Prater, Jeffrey

John Ford’s cavalry trilogy: myth or reality?

John Ford’s cavalry trilogy: myth or reality?
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CollectionMaster of Military Art and Science Theses
TitleJohn Ford’s cavalry trilogy: myth or reality?
AuthorPrater, Jeffrey C.
AbstractThe study analyzes John Ford’s films Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950) for their historical portrayal of the frontier cavalry. Ford is acknowledged as one of America’s foremost chroniclers and mythmakers. His films comprise a significant body of film and cultural history, reflect his values and attitudes, and offer conflicts between historical accuracy and cinematic considerations. The analysis begins by examining the personal and business influences shaping Ford’s work. The study then examines each film for historical accuracy in the areas of people, places, and events: uniforms, equipment, and accouterments; the profession and garrison life; and finally, the American Indian and military operations. The later appellation of "trilogy" for Ford’s three films is appropriate for several reasons. Each film offers the same subject, similar character types with the same names, recurring musical themes, and the same actors. Lastly, the films were made in consecutive years. In Fort Apache, a glory seeking regimental commander leads his men to overwhelming defeat at the hands of the Apache Indians. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon treats the last days of a seasoned captain’s career during the aftermath of the Custer debacle. In Rio Grande, the cavalry conducts an unofficially sanctioned punitive expedition into Mexico against renegade Apaches. With notable exceptions, Ford accurately portrays the frontier cavalry of the 1870s. As mythmaker, he embellishes the image of the West using Monument Valley and strengthens the Custer legend throughout the trilogy. The films suffer from significant discrepancies in uniforms, equipment, and accouterments, but these are more than offset by other factors. Ford’s depiction of the profession and garrison life are his greatest achievements: he accentuates the feel and mood of the films with authentic music. Although he generally does not depict actual events, Ford’s action parallels historical occurrences and adds to the credibility of the pictures. Finally, his portrayal of the Indian-fighting army only adds to the judgment he is more chronicler than mythmaker. There is a smaller file version of this title available at,1151.
KeywordJohn Ford; Films; Fort Apache; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; Rio Grande; Motion pictures; Frontier; Cavalry; Apache Indians; American West history; George Custer; Military history; American Indians; Military logistics; Cavalry equipment
SeriesCommand and General Staff College (CGSC) MMAS thesis
PublisherFort Leavenworth, KS : U.S. Army Command and General Staff College,
Date, Original1989-06-02
Date, Digital2005-04-28
Resource TypeTextual
FormatPDF; Adobe Acrobat Reader required; 171 p.; 10.17 MB.
Call numberADA 211796;,1151
Release statementApproved for public release; distribution is unlimited.
RepositoryCombined Arms Research Library

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