This film is the first of a trio known as director John Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”, which was followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. They all starred Ford’s favorite cowboy, John Wayne.
This movie is unique in that it portrays Native Americans in an authentic and sympathetic way and was one of the first to do so. It also has one of the most depressing endings I’ve ever seen.
As the story goes, Captain Kirby York (played by John Wayne) is supposed to replace the outgoing commander at Fort Apache, an isolated frontier cavalry post. To his surprise and disappointment, command is given over to the inexperienced, arrogant, and egocentric Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (played like he has a stick up his ass by Henry Fonda).
The plot focuses on the conflict between York and Thursday, particularly with respect to how to deal with the local Indians who are headed by Cochise (played by Miguel Inclan). However, there’s also a romantic subplot between Thursday’s daughter (played by Shirley Temple) and Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke (played by John Agar), son of Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke (played by Ford favorite Ward Bond). Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with Thursday, who thinks the Irish are scum beneath his family’s station.
To put it in a nutshell, Thursday ignores or contradicts every attempt York makes to handle the Indians in a respectful way and avoid bloodshed. The ambitious Thursday does everything he can to insult Cochise, then gleefully orders his regiment into battle without a clue as to what he’s doing (and in contradiction to every warning the more experienced York gives him).
There is also a minor subplot in which Thursday takes a US government agent to task for selling bad liquor to the Indians. But it only adds insult to injury that he finds the man entitled to military protection because of the position he holds.
One of the brightest notes in this movie is the role of the awesome Pedro Armendáriz as interpreter Sergeant Beaufort.
As for the ending, I won’t spoil it for you. Just know that it’s not a happy one. It’s also in my opinion deeply cynical—almost to the point of making it noir.
Much as the ending makes me
want to punch someone in the face ill at ease, I think it marks an enlightened departure from the “good cowboy-bad Indian” Westerns before this one. So I’m giving it two thumbs up!