Gruff and humourless Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is the reluctant new commander at the remote Fort Apache, an appointment he perceives as a snub by the army. He is accompanied by his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), and she immediately sets her eyes on handsome and freshly minted Lieutenant Mickey O'Rourke (John Agar, Temple's real life husband at the time). The Fort's leadership group includes the pragmatic Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), Captain Sam Collingwood (George O'Brien), who shares a chequered service history with Thursday, and Sergeant Major Michael O'Rourke (Ward Bond), Mickey's proud father.
Thursday sets about to improve discipline among the men, while romance blossoms between Philadelphia and Mickey. The Fort's main purpose is to maintain peace with the local Apache tribe led by Conchise (Miguel Inclan), who has taken refuge in Mexico due to perceived treaty violations perpetrated by corrupt government agents in the form of Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). Thursday sees an opportunity to make a name for himself by subjugating Conchise, and embarks on a duplicitous approach very much against Captain York's principles.
Directed by John Ford, Fort Apache enjoys spectacular Monument Valley locations and interesting character dynamics. But the film is poorly paced and quick to stray onto tangents that serve no purpose. The main conflict resides between Thursday and York, and it takes too long for the tension between the two men to manifest itself in a meaningful way on the screen.
Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent fall into several unfortunate traps. The worst scenes are ill-conceived attempts at slapstick humour involving new recruits and undisciplined soldiers (including an insufferable Victor McLaglan) who are in the army mostly for the liquor. There is also a doctor who does little except drink, and even an Irish song makes its way into the movie, as Ford slips into his "celebrate Ireland" mode to the detriment of the film. Scenes of dance banquets go on much longer than needed, as the running length unnecessarily creeps over two hours.
All of the shortcomings are a pity, because Fort Apache also offers plenty that is good. The film is sympathetic to the plight of the Indians, with Thursday firmly established as the antagonist with his uncompromising approach inconsistent with life both within and outside the fort's walls. When the conflict with Conchise finally takes centre stage, the film picks up considerably and the final 30 minutes finally find momentum. And despite the sloppy editing, the film presents an engaging view of life at a remote army facility, with wives taking a prominent role turning an outpost into a functioning village.
Henry Fonda enjoys an atypical role as the disciplinarian unable to modulate his approach to suit his current circumstance. John Wayne rises late to claim the moral high ground. Shirley Temple is radiant but also predictably flighty and flirty, quick to fall under the younger O'Rourke's shirtless spell.
Fort Apache meanders and then stumbles upon arrival, but when the dancing, romancing and witless humour are finally evicted, the film manages to offer patches of reasonable entertainment.
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