John Wayne, who was 41 when the film was made, won great acclaim for his convincing and moving portrayal of the 60-year-old Capt. Nathan Brittles.
John Wayne felt his Academy Award nomination for Best Actor of 1949 should have been for this film instead of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).
John Ford initially was uncertain who to cast in the lead role. However, he knew that he did not want John Wayne for the part, taking into account that, among other factors, Wayne would be playing a character over 20 years older than he was at the time. Reportedly, Wayne's performance in Red River (1948) changed Ford's mind, causing him to exclaim, "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!" Ford realized Wayne had grown considerably as an actor, and was now capable of playing the character he envisaged for this film. When shooting was completed, Ford presented Wayne with a cake with the message, "You're an actor now."
Winton C. Hoch filed a protest with the cinematographers' union about overtime involved in being made to shoot the lightning and thunder scenes over the troops. As it turned out, it was these shots that won him an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color.
The horse that Ben Johnson rode in this film was a famous movie horse used by many stars in many 1940s and 1950s westerns. It was a big sorrel stallion called "Steel" and was owned by Johnson's father-in-law, Clarence "Fat" Jones, who ran one of the most successful horse-renting stables in Hollywood. The horse, which was known for being very quiet but flashy, was ridden by John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle (1944) and The Conqueror (1956), Gregory Peck in Yellow Sky (1948) and Randolph Scott in The Tall T (1957). The horse made stars look like good riders and Fat Jones always insisted if "Steel" was used in a movie, the company hire every other horse used in the movie from his stable, so "Steel" was worth a fortune to him. "Steel" had his own double and the horse that Johnson rides in the galloping scenes was not "Steel" but a spectacular galloper called "Bingo". "Steel" was no movie prima donna, however. Johnson also rode him when he won his world champion calf roping title. He also rode both "Steel" and "Bingo" in Wagon Master (1950).
John Wayne felt that he should have received an Oscar nomination for this film instead of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).
The exterior shots of Capt. Brittles' quarters and the building where Maj. Mac Allshard, Commanding Officer Fort Starke, has his HQ are still standing and in Monument Valley itself near the town of Kanab. The HQ building is now a museum and both are open to the public.
The film was budgeted at $1,851,290, $40,000 less than Fort Apache (1948), and because of John Ford's familiarity with the Monument Valley area, it was completed after only 31 days of shooting and was brought in almost $500,000 under budget.
John Ford cast John Wayne as a mature father figure in this film after seeing him play an older character for the first time the previous year in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and exclaiming, "I didn't know the big SOB could act."
When Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) is addressing the troops and warning them to "watch them words," he asks who owns a dog that had wandered over and was watching the assembled soldiers. Not receiving an answer, he concludes, "Nice dog! Irish setter!" The scene was improvised on the spot by director John Ford. The dog was an unnamed Navajo pet that had fallen asleep during the setup. Multiple takes were required because McLaglen kept blowing the line, calling the dog a "cocker spaniel."
Based on the paintings and illustrations of Frederic Remington, the artist renowned for his nostalgic packaging of the bygone "real" West for an urban public.
The medal Capt. Brittles is wearing during the final troop review is the Medal of Honor, though it resembles the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) medal worn by Union veterans of the Civil War.
"Lux Radio Theater" broadcast a 60-minute radio adaptation of the movie on March 12, 1951, with John Wayne reprising his film role.
As the regiment's blacksmith, named "Wagner" (Mickey Simpson), is seen at work, we can hear the orchestra playing the "Nibelung"-motif from Richard Wagner's famous opera, "Siegfried". In the opera the motif is connected with the forging of Siegfried's sword.
The second John Ford movie filmed in Technicolor. The first was Drums Along the Mohawk (1939).
John Ford's older brother Francis Ford appears in only one scene as Connolly, the barman. Ford kept Francis on wages "for eight weeks even through Francis could have completed his scenes in less than a week."
The cast and crew lived in relatively primitive conditions in Monument Valley. Most slept in dirt-floor cabins that only had communal cold-water drum showers.
Although several reviewers praised John Wayne's portrayal, the general critical consensus was not in favor of his trying something new and expanding his range. Wayne recalled rather bitterly that he never got the credit he deserved for the picture, so he just went back to "re-acting" for the rest of his career.
In the graveyard, one of the crosses carries the name "DeVoto", this is likely an homage to Bernard DeVoto, a prominent historian of the American West.
Tom Tyler, who played Cpl. Quaine, also played the chief villain, Luke Plummer, in Stagecoach (1939), the John Ford western that launched John Wayne as a star.
Capt. Brittles marks each day off an 1876 calendar with no month, on which the first day is a Wednesday. That would make the month of his "retirement" as March of 1876. However, it cannot be March as Custer was killed in June 1876.
Makeup artist Don L. Cash and hair stylist Anna Malin were responsible for convincingly transforming John Wayne, who was 41 at the time, into a man in his 60s.
Captain Brittles, played by John Wayne, makes nocturnal visits to the graves of his wife Mary and daughters Elizabeth and Jane (ages 6 and 5) at the Fort Starke cemetery. On the first visit, the camera lingers on their tombstones long enough for viewers to read that they died within 5 days of each other in June 1867. It is never explained how Brittles lost his family in such a short time; and he only speaks to Mary's grave in a casual conversational tone, updating her on the latest information. Without commentary or dramatics, the scene and its implications serve to illustrate the harshness of Army life on the American frontier in that era.
Despite the demise of the 'Pony Express' in 1861 and the completion of the telegraph in 1862, notification in many areas, even in 1876, still traveled by horse. The Custer column from Fort Lincoln did not string telegraph lines as it moved west to engage the 'hostile Indians'. After the 'massacre', the word was sent East, at least to Fort Lincoln, by courier on horseback. It took nearly two weeks for the word to reach the East Coast (General Sherman on July 4th).
This was one of John Wayne's three personal favorites among all his films, along with The Quiet Man (1952) and The Searchers (1956). All were directed by John Ford.
In Scott Eyman's biography of John Ford, "Print the Legend," he quotes from a letter outlining Ford's ideas for the movie written to the writer James Warner Bellah. In that letter, Ford states that Capt. Brittles' wife and daughters died in a smallpox epidemic. The gravestones show his wife Mary dying nine years before this story at the age of 32 on June 2nd, 1867 followed by Elizabeth on June 5th at the age of two, and Jane dying on June 7th at the age of five.
Edward O'Fearna, an assistant director on the film, is the brother of the film's director, John Ford.
Aside from the opening exchange, all of Tyree's dialog is directed toward Capt. Brittles. Others may be in the scene, but he's always talking to Brittles.
In the scene about :38 when Sgt. Tyree rides into the buffalo herd, one of the calves has white markings on the legs.
Mickey Simpson says three audible words in the entire movie: "Ja" at the beginning, and "Come Fritz" just before the fight with Quincannon.
Before he decided to cast John Wayne as Captain Brittles, John Ford had considered casting Henry Fonda.