Ostensibly, this is a typical Ford Western, with plenty of sentimental comedy lacing the meticulously staged action. But its primary emphasis is on military etiquette, with each rank knowing its place and the importance of deference to the effectiveness of the unit. Even drinking in the mess is as subject to hierarchical acceptance as formal social events like the dance. Yet Ford is also intrigued by the manner in which army wives conduct domestic life within the confines of a front line stronghold and he uses Shirley Temple’s adolescent exuberance to question Irene Rich and Anna Lee’s unconditional support for such unflinching patriarchy.
Henry Fonda’s chauvinism and bullet-headed arrogance set him at odds with John Wayne’s careerist captain. But it’s Thursday’s love of ritual glory and pernicious racial hatred that prove his undoing. The Cavalry code is powerless against the iconoclasm of Cochise (Miguel Inclan), who exploits Thursday’s underestimation of the Apache and disdain for his enlisted immigrants (he can never remember the Irish sergeant O’Rourke’s name) to lure him to his senseless destruction.
Ford acknowledges the right of the Native Americans to resist genocide and accords them due military honour here. He also uses Wayne’s encounter with the press to lionise the dutiful courage of the average soldier. Yet, even in reminding us that noble men do wicked deeds, he insists on perpetuating the myth of a system that turns the murderer of B Troop into a national hero.