As the movie Fort Apache opens, we see that Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda) is an insufferable snob. He is contemptuous of the fact that he is being sent to the title fort to be its commanding officer by a war department that not only is ungrateful for all that he had done during the Civil War, but also fails to appreciate that he was clearly meant for better things. He even prefers Europe to this new assignment.
He is irked to discover that Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke (John Agar) is the son of Sergeant Major O’Rourke (Ward Bond) at Fort Apache, and rudely interrogates the sergeant, trying to understand how such a thing could happen. He believes in a sharp class distinction between officers and enlisted men, and this combination of both in a single family is repulsive to him. And when he discovers that his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) has been socializing with this lieutenant and his family, he is aghast.
He refuses to shake hands with Captain Collingwood (George O’Brien), with whom he is already acquainted, because Thursday believes that Collingwood disgraced his uniform in some way during the war, though we gather that whatever happened was really not Collingwood’s fault, but just the result of some unfortunate circumstance over which he had no control.
Thursday is utterly mirthless, barely concealing his displeasure at having to perform certain social functions at the noncommissioned officers’ dance.
He likes to flaunt his knowledge of military history, dropping names like Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte, while refusing to appreciate the tactical cunning of Cochise, because he is just an illiterate savage. He repeatedly rejects the advice of Captain York (John Wayne), a seasoned veteran with extensive knowledge of the Apaches, because Thursday is a colonel and York is just a captain.
It is at this point that his snobbery makes him not just an extremely unpleasant human being, but an incompetent commanding officer as well. The result is that he ends up getting half the regiment slaughtered.
In the final scene, which takes place years later, Captain York talks to reporters, who gush about what a great man Thursday was, a hero to every schoolboy, and York encourages them in their delusion. The movie seems to imply that this is for the best, that schoolboys need their heroes, that people need to believe that Thursday was a great man. And yet, as many critics have noted, the movie itself subverts the legend, undermining the whole notion of heroes and great men. And since Thursday is loosely based on the legend of General George Armstrong Custer, the movie is essentially besmirching the legend surround this real life figure.
In other words, the movie is flattering us. Other people, the movie is saying, need their illusions, but we know better. Let the masses have their heroes, because they would just fall apart if they did not have something to believe in, but we are too sophisticated to fall for such nonsense.
Of course, these same masses, who supposedly need their heroes, are the ones who are sitting in the audience, so this may seem like a contradiction. But it is a contradiction with a purpose. The point is to flatter each of us into thinking we are superior to everyone else, who in turn have been flattered into thinking they are superior to us. So, we all get to feel superior to one another, and that makes us like the movie.