While most film historians consider She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to be the best of John Ford's fabled "Cavalry Trilogy", for my money Fort Apache was far and away the strongest of the films. Ribbon and Rio Grande are certainly excellent films but they are primarily compromised by Ford's penchant for overt sentimentality. Fort Apache, however, is a far more sinister look at the West, one that was decades ahead of its time in terms of presenting the case of the Native Americans in a sympathetic fashion. It's ironic that people like Marlon Brando, who extolled the cause of Native American rights, would cite Ford's films as having been detrimental to the Indian cause. In fact, Ford was so highly regarded by the Navajo that he was made an honorary member of the tribe, primarily because of his consistent efforts to improve their lives. Ford became enamored of the Navajo when he was first lured to Monument Valley in 1938 to shoot Stagecoach. He fell in love with the area and the Navajo who inhabited it. Over the years, Ford insisted on shooting many of his films there and, by doing so, pumped large sums of money into the region. He insisted that Indians who worked on his films be paid equally to everyone else, a novel concept during that era. With Fort Apache, Ford dared to do the unthinkable: present the Native Americans as victims in a nuanced manner that evokes sympathy from the viewer.
The story clearly takes its origins from the legend of General Custer, with Henry Fonda portraying Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday, a strutting martinet who is assigned as commanding officer of Fort Apache, a remote U.S. cavalry outpost deep inside territory that has been characterized by raids led by the legendary Apache chief Cochise. It isn't long before Thursday locks horns with his second in command, Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne). York tries to convince Thursday that his heavy-handed philosophies might be appropriate for West Point, but are hopelessly out of touch with commanding an outpost in this region. Thursday will have none of it. He runs a tight ship, tolerates no dissent from his edicts and alienates any hope of striking a truce with the Apaches by intentionally breaking his word and personally insulting Cochise. Yet, screenwriter Frank S. Nugent never makes the character of Thursday a stereotype. He's a fascinating, multi-faceted person with attributes as well as faults. He can be charming and charismatic. His stubborn traits may be self-defeating but he believes his actions are in the best interest of the Army and his country. The film boils over with tension when York confronts Thursday over his methods. Because he is the senior office, Thursday always prevails- even when he ignores York's advice and betrays the Apaches, a move that leads to the film's stunningly filmed climactic battle.
As much as I love B&W movies, I generally always wished that Ford's Monument Valley stories had all been shot in color. The stunning vistas literally jump off the screen in color films such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. However, Fort Apache is an exception. The B&W cinematography is unlike anything seen in any other Ford movie. (Cameraman Archie Stout used a complicated process of utilizing infra-red film to secure images that linger in the mind like paintings.) The performances are all first-rate, but despite having top billing, this isn't Wayne's film as much as it is Fonda's. He dominates his every scene with a mesmerizing performance, making Thursday one of the most memorable, and tragic, of all the characters that have come to life in a Ford production. Like Wayne in Yellow Ribbon, he is made up to look far older than his actual years and he carries off the gimmick with great skill. The love interest is provided by Shirley Temple as Thursday's daughter and John Agar as her beau. There are also all those wonderful Ford "stock company" actors including Ward Bond, Guy Kibbee, Victor McLaglen, Jack Pennick, Anna Lee, Pedro Armendariz, as well as George O'Brien.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray edition presents the film magnificently. Extras include a commentary track by film critic F.X. Feeney and an original trailer. There is also a short documentary about the legacy of Ford at Monument Valley and his friendship with the Goulding family over the decades. (The Gouldings still run the legendary hotel within the Valley). It's informative and leaves one wanting to see even more.