The Backstory of ‘Apache Pass’…

“The worst place of all is Apache Pass.  There my brother and nephews were murdered.  Their bodies were hung up and kept there till they were skeletons.  Now Americans and Mexicans kill an Apache on sight.  I have retaliated with all my might.”

-Cochise

In the movie “Apache Pass,” young Peter Aarons is given the opportunity to portray one of the great chiefs in American history, Cochise, son-in-law of Mangas Coloradas.  Cochise was born around 1805 and died on June 8, 1874.  He was born She-ka-she, or A-da-tli-chi, “having the quality of strength of an oak.”  After the whites began calling him Cochise, the Apache nation adopted it as K’uu-ch’ish (Cheis) “Oak.” It has also been translated as “Hardwood” or “Ironwood.”  Hence the name of the short-lived series with which Bobbi Bates was associated.

Cochise lived a long life and died of natural causes, which was rare for a chief in that day and age.  He had only one white friend, and that was Thomas Jeffords.  When Cochise died, Jeffords was one of the very few who knew his burial site, and took that secret to his grave.  Like Crazy Horse, Cochise was never photographed, but he was described as a tall man, six feet or more, with broad shoulders and a commanding appearance.  He did not bluster or posture, and it was said he never met a man his equal with a lance.  He was well spoken, and acted with dignity.  While he sought peace, he was a fierce warrior and a brilliant leader, extremely skilled in guerilla warfare tactics.  While he negotiated modestly and in good faith, he was not known for compromise, especially when it came to the welfare of his people.  He loved his homeland and refused to give it up.  With Jeffords’ help, he was one of the few chieftains who didn’t have to.

Although the movie is called “Apache Pass” it begins after the pitched battle at Apache Pass, in which the Apache fought the United States army.  It focuses more on the peace treaty hammered out with Jeffords and General Oliver Howard over several attempts, and the skirmishes in between.  With Thomas Jeffords firmly on his side, Cochise demanded and got the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains as his reservation and Tom Jeffords as his agent.  While Jeffords is “the hero,” Cochise drives the action in the film.

Having been fascinated for many years by the friendship between Jeffords and Cochise, having two fine young actors at his fingertips, and being an extremely canny producer, Peter Aarons Senior turned much of the focus away from the Apache and focused on the only white friend of Cochise, Thomas Jeffords, and Jeffords’ efforts to find peace with and justice for his friend Cochise and his people.  By taking this approach Aarons was able to more realistically portray Cochise.  That seems counterintuitive, but in the 1960’s Native Americans were up in arms and out in the streets along with Mexican Americans and black Americans.  Trying to make an “Indian” the real-life hero of a story at that point, would have been ill advised.  He could portray him as mythic hero, or murdering savage, but portraying him realistically wouldn’t have worked, had he been the main character.  It certainly would have been less than lucrative at the box office.  As a secondary character, Cochise comes across with much more fact-based clarity, which was JR Aarons’ intent.

Although he was doing Cochise and Jeffords a service with the honest portrayal and historical accuracy of the film, and while he was spot-on casting Kristoffer Miller as Jeffords, he did not seek a Native American actor for the part of Cochise, nor was he above casting his dark and brooding twenty-six-year-old son as a man who was approximately sixty-six years old when Jeffords rode into his camp for the first time.