Filmed on locations in the Bronx, New York City, New York, it is widely believed that the film was based on the book Fort Apache by Tom Walker, but the studio, Time-Life Television Films (owner of the script), disputes this. The result was lengthy court litigation.
Police officers face many challenges in the decayed South Bronx region of New York City. Among them are NYPD officers Murphy (Newman) and Corelli (Wahl), who work out of the 41st precinct, nicknamed "Fort Apache" because to those who work there, it feels like an army outpost in foreign territory (an allusion to Fort Apache out of the Old West).
The precinct itself is one of the worst and most dilapidated in the entire department, approaching demolition and staffed mostly by officers who are unwanted by and have been transferred out of other precincts. Additionally, the precinct is of little use to the large Puerto Rican community, as only 4% of the officers are Hispanic in the largest non-English speaking section of the Bronx, according to retiring precinct captain Dugan.
Corelli and Murphy attempt to maintain law and order but have conflicts with corrupt fellow officers, as well as with a newly appointed police captain, Connolly (Asner). There is rioting due to alleged police brutality, as well as issues related to the deaths of two rookie cops at the movie's beginning.
Illustrating the hopeless futility of the work done at the precinct, the killer is later found as an anonymous body, dumped in the roadside trash. With nothing to link her to the deaths of the rookie officers, the police remain ignorant of the fact that she was the killer and will never be caught, while a purse snatcher who dresses in pull over war clothes as his disguise and was targeting elderly welfare receipients on their check cashing days is chased by by Murphy and Corelli into the ambiguous ending that never says if he was successfully captured or not.
The film was successful, grossing over $65 million worldwide at its time of release in 1981. Paul Newman was largely praised for his performance, but the movie itself received more negative reviews.
Richard Schickel, in TIME, called it: "more like a made-for-TV movie". He also added: "The film is not quite up to its star".; "...somewhere between Barney Miller and the works of Joseph Wambaugh".; and: "But mainly it is Newman, now 56, who gives Fort Apache its modest distinction".
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, said: "...the most complete collection of cop-movie clichés since John Wayne played a Chicago cop in McQ". (Ebert got this incorrect, in McQ Wayne played a Seattle policeman, he played a Chicago policeman in Brannigan.) "There are too many scenes that are necessary to the plot but not to the movie, scenes where the life of the movie stops so story details can be filled in". "The movie has several story threads that lead nowhere". But, says about Newman, "He's good in his role,..." But, also calls this more of a TV show.
Variety labeled the film: "... a very patchy picture, strong on dialog and acting and exceedingly weak on story", and criticizes it for its lack of depth.
Nick Sambides, Jr. at Allmovie calls it "...flinty but otherwise forgettable character study".
The New York Post published a photo of Newman on the set with a caption that he stated was inaccurate[clarification needed], calling the paper "a garbage can". Because of the dispute the Post banned him from its pages, even removing his name from movies in the TV listings.
Local community groups threatened to file suit against the producers because of the way it depicted their neighborhood in the Bronx and for the depiction of ethnic minorities (Blacks and Puerto Ricans). Because of this pressure some changes were made to the script and a note was added to the title card at the beginning of the film.
Walker v. Time Life Films, Inc., 784 F.2d 44 (2d Cir. 1986)
After the release of the film, an author, Tom Walker, filed a lawsuit against one of the production companies, Time-Life Television Films (legal owner of the script), claiming that the producers infringed on his book Fort Apache (New York: Crowell, 1976. ISBN 0-690-01047-8). Among other things, Walker, the plaintiff, argued that: "both the book and the film begin with the murder of a black and a white policeman with a handgun at close range; both depict cockfights, drunks, stripped cars, prostitutes and rats; both feature as central characters third- or fourth-generation Irish policemen who live in Queens and frequently drink; both show disgruntled, demoralized police officers and unsuccessful foot chases of fleeing criminals". But the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that these are stereo-typical ideas, so called "scènes à faire" (French for "scenes that must be done"), and that the United States copyright law does not protect concepts or ideas. The court ruling stated: "the book Fort Apache and the film Fort Apache: The Bronx were not substantially similar beyond [the] level of generalized or otherwise nonprotectible ideas, and thus [the] latter did not infringe copyright of [the] former".