Of all the American Indian peoples who featured in Western films, often referred to as cowboy-and-Indian movies, the Apache were the favorites. OK, yes, Hollywood liked Plains Indians, Sioux, Cheyenne and so forth, no doubt about it, especially if they were fighting Custer. We think of Sitting Bull, Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves, and many more. And Tinseltown also occasionally, if more rarely, featured other peoples, such as the Modocs in Drum Beat or the Seminoles in Distant Drums. But they were as nothing compared with Apache movies.
Way back in the silent days there was a German movie Red Bull, the Last Apache (Red Bull, der letzte Apache) in 1920, and in 1922 Roy Stewart was One Eighth Apache. In 1928 Leo Maloney directed and starred in The Apache Raider.
When talkies came in, 1930 Jack Perrin made The Apache Kid’s Escape.
The 1940s liked Apaches: in 1941 Don ‘Red’ Barry was The Apache Kid; Lloyd Nolan was on the Apache Trail in 1942; Roy Rogers and Trigger got into the act in 1947 with Apache Rose; Alan Curtis was an Apache Chief in 1949; and of course John Ford told us all about Fort Apache in 1948.
The 1950s were very Apache years, ‘52 especially: in that year John Lund fought The Battle at Apache Pass, Gilbert Roland saw Apache War Smoke, Gene Autry was in Apache Country, and Clayton Moore hunted the Apache Avenger.
Stephen McNally had heard the Apache Drums in 1951 and also made The Stand at Apache River in 1953. Rory Calhoun did two too: he was in Apache Territory in 1958 and returned for an Apache Uprising in 1965. Robert Aldrich had Burt Lancaster as a blue-eyed Apache in 1954, and in 1955, equally un-Native American Joan Taylor was Apache Woman, while Bill Williams and Richard Jaeckel were surprised by an Apache Ambush. Jim Davis fought a Duel at Apache Wells in 1957 and was back in Apache Warrior later the same year.
The 60s were no slouch: Audie Murphy was in both Apache Rifles in 1964 and 40 Guns to Apache Pass three years later. And there were 1960s spaghetti Apaches, such as Venganza Apache and Apache Fury.
In the 70s, Jody McCrea wanted to Cry Blood, Apache in 1970, Lee Van Cleef was Captain Apache in 1971 and Ray Danton was in Apache Blood in 1975, possibly the worst Western ever made.
Italian Sebastian Harrison was the Bianco Apache in 1987. But then there was a decade or two of Apache pause.
But wait! Trace Adkins has just completed an epic, Apache Junction, and Apache Canyon is in pre-production. The Apache Death Song and Apache SpiritZ are announced.
That’s quite a lot of Apaches. And those are only the ones with Apache in the title. What about all those other cavalry vs. Apache movies? And all those ones about Apache leaders, like Ulzana’s Raid, Taza, Son of Cochise, Geronimo: An American Legend, and so on?
Why this obsession with Apaches?
Even for a white boy like me, who, growing up in the 1950s, might well have been expected to cheer for the cowboys against the Indians, the Native Americans (though of course we didn’t call them that then) were really exciting. They were such good fighters and so clever and so skilled. They rode better and shot better and fought more fearsomely with a knife. Crossing a desert on foot and with no water? Child’s play. I was more than half on their side, long before the revisionist days of Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, when the US Cavalry suddenly became the bad guys.
But while Plains Indians in their war bonnets were all very fine, and those Mohawk haircuts were rather groovy and I liked those colorful Seminole costumes, nothing was as plain cool as an Apache.
Part of it was their look. That shoulder-length hair. Those tall moccasins and red headbands. In fact the Apache adopted white man’s clothing very rapidly. They liked the colored cloth, the men found the trousers and jackets practical, and years of Spanish contact resulted in the women wearing Spanish-style blouses and skirts. US Army officer coats were especially prized. There may also have been an idea that by appropriating and wearing the coat of a powerful soldier some of the medicine would be transferred to the new wearer.
I suppose that making clothes before the white men came was so hard for the women, and the Apache were never the greatest weavers or spinners – they tended to use animal skins wherever possible. Anyway, Apaches looked really snazzy, as those old photographs show (and they seemed to like being photographed).
And then their terrain. They lived in one of the most hostile landscapes in America, the desert-mountain country of the Southwest.
For me, ‘hot’ westerns were always the purest form. It was OK to see Jeremiah Johnson or McCabe & Mrs Miller wading through snowdrifts, I guess, but nothing beats US Army soldiers fighting Apaches under a grueling sun, riding through dusty canyons as those terrifying Indians rain fire down on them from the heights. I could watch Cheyenne or Sioux hunting buffalo on grassy plains, that was OK, but in my childhood dreams I was sheltering behind sweltering rocks as the sinister, silent enemy lurked somewhere out there poised to deal me out a grisly death – unless I was brave, resourceful and skilled enough to outwit him, which of course I was.
My heroes were the white men who seemed more than half Apache themselves, who understood them and who fought the Apache on their own terms: Louis L’Amour’s Hondo Lane, the great scout Al Sieber or the young Tom Horn. Or Burt Lancaster as McIntosh in Ulzana’s Raid (Ulzana, or Ulzanna, was really ferocious and one of the most successful raiders). I also greatly admired those who knew the Apache and were on their side: Agent John Clum before he went to Tombstone, Tom Jeffords in Broken Arrow, or Royal Whitman at Fort Grant. Because I was on the Apaches’ side too.
And then the chiefs! The great Cochise, of course, who was always Jeff Chandler in my fevered boyhood imagination but later took on a different aspect as I read about him. Tragically, no authenticated photograph of Cochise exists. I admired Cochise’s sons, statesmanlike Taza and warlike Naiche.
Noble Victorio wasn’t actually killed in a fight with John Wayne and Ward Bond in Hondo, I was disappointed to find, or at Fort Bowie fighting Ben Johnson either, but in the Sierra Madres by a Mexican force.
Loco was a great name, then there was Diablo, fantastic, and of course the greatest of them all, Geronimo. Actually, as far as I can ascertain now, Geronimo was a poisonous old man who, although he suffered terribly at the hands of treacherous whites, was just as perfidious in return and even more murderous. His word was worth little. He was disliked by many of his peers and died, of pneumonia caught after falling dead drunk into a creek, a rich farmer in Oklahoma in 1909. But at the time he was to me a great hero, noble, brave and true.
There was no doubt about it, if I was going to be an Indian, I’d be an Apache.
I was always kinda confused, though, about all the different kinds. Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Mimbre, White Mountain, Tonto (which seemed a rude name for an Apache to me), who were all these people? What was the difference? Were they the same, were they allies or were they enemies? Western movies didn’t help me at all here. And was it OK to talk about tribes? We were all warned off the word native quite early on but different books and movies seemed to refer to peoples, tribes, bands, groups and clans of Apaches. Some authors sloppily use these terms interchangeably. One, Hampton Sides, in his (otherwise excellent) book about the Navajo and Kit Carson, Blood and Thunder, even invents a new term, “outfit” – as if there weren’t enough already.
Map from Wikipedia. WA = Western Apache, Ch = Chiricahua, M = Mescalero, J = Jicarilla(N = Navajo, Pl = Plains Apache and L = Lipan)
And indeed, the word Apache itself: in common with many Native Americans, the Apache called themselves simply ‘the people’ – that might be a satisfactory translation of their word Tin-ne-ah anyway. ‘Apache’, I understand, probably comes from the Zuni word ‘apachu’, enemy. Thomas Berger in his novel Little Big Man used the English term ‘human beings’ instead of ‘people’, which was quite amusing because it implied that all non-Sioux (in that case) were not.
There’s a good book, which helps, by James L Haley, which is simply called Apaches, though the subtitle is interesting: A History and Culture Portrait. As far as I can glean from it, Apaches are divided into tribes, such as the Mescaleros, Jicarilla, etc. Some of these tribes are divided into groups. The Western Apaches for example are White Mountains, Cibicue or others. These groups are made up of bands, three bands of Cibicue, for example, two of White Mountain Apache and four San Carlos bands. These bands were pretty separate and would have their own chiefs (who, by the way, were accepted by the other members of the band for a convenient time and were not usually hereditary). In each band there would be extended families or clans, locally grouped and living in proximity.
So I have mentally discarded other terms and use to myself tribe, group, band and clan. It may be wrong (and I certainly wouldn’t want to offend any Apache reader) but it’s the best I can do.
On books, by the way, reader Jim Cornelius told me, “I HIGHLY recommend you check out the work of Edwin Sweeney (if you haven’t already). He has written several definitive books: a biography of Cochise, a biography of Mangas Coloradas, and the masterful From Cochise to Geronimo, chronicling the later Apache wars. An indefatigable researcher, Sweeney has dug deep into archives in Mexico as well as the U.S. Great stuff.”
Well, whatever else, the Apache world is certainly the source of endless fascination for us Westernistas. After all, we all paid to see those Apache movies at a theater back in the day or watched them on TV or bought the DVD, and we read books about some of the great characters – Apache, white and in-between – and your Jeff will surely be back on the subject at a later time.
So Egogahan and Ka dish day. I am reliably informed that this is how you say until we meet again in Apache.