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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
Capt. Thomas Archer:
Have you ever seen a Cheyenne?
Of course I have.
Capt. Thomas Archer:
No you haven't! All you've ever seen is reservation Indians looking pitiful as fish out of water. But give them a chance and they're the greatest fighters in the world. Will you listen to me? It takes a blue coat to make a white man a soldier... but a Cheyenne is a soldier from the first slap on his butt. War is his life. He's fierce, he's smart... and he's meaner than sin!
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The desperation of an artist, shown by a beautiful film
I have recently seen again "Cheyenne Autumn", and, perhaps, I finally got it. In my opinion, this film represents the desperation of an artist, the director John Ford. Forget the usual stunning beauty of the cinematography, the accuracy in filming action scenes, the care for poetic details, and all Ford's trade-mark style. We readily see that "Cheyenne Autumn" is completely different from any other western movie, and not only from the remainder of Ford's work.
Compared with other western movies, the main difference and innovation is that here any killed man is a REAL tragedy, that exhaustion, famine, cold, violence are REAL sufferings for the miserable people on the screen (not just for the Cheyennes, even for the whites). And all that is shown us by Ford ruthlessly, uncompromisingly. The fact that the director stands for the Indians is not as much innovative as it seems. All along his career Ford showed respect and sympathy for them. In the finale, just after an apparent happy ending, we have again violence, again a murder, again a distressed mother: we almost feel the same grief of hers. It is somewhat ironic that in the same year the film was made, 1964, the fashion of Italian western movies invaded the world of cinema, with furious, acrobatic gun-fights and hundreds of shot-dead people, like in a sort of funny game.
The movie is split into two parts by a comic interlude, the episode placed in Dodge City, which is actually a farce. I think that Ford wanted to pay a homage and bid his personal farewell to the old silent western-movies of the 1920s, when his career started. The funny situations are deliberately over the top: see the sensational, licentious joke, when Wyatt Earp (Jimmy Stewart) realizes that he actually had met the girl in Wichita... In any case, a somewhat gloomy mood permeates even this comic part. The main characters are all aged, grey-haired and seemingly life-weary. And the episode is introduced by a particularly brutal, cruel murder.
I think that "Cheyenne Autumn" is a beautiful film, with a good story, great visual beauties, and, in particular, an excellent acting by the whole cast. But it is tough for me to face John Ford's desperate vision. After all, what I most like in the movie is to see, once again, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr on horse-back, in their blue uniforms (by the way: why are they uncredited?). They are both aged and bulkier compared with their look in the great Ford's western-epics of their youth. Never mind: they are almost dearer to me for this very reason...
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