I think my all-time favourite scene in a John Ford film -- sometimes, depending on my mood, my favourite scene in any film -- is the non-commissioned officers' dance sequence in Fort Apache. Consisting of two separate dances -- the Grand March followed by couples dancing to "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" -- it occurs just before the film moves into its climactic section. After this scene, the whole movie is about the Henry Fonda character, an arrogant creep so determined to test out his pet theories about war that he ignores the advice of characters who actually know the Apaches and the territory, and gets his men slaughtered. But the dance isn't a lighthearted diversion before the serious stuff: it's an essential part of the movie, highlighting the values of community and ritual that hold the Cavalry outpost together, and highlighting the way Colonel Thursday (Fonda) can't quite adjust to the idea of being part of a community.
Thursday goes along with the ritual nature of the dance, of course; he's a by-the-book commander and he would never fail to do what's expected of him. But he doesn't crack a smile through the whole thing, unlike Sergeant O'Rourke (Ward Bond), who, though his family has been wronged by Colonel Thursday, smiles while dancing with the Colonel's daughter (Shirley Temple). When he has to dance a lively dance, he does proficient but stiff-jointed steps, never looking like he's having any fun, giving a militaristic air even to a one-on-one dance.
The way it's shot is quintessential Ford too: long shots where you can see lots of people at once; few medium shots and no close-ups; a lot of low-angle shots with the floors and ceilings visible; little character moments in the background and foreground like the guy pointing to Thursday as he dances, or Victor McLaglen's attempt to dance gracefully. Watch it (and then buy the DVD and watch the whole thing):
One thing I once saw pointed out about Fort Apache (can't remember where) is that it not only has two big stars at their peak, Fonda and John Wayne, it also has an unusual number of former stars in it, or stars who weren't known as stars to the film's audience. McLaglen had played leads in the '30s, including several in Ford movies; Shirley Temple had of course been a huge star in the '30s; George O'Brien (Sam Collingwood) was a star in silent films, including Ford's breakthrough Western The Iron Horse; Dick Foran was a star of B-movies; Pedro Armendáriz was a star in Mexican films, as was Miguel Inclán, who played Cochise. It's interesting that in making a movie about the disaster that results when one man tries to lord it over everyone else, Ford assembled a cast of people with legitimate claims to be stars in their own right.