Cinematographer Archie Stout and John Ford used infrared black-and-white film stock, developed originally for medical and scientific researches and which doesn't sense the blue and records that color as black, in many exterior scenes shot in the Monument Valley to enhance the clouds and the rock formations. Ford learned that technique from Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa that he worked with for The Fugitive (1947).
Shirley Temple and John Agar were married at the time the movie was made, but went through a highly publicized divorce complete with allegations of spousal abuse, infidelity and alcoholism a couple of years later.
The cast member who had the hardest time with John Ford was John Agar, making his film debut. Whether it was because Agar was newly married to Ford's beloved Shirley Temple or because he wanted to test him, the director rode him mercilessly, calling him "Mr. Temple" in front of everyone, criticizing the way he delivered lines, chastising him for his lack of expert horsemanship. One day Agar stormed off, vowing to quit the picture, but John Wayne took him aside and helped him with some of the more difficult aspects of his job.
John Ford used Navajos to play Apaches, regarding them as "natural-born actors" and very dependable. He respected them and they enjoyed working for him. They loved it when a movie was being shot anywhere nearby because it meant work. They would travel by wagon many miles for a job and knew they could count on a big lunch on a Ford set. The movie required 200 Navajos as Apache warriors and another 100 Navajo women and children. It also required 100 non-Indian extras as cavalry troops.
The Fort Apache fort, built for this production, stood for years. It was reused in dozens of productions, most notably the TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954). It was located at the Corriganville Movie Ranch in Simi Valley, California. Today it is possible to visit this location, as it is now administered as a City Park in Simi Valley.
The plot for this movie was loosely based on "Custer's Last Stand", with Thursday as Custer and substituting Apaches for the Sioux. The cover-up by the survivors and the military of Thursday's blunder is in line with the cover-up of Custer's mistakes and deliberate disobedience of orders at Little Big Horn.
Infrared film was used in outdoor scenes to enhance the fantastic look of the scenery and sky. However, the actors' skin tone looked far too pale on infrared, so they were compelled to wear very dark make-up to compensate.
Although Henry Fonda would work with John Ford nine times over the course of their careers, the actor found the director's unwillingness to rehearse emotional scenes frustrating. He noted how if he wanted to discuss a scene, Ford would just change the subject or tell him to shut up. Fonda also never became comfortable with Ford's foul language and bullying ways. "I literally saw tears coming out of Henry Fonda's eyes on [this film]," Michael Wayne recalled. "He just turned and walked away".
A mainstay on the set was Danny Borzage, brother of director Frank Borzage, who John Ford would hire as a bit player so Danny could be around to play the director's favorite songs on the accordion between takes to keep the mood lively. Michael Wayne recalled that sometimes the sound of Borzage's accordion, or someone singing without accompaniment, would be all that pierced the silence at night, while heat lightning flashed in the distance.
Although John Ford would not allow wives and girlfriends onto his locations, John Wayne was allowed to bring his son Michael Wayne with him to Monument Valley. He later described the rugged conditions and the long, six-days-per-week working hours: "The only thing people could do in Monument Valley was work; there was no other diversion. But the rougher it was, the more Ford seemed to like it."
Henry Fonda had his own personal problems at this time: lack of rewarding roles; the difficulties of shooting his last movie with John Ford, The Fugitive (1947), and its complete failure at the box office; failed marriages; alienation from his children and some of his friends over the years. His biographer Peter Collier asserts that "the ramrod cavalry martinet he played in John Ford's 'Fort Apache' was perhaps closest to his off-screen personality at this time."
Stuntman John Hudkins broke his back during shooting--as a speeding munitions wagon was going around a sharp bend, the vehicle turned over, dragging the four people on board right toward a rock wall (Hudkins broke his back when one of the horses fell on top of him); the scene was kept in the film). Luckily, stuntman and occasional actor Ben Johnson galloped in and prevented a potentially deadly accident. He was rewarded with a seven-year contract with Argosy and substantial roles in the years to come. Hudkins was out of work for about a year while recovering.
Although he had problems with John Ford, Henry Fonda also admitted the director was responsible for some of his best work. Film critics have often agreed, noting that before working with Ford Fonda was a star, but after working with him Fonda was an actor.
First entry to John Ford's famed "Cavalry Trilogy," followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), though it was not originally intended as a trilogy. This second project--Ford's independent venture teaming with Merian C. Cooper--was planned to give their company, Argosy Productions, financial stability after the commercial failure of The Fugitive (1947).
Ward Bond got his share of abuse and ribbing, not only from John Ford but John Wayne, too. The two used to tease him mercilessly about what they said was the enormous size of his rear end. The burly, rough-edged Bond harbored ambitions of becoming a romantic lead, much to everyone's amusement, and kept complaining throughout the picture that he should have been playing Wayne's role. Ford simply dismissed him with the nickname "Big and Double Ugly."
During shooting of one scene, it began to rain, but John Ford kept right on filming. Henry Fonda later noted that although you didn't see the rain on screen, the light moisture on the leather of the saddle and harness added an unusual quality. "That was Pappy taking advantage of whatever presented itself," Fonda said.
Realizing that John Ford needed expert, fast-paced editing to make his pictures work, producer Merian C. Cooper managed to get Ford to turn over control of this and other films once principal photography was over.
When working with John Ford, John Wayne gave himself over completely to the director's intentions and orders and had great respect for Ford's talent. "When he pointed the camera, he was painting with it," Wayne said. "He didn't believe in keeping the camera in motion; he moved his people toward the camera and away from it."
John Agar never forgot the generous and patient help John Wayne gave him as an inexperienced young actor on this production. "I would go to hell and back for Duke," he later said. They worked on five more films together.
John Ford fired actor/director Paul Fix while the crew was filming in Monument Valley. The writer hired a University of Arizona anthropology student as his guide. After he returned, Ford asked him if he thought he had gathered enough information. When Nugent answered yes, Ford told him, "Good. Now forget everything you've read and we'll start writing a movie."
Movie censor Joseph Breen had some problems with the script. He was concerned about a scene of the men working at a manure pile as possibly offensive and insisted that a shot of two dead troopers be handled discreetly without any overt gruesomeness. He also gave orders that no toilet should be shown on screen and that drinking scenes be kept to a minimum. Breen also instructed John Ford to keep constant contact with Mel Morse, regional director of the American Humane Society, regarding any scenes involving horses or other animals.
John Ford had Frank Nugent do something on this project that the writer continued throughout his career - write out complete biographies for every character: birth details, education, politics, drinking habits, quirks, etc.
Frank Nugent sensed that John Ford had vague story ideas in mind but didn't know how to develop them, so his working method became a simple routine: write a rough scene, then send it to Ford for comments. He focused mainly on character development, aware that Ford hated exposition and would supply much of his own dialogue.
Although they would work together on 11 pictures, John Ford and Frank Nugent did not establish the same close relationship Ford had with Dudley Nichols, nor did Ford have the same level of respect for Nugent, even though Nugent married Ford's daughter. "Once the script is finished, the writer had better keep out of his way," Nugent said. "The finished picture is always Ford's, never the writers." Nevertheless, Ford was lucky to receive both Nugent's and Merian C. Cooper's contributions to the project. According to screenwriter Philip Dunne, who worked with Ford on How Green Was My Valley (1941), "Ford doesn't really understand scripts. He has no story sense. He has a great sense of scenes. But Ford should never be the producer of his pictures."
While Frank Nugent completed the script, John Ford went scouting locations in Monument Valley. Fully aware that he needed a moneymaker to keep Argosy solvent, Ford spent six months carefully planning a shooting script and pre-production set-ups so that he was able to cut his budget from $2.8 million to $2.1 million and shorten the planned shooting schedule from 77 days to 44.
As noted above, the plot is loosely based on George Armstrong Custer's story. The fact the character personifying Custer is called Thursday is a hidden reference to his birthday: Custer was born on December 5, 1839, which is a Thursday.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Thursday's Charge", the painting referenced at the end that falsely depicts Lt. Col. Owen Thursday's last stand as being greatly outnumbered and fighting off the Indians to the best of his abilities, was actually one of the illustrations used to advertise for the film in its initial release.