The soldiers at Fort Apache may disagree with the tactics of their glory-seeking new commander. But to a man, they're duty-bound to obey - even when it means almost certain disaster.
John Wayne, Henry Fonda and many familiar supporting players from master director John Ford's "stock company" saddle up for the first film in the director's famed cavalry trilogy (She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande are the others). Roughhouse camaraderie, sentimental vignettes of frontier life, massive action sequences staged in Monument Valley - all are part of Fort Apache. So is Ford's exploration of the West's darker side. Themes of justice, heroism and honor that Ford would revisit in later Westerns are given rein in this moving, thought-provoking film that, even as it salutes a legend, gives reasons to question it.
The first film of John Ford's celebrated Cavalry Trilogy, FORT APACHE mirrors the effects of the director's wartime experience on his attitude toward military command. Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), a West Point-trained Civil War veteran, is sent to command the remote Arizona outpost of Fort Apache. An arrogant, by-the-book officer, he's annoyed at having drawn such an ignominious assignment. Despite the warnings of veteran Indian-fighter Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne), he dismisses the notion that a group of savages could possibly be of concern to one possessing his military prowess. After Thursday's daughter, Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), and young Lt. Michael O'Rourke (Ward Bond) find the bodies of some mutilated soldiers, it's discovered that Indian agent Silas Meacham (Grant Withers) has been stirring the Apaches up by selling them liquor illegally. York persuades Thursday to withhold all action until he can arrange peace talks with Cochise (Miguel Inclan), but when the Indian chief shows up for the palaver he finds that the blindly willful army commander has called out the entire regiment for an attack on the Apache force. A tragic, absorbingly complex study of the problems of command, FORT APACHE benefits enormously from Fonda's superb performance and the exhaustive research of screenwriter Frank S. Nugent into Apache culture and the army outposts of the era.
After a distinguished military career in the east, a rigid and domineering colonel is assigned to the remote western cavalry post of Fort Apache. Viewing this assignment as a demotion, he resists the advice of his more experienced captains and learns the hard way that if he doesn't listen, his ignorance of the territory will lead to tragedy.