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The working title of this film was War Party. In the onscreen credits, technical advisor Maj. Philip J. Kieffer was credited as "Major Philip Kieffer USA, Rtd." Kieffer also appeared in the film, and in the cast credit his surname was misspelled as "Keiffer." Fort Apache was the first film in what critics now refer to as director John Ford's "Cavalry trilogy." The second film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, was produced by Argosy Pictures and distributed by RKO in 1949, and the third, Rio Grande, was also produced by Argosy, but released by Republic Pictures in 1950 (see entries below). John Wayne starred in all three films, and Victor McLaglen played supporting roles in all three. Frank S. Nugent, a former New York Times film critic, made his screenwriting debut with this picture, and later wrote the screenplay for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, as well as for Ford's 1956 picture The Searchers. Various sources contend that the film's portrayal of "Lt. Col. Owen Thursday" was inspired by General George Armstrong Custer and his ill-fated stand at Little Big Horn. Unlike the Thursday character, however, Custer fought against the Sioux Indians in the Dakotas. According to modern biographical sources, Cochise, the chief of the Chiricahua Apaches in Arizona, led a band of followers into the Dragoon Mountains in 1861 and evaded capture until 1871, when he surrended to General George Crook. In 1872, he fled the reservation until the government established a new Chiricahua reservation on Apache ancestral land. He surrended a second time to Tom Jeffords and died in 1874. As depicted in Fort Apache, Geronimo was a member of the Apache warriors council under Cochise. In 1885, he began a campaign against the whites and was finally captured by General Crook in 1886. He escaped shortly afterward, was recaptured and eventually became a farmer.
Hollywood Reporter news items add the following information about the production: Exteriors for the picture were shot in Monument Valley, twenty-two miles from the nearest telephone and town. (Modern sources note that because insurance was prohibitively expensive in Utah, filming was done on the Arizona side of the Valley.) Interiors were to be shot at Enterprise Studios in Hollywood, although no confirmation of this announcement has been found. (Modern sources contend that interiors were filmed at RKO's Path lot in Culver City.) At Monument Valley, director John Ford hired two doctors from Los Angeles to oversee his 600-person crew, which worked in 135 degree heat. The crew included at least ten stunt riders, including actor Ben Johnson, whom Hollywood Reporter described as a "husky young cowboy from Pawhuska, Oklahoma." After his work on Fort Apache, Johnson was signed as a "termer" by Ford and Cooper and went on to appear in several other Ford westerns, including Three Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Wagonmaster (see entries below). John Agar, a former serviceman who was married to co-star Shirley Temple at the time of production, made his screen debut in the film. He and Temple, both of whom RKO borrowed from David O. Selznick's company for the production, divorced in 1949. Although Hollywood Reporter announced that Fernando Fernndez, "Mexico's Sinatra," was signed to a "singing role" in the film, his appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Dick Foran sang the picture's only solo ("Sweet Genevieve"). In addition to "Sweet Genevieve," excerpts from the traditional song "The Girl I Left Behind Me" are also heard in the film. Technical advisor and bit player Major Philip Kieffer, whose name was misspelled as "Keiffer" in the cast list, was an army historian and "West Pointer."
Although RKO distributed Argosy's first production, The Fugitive , which was released in late 1947, United Artists was announced in March 1947 as this picture's distributor. In July 1947, however, just prior to the start of production on Fort Apache, Hollywood Reporter reported that RKO was releasing the film because of United Artists' "unsettled status." According to Hollywood Reporter, Argosy's deal with RKO included distribution rights to a second Ford film (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). Although Motion Picture Almanac lists the film's general release date as March 9, 1948, Hollywood Reporter news items indicate that the world premiere took place in Phoenix, AZ, on March 27, 1948, and that a Chicago premiere occurred two days later. Proceeds from the picture's Chicago premiere, which was sponsored by the Chicago Herald-American newspaper, went to the newspaper's wounded soldier fund. In May 1948, Hollywood Reporter announced that Argosy was planning to advertise Fort Apache and The Fugitive on KTLA, a newly formed, independent Los Angeles television station. Frozen assets from the British release of Fort Apache and The Fugitive were to be used to finance Ford's picture The Quiet Man (not made until 1952), according to an April 1948 Hollywood Reporter news item.
Modern sources add the following information about the production: As preparation for writing the film's script, Ford had Nugent read fifty books about the story's period and setting and sent him to Arizona to study Apache culture. Nugent depicted the Apaches more sympathetically in his screenplay than Bellah did in his story. (In a January 1949 letter to Nugent, American historian Dee Brown complimented Nugent and Ford on their accurate, sensitive portrayal of the tribe.) The film's original budget was $2.8 million, and for their work, Temple, John Wayne and Henry Fonda were each paid $100,000, while McLaglen received $75,000. The parade ground exteriors were shot at Ray Corrigan Ranch in Simi Valley, CA. Cinematographer Archie Stout convinced Ford to shoot the exteriors on black-and-white infrared film, a film that produced superior day-for-night effects, but had been rarely used because of its tricky exposure requirements. Utilizing recently improved stock, Stout shot more infrared film than on any previous Hollywood picture. Production wrapped twenty-five days under schedule and $700,000 under budget. Modern sources credit William Clothier as second unit photographer, Eddie O'Fearna (Ford's older brother) as second assistant director, and Cliff Lyons as second-unit director. Modern sources add Harry Tenbrook (Courier), Fred Graham (Cavalry man), Mickey Simpson (Noncom officer), Archie Twitchell (Stagecoach driver), Dan Borzage (Trooper), Gil Perkins, Junior Hudkins and Hubert Kerns (Cavalrymen/Stuntmen) and Frank McGrath (Bugler/Stuntman) to the cast. In addition, modern sources note that Ford fired actor/director Paul Fix while the crew was filming in Monument Valley. The film earned $445,000 at the box office and was one of RKO's biggest moneymakers in 1948. On August 5, 1949, the Hallmark Playhouse broadcast a radio adaptation of the story, starring John Wayne and Ward Bond.