One of John Ford’s classic tales of the US cavalry, Fort Apache flies in the face of the established stereotypical western and portrays Cochise as an intelligent and honourable man acting for the good of his people. Henry Fonda who we are far more used to playing heroic, sympathetic roles is the cavalry officer ordered to bring him back to the reservation whose arrogance and lack of understanding of or respect for the Apache leads to disaster.
For the first half of the film, I thought “Fort Squaredance” would be a far more appropriate name as it is a full hour before an Apache is to be seen. These horse soldiers seemed to spend much more time drinking and dancing than riding and fighting. The opening of the film is typical of Ford’s dewy eyed romanticism of the old west featuring the usual mix of likeable, hard drinking rabble-rousing soldiers, slapstick comedy and naive romanticism set to epic western landscapes. Things get far more interesting as the Indian Nation reveals itself and Ford pulls no punches showing the folly of the US government’s handling of the situation. John Wayne was always best when working with Ford, this being one of his best roles and Fonda’s casting against type works really well. It’s a shame the build up is so long-winded because when it finally gets going it’s brilliant.
If you can stomach an hour of old fashioned romantic comedy, the climax is well worth the effort.