FORT APACHE is the superb first film of director John Ford's US Cavalry trilogy. The awesome exterior scenes reflect Ford's early training as a painter and provide a remarkable backdrop for the irony which unfolds.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Fonda) is a martinet commander bitter over having been sent to fight "digger" Indians instead of being assigned a glory post. He foolishly leads his men to disaster, but the press later presents him as a hero for the sake of the military's image.

FORT APACHE is rich beyond its wonderful action scenes and the outdoor panoramas so dear to Ford's heart. The film expertly depicts the social affairs of a far-flung military outpost, the struggle of the women to maintain civility, and the routines of the men in their daily military chores. More

importantly, though, it exposes the sham behind public and national conceptions of "the hero." Wayne gives a solid performance, and such stalwarts as McLaglen, Bond, O'Brien, Foran, Armendariz, and Kibbee lend the film its humor and heart. But you find yourself watching Fonda transcend the

possible critic's charge of "miscasting" as the power-bloated commander. Of course, Fonda's character and the doomed route he pursues are based on the massacre of George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn, and this if anything lends weight to Ford's elegiac reconsideration of "the

American spirit."