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When the government agency fails to deliver even the meager supplies due by treaty to the proud Cheyenne tribe in their barren desert reserve, the starving Indians have taken more abuse than it's worth and break it too by embarking on a 1,500 miles journey back to their ancestral hunting grounds. US Cavalry Capt. Thomas Archer is charged with their retrieval, but during the hunt grows to respect their noble courage, and decides to help them. Written by
Spencer Tracy was first cast as the secretary of interior Karl Shultz, but had a heart attack and was replaced by Edward G. Robinson, whose scenes were entirely photographed in studios, including the climatic meeting scene between Shultz and the Cheyenne chiefs, in which the background had to be done with screen process. See more »
Secretary of the Interior:
You made one of the most heroic march in history. I am sure the people of this country will understand and will agree, when they hear the facts.
The people... Who will tell them? Who will tell the people... about Fort Robinson?
Secretary of the Interior:
I will, I promise you. Now will you take the gamble?
See more »
Unfortunately, given the subject matter and the director, "Cheyenne Autumn" fails to achieve the greatness of its aspirations. Injustice to Native Americans has along tragic history, and the topic deserved a soaring film that brought those crimes to a broad audience. After years of depicting Native Americans as the villains, John Ford was certainly the right director to cast a sympathetic eye on their plight, and the film has many grand sequences that are reminiscent of Ford's finest westerns. The brilliant camera work of William Clothier captures the majesty of Monument Valley and often bathes the mountains and characters in the warm glow of sunsets.
For some reason, Ford felt that Latino actors were appropriate for the roles of Native Americans, and Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland, and Dolores del Rio do achieve a measure of dignity as members of the long-suffering Cheyenne tribe. While Carroll Baker tries hard as a Quaker woman who accompanies the Cheyenne on an arduous trek back to their homeland, her bleached blonde hair, immaculate make-up, and voice undercut her efforts. The work of composer, Alex North, also sounds out of place. Best known for his scores for "Spartacus" and "Cleopatra," North's music here evokes Roman legions rather than the U.S. cavalry.
However, the biggest flaw in the film is a misconceived episode in the middle that features James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, and John Carradine. As Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Stewart and Kennedy perform a comedy routine that jars with the solemnity of the previous scenes. Indeed, the entire Dodge City sequence is a western comedy, and viewers would be justified in thinking that some film reels were mislabeled and an entire sequence from another film had been inserted accidentally. Whatever dignity and concern was established in the film's first hour are destroyed when the action moves from the Cheyenne to Earp and Dodge City.
"Cheyenne Autumn" was likely conceived as a follow-up to the successful "How the West Was Won." John Ford was one of the directors of that Cinerama film; Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, James Stewart, and Richard Widmark are featured in both films; and the ads for the two westerns are strikingly similar. Widmark anchors "Cheyenne Autumn" and provides a narration much as Spencer Tracey did for "How the West Was Won." However, the earlier movie was a rousing adventure with a great score and an uplifting theme of westward expansion. Despite an overture and intermission, "Cheyenne Autumn" is a small, sober tale of racial injustice that has been stretched out and embellished with a jarring music score and a schizophrenic mix of comedy and tragedy that lays waste to some fine epic moments.
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