Fort Apache is an old John Ford western starring Henry Fonda as Colonel Owen Thursday, a bitter, self-centered martinet (and former general) who brings his daughter Philadelphia (20-year-old Shirley Temple) to a remote outpost. She immediately becomes the love interest of the shy, excessively formal, recent West Point graduate Lieutenant O'Rourke.
The colonel begins his command by requiring strict adherence to the dress code and openly disagreeing with an officer's (prescient) assessment of the fierceness of the Apache tribe. Then he denies that he's a martinet and says they should get to know each other. He seems to have nothing to do but alienate and antagonize his officers and men. Meanwhile, his daughter has nothing to do but wear pretty clothing, attract attention, and pout.
The situation is balanced by Captain York John Wayne, an officer with a level head on his shoulders and a profound sense of courtesy, expressed with easy informality.
This is a class-conscious story describing several types of cross-cultural encounters. There is a sharp division between officers and enlisted, wealthy and working-class. The largely white officer corps also contrast with the Irish-dominated group of sergeants, although the sergeant-major's son is the new lieutenant from West Point. It being Arizona, Philadelphia's maid is Spanish-speaking and "given" to her by another lady.
Captain York and an enlisted interpreter go, unarmed, to seek out Apache leader Cochise, with the request that he return from Mexico to the Arizona reservation which he had fled due to mistreatment by, Meachum the corrupt government Indian agent. Meanwhile, back at the fort, the "barrier" between officers and enlisted is danced around, quite literally, at a party for officers and sergeants and their ladies.
When York returns, the party must end, and the colonel orders the regiment to meet Cochise in force the next day, contrary to York's expectation and wishes. There is a parley, and Cochise offers to live in peace provided Meachum is dismissed but threatens war otherwise. The colonel breaks off the talk at this point, issuing sharp orders that the Indians must comply by the next day or face war.
Next day, the colonel rejects York's assessment of the tactical situation, on the grounds that savages could not be as sophisticated as York makes them out to be. He orders a charge in a column of fours, relieving York of command when he calls the charge suicidal and calling him a coward. As the mounted soldiers come into the mountains, they are met with rifle fire from less than 50 yards.