavalry regiment. the stunts were very good eg falling horses and riders. this was well before CGI. the scenery was gorgeous. it was a pleasant diversion for a couple hours but overall pretty hokey and not very authentic compared to current standards (which isnt a fair comparison). Tonight: She wore a Yellow Ribbon. i have seen it before and i recall it was pretty good. Somewhat authentic.

  6. Just finished she tied a yellow ribbon . It was far superior to Fort Apache . For one thing it was in technicolor which was great. The action started immediately. It’s still not highly accurate but much much more authentic . There is the requisite women and romance. The plot of accompanying the ladies to the stage coach is farcical. The romance is pointless beyond there had to be one. Wayne is very good. The hard drinking Irish sergeant is there again. He’s good for a laugh. The scenery in color is gorgeous. The multitude of Indian and cavalry extras is very impressive . The horsemanship of the stuntmen is really impressive. Even Wayne gives a good account of himself on horseback. I like the interaction between the old chief and Wayne where they smoke peace pipe and the chief presents a Wompum peace belt to Wayne. Very authentic. The old chief and Wayne are old friends evidenced by the chief calling Wayne by his first name Nathan. Very believable. The music is stirring especially Garyowen. Here like in Fort Apache the cavalry used single shot trap door breech loading carbines. Very authentic . The troopers carry Sabres but they never used them, nor did I see any navy colts or dragoon pistols. That would have been a nice touch. There had to be a formal dance at the very end to welcome Wayne back to the fort but it is blessedly short. Very enjoyable but it’s still not dances with wolves.

  7. On to Rio Grande. Back to black and white. Within first 5 minutes Phil Sheridan makes an appearance which was cool. Then Wayne’s son appears. This reminds me of In Harms Way the great WW2 Navy movie in which Rock’s son in a PT boat skipper . I digress. MaureenO’Hara plays Wayne’s divorced wife who turns up to retrieve her son from the army. A bunch of tenors in uniform strumming guitars serenade Wayne and his wife . Really?? Pretty dull so far. Now the troopers are singing around the campfire !! Jeff’s mommy finds him and comforts him. Poor baby. He won’t leave his friends the injuns are singing a war song. They attack ! There is artillery this time.the Indians try to burn down the fort. Maureen O’Hara faints! The cavalry chased the Indians. They are singing the Erie canal song. This is like The Quiet Man in the cavalry. The scenery and horsemanship are superb again. More singing around the campfire. Is Wayne going to sleep with his ex wife ? Yes! Wait! No! Duty first. Sheridan is back. Now they are serenading Sheridan. Victor McLaughlin is the best thing about all three movies. It is surprising that Phil Sheridan who would be head of the army at that time arrives unannounced and with no escort to chat with Wayne . Now the Indians are chasing the cavalry . The Indians kidnapped the children. Oh no! Now the cavalry is after the injuns to get the kids back. Wayne’s son is chosen for a dangerous mission. I like the authentic Indian singing. Oh no! Wayne is shot with an arrow. Will he survive? It’s his son who pulls out the arrow out. The boy is the hero of the battle. Wayne survived.they get medals. They parade to the tune of Dixie . The end. Possibly the corniest of the three movies. But enjoyable.

  8. Why did you omit Horse Soldiers? Also directed by John Ford it is about John Wayne in the Federal Cavalry during the Civil War. It is based loosely on Grierson’s Raid in Mississippi. Grant and Sherman are in it briefly. i liked that. the story takes place before the fall of Vicksburg. the idea was to destroy a railroad depot to prevent supplies from reaching Vicksburg. William Holden plays a Union surgeon who squabbles with Wayne throughout the movie. there is the requisite southern belle Miss Hunter who feigns gentility but is actually tough as nails. the great African American tennis champion Althea Gibson plays the slave Lukey , Miss Hunter’s servant. I give Gibson credit for not playing the part like a stepin fetchit character, but it is still racist and degrading althea has to play such a character. it must have been after her tennis career was over and she waas trying to get into movies. the movie does not appear in her wikipedia bio. I found the william Holden character rather annoying. Maybe he’s based on Joshua Letterman. The story is not particularly interesting. the battle scenes are not exciting. there is a suicidal charge by confederates down the main street of the town. they are mostly slaughtered. the best part is when the sound track plays Garyowen as the troopers on horseback pass by. Like the other Ford movies there is no skimping on the number of cavalrymen in the movie. the stunts mostly involving falling off horses are pretty standard. the movie is in Color which is very beautiful. Granted Fort Apache, Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande are about the Indian Wars, but Horse Soldiers is a nice prequel and gives a backstory to the Wayne character in the later Ford movies. Worth a watch is you haven’t seen it.

  9. i agree … not a great movie by any stretch … but, still enough Civil War for me to watch it whenever its on.

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