Such a classic Ford mixture of the heroic and the cynical in the Great American West.
After the Civil War, Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) has been shunted to a lonely outpost away from the front lines of the Indian Wars. He is accompanied by his sweet daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). Thursday is determined that he will find some way to achieve military glory from his situation. Arriving with him is young 2nd Lt. Michael O’Rourke (John Agar), fresh out of West Point, who is the son of the fort’s Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond).
Awaiting them is a ragtag band of soldiers headed by Captain Collingwood, who is awaiting a transfer and Captain Kirby Yorke (John Wayne). A spirit of relaxed camaraderie prevails. Col. Thursday looks down on the men for their lack of military discipline. He has arrived to shake things up and make a name for himself. Philadelphia and the younger O’Rourke are immediately attracted but Thursday tries to put a stop to that relationship as well.
Soon after Thursday’s arrival, a few soldiers out on patrol are attacked by Indians. Capt. Yorke, who has years of experience with the Apache and their ways, blames all the fort’s troubles with the local tribe on a government agent who trades in bad whiskey and rifles. Cochise has taken the bulk of his people across the border into Mexico to save them from the white man’s disease and corruption. York assures Thursday that Cochise had nothing to do with the murder of the soldiers.
But Thursday sees this as his big moment. He persuades York to negotiate with the Apaches. This lures them over the border for peace talks. No amount of reason can prevent Thursday from ordering his outnumbered regiment to attack the amassed Apache, to disastrous results. With Victor McLaglen as a blustery drill sergeant, Pedro Armendáriz as a military interpreter, and Anna Lee as Collingwood’s wife.
This film, the first in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, is full of magnificent vistas and beautiful little moments. One of my favorites is Fonda’s stiff-legged fancy footwork in a duty dance with the sergeant major’s wife at the non-commissioned officer’s ball. The entire ball is just wonderful with its frontier formality. Of course, the battle footage against the rocks of Monument Valley is masterfully done.
This film is thematically related to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) in that it concludes with the Wayne character, who had been betrayed and ignored, upholding the popular legend of Thursday’s Heroic Charge with newpapermen. He makes a patriotic speech about how the fallen have not died as long as the glory of the regiment lives on. The entire story captures so well the forces tearing at Ford – his love of honor and tradition versus a clear-eyed vision of the human weakness that stands in the way of their fulfillment. Recommended.