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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...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
John Ford dealt with one of the long-lasting Indian tragedies in his
"Cheyenne Autumn," the wasting away of a tribe in an uncongenial pen
called a reservation and its efforts to take matters into its own
Indians, to use a modern term, had become redundant; that was their true tragedy They were unwanted in what the whites wanted to make of the West and so they were 'placed' and disposed of, thereby suffering the usual 'superfluous' maladies of physical and moral debilitation Here they are portrayed as the victims of insensitive herding
The Cheyennes1,500 miles away in Oklahoma from their Yellowstone homehad seen their numbers depleted from one thousand to less than three hundred in the course of a disease-ridden year With these sorts of statistics it was as much a matter of simple logic as an act of desperation when they upped and left one night, bound on foot for their old hunting grounds, probably knowing full well that the cavalry would make them hurry, as they did, all the way An epic in real life. Would the master epic-maker match it? In purely visual terms the answer was 'yes'. Ford vivid1y depicted the starvation and disease plaguing the Cheyenne trek But somehow Ford never wholly got to the heart of the matter although the intent was there and at times this is a most impressive and moving film
Carroll Baker appears as a Quaker teacher who tries in vain to he1p the unfortunate migrants Richard Widmark is the army captain who is as sympathetic as uniform allows, and Arthur Kennedy is razor-sharp in his impersonation of Doc Holliday, who, with Stewart's Earp, is drafted into leading a posse against the Indians Stewart deliberately re-routes them and the Indians get away Edward G. Robinson plays a humane and kindly Secretary of the Interior who helps bail out the unlucky Cheyenne.
This film shows just a bit of the tragedy of Northern Cheyenne. The
film or John Ford did not show that they initially fought together with
Sioux led by Sitting Bull war in 1876 and were partially massacred by
Custer. Later they fought once again and were defeated at McKenzie
compelling them to surrender. Two years later, the prisoners Dull
Knife, Wild Hog, and Little Wolf were brought down as prisoners to Fort
Reno, from where they escaped and were later killed without mercy. Part
of the survivors were killed later when they tried to escape from Fort
Robinson, Nebraska, and the others finally confined to a reservation in
Montana. Probably Ford wanted to show this story softly giving some
feeling of justice to Captain Archer (Richard Widmark), but at the end
the film became an approximate story of the reality. Cheyenne, either
northern or southern were expelled out from their natural areas, they
missed bull hunting and their ancestral traditions. Beside this
historical considerations, one must admit that Ford had a very good
cast for the film with Widmark, Carroll Baker, always efficient Edward
G. Robinson, Karl Malden and others. The only thing difficult to
understand was the scene with James Stewart (as Wyatt Earp) together
with the veterans Arthur Kennedy and John Carradine, which in my
opinion was out of the context.
Some people believe that Westerns are not more of use in Hollywood. I believe that some westerns giving real stories of what happened with the Indians are very much necessary to understand the history of the real American people. Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Dull Knife and others were not criminals, they were only defending the land where they were born and raised. So their lives should be brought fairly to the screen in the coming future.
This was John Ford's last Western and it is generally viewed as a weak
film. It has been described as his "apology" to Indians for his
allegedly negative portrayal of them in his earlier films. If you read
the statement he made to Peter Bogdonavich, he doesn't actually use the
word "apology". He says he just wanted to a make movie told more from
the Indian point of view.
This makes more sense, because most Ford Westerns, with perhaps the exception of "Stagecoach" and "Rio Grande" dealt relatively fairly with Indian characters. I don't think he had much to apologize for.
This movie is underrated by critics. I'm not sure why. I thought it compared favorably with his better work.
Here are the positives about the movie:
- It may be Ford's most beautiful film. He lingers in Monument Valley far longer than the logic of the script would dictate. He knew this would be that last time he would shoot there. The results are spectacular.
- The film has a stately, almost regal pace with an excellent accompanying soundtrack. This matches the pace of the central plot element a six month journey by foot.
- It manages to never be dull. This is quite an accomplishment since there is no real hero, no real heavy and very little violent conflict. It's an example of very fine low key storytelling.
- Although this is a strong Indian point of view movie, it never becomes condescending or maudlin. Both sides are presented with respect and complexity.
- I've read much criticism of the Dodge City comic relief interlude. I thought this was fantastic segment. What a pleasure to see old pros like John Carradine, James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy do cameos in Ford's last Western. Ford understood the importance of inserting comic relief into Westerns, which are normally tense dramas in need of counterpoint. This is even more effective in the fundamentally somber "Cheyenne Autumn".
- Almost all strong Indian point of view movies are relentless downers that include no comic relief. For example, "Devil's Doorway", "Broken Arrow", "Dances With Wolves". Ford doesn't compromise on his traditional heavy use of humor in this movie and he also includes a somewhat optimistic ending. The ending may seem unrealistically positive, but it is actually at least partly rooted in historical accuracy, from what I've read. Of course, in the big historical picture there was no happy ending for the Indians. The question is: who wants to watch a movie that is that depressing? Ford strikes a good compromise here.
- Carol Baker is an underrated actress. She has a great screen presence and is very good in this film. Her character was very credible, if maybe a little too good looking. If she's a typical 1880's Quaker chick, I would have had to rethink my religious affiliation.
Now here are some things that kept the movie from being better:
- Widmark looks great, but I wish his character had been a more active player in plot developments. It's not best for the male lead to be too much of an observer. Also, he is way too old to be Carol Baker's romantic interest.
- The Indians are poorly cast with the use of mediocre Hispanic actors. I can't believe those weird bangs are authentic hairdos either. If they are, I would have invoked artistic license to change them.
- The subplot with the split between the Cheyenne leaders and the final confrontation at the end was poorly drawn, poorly acted and pointless.
- There are a few plot holes. The only one that really bothered me was the Cheyenne somehow managing to smuggle 20 rifles into their holding facility in the fort in Nebraska.
- Finally, this isn't really a fault, but I wanted to mention that I'm torn about Karl Malden's character.
On the one hand, it seems very odd to introduce a German officer who's oppressing the Cheyenne because "he's only following orders." Do we have to implicate the Germans in our genocide? Don't they have enough problems of their own on this issue?
On the other hand, I guess the point was to draw a comparison between the Holocaust and the destruction of the American Indian population. This was probably a very aggressive and controversial idea in 1964, for Americans anyway. The Germans I've known over the years never had a problem mentioning it to me. In fact, often they would talk of little else.
I rediscovered "Cheyenne Autumn" recently and must confess to finding the temptation to hail it as almost the greatest of the John Ford Westerns irresistable. I say "almost" as I realise that the claim needs a certain amount of caution. When set beside the formal perfection of "The Searchers", "My Darling Clementine" and even "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", "Cheyenne Autumn" has a few weak moments and certainly some longeurs. And yet it has a monumental sweep that somehow outstrips them all. Ford's final Western is an apologia for the white Americans' treatment of the American Indian and his own depiction of them as the bad guys in so much of his previous work. Here the Cheyenne are the victims of White oppression, forced to live far to the south of their natural homeland and desperate to return. Depleted in number mainly through illness and starvation they set out on the long trek north, beset on all sides by alien landscape conditions and the American cavalry in pursuit. These pathetic remnants of a once noble tribe now consist of little more than a group of women and children - very few of the male warriors are left - accompanied by a white Quaker woman who has befriended them. One American cavalry officer (Richard Widmark in one of his best performances) recognises their dilemma and does all he can to summon official awareness of their plight. In a sense this is one of the finest of all road movies, the protagonists forced to face the long journey home across a seemingly endless wilderness. Only through an inner determination are the remnants of the tribe able to make it. It is also one of cinema's most powerful documentations of man's inhumanity to man, not light years away from "Come and See" and Ford's own "The Prisoner of Shark Island". The film is badly flawed by the intrusion of a semi-comic interlude depicting Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday more intent on card play in Dodge City than in what is happening around them. This only serves to slow the pace of a film that is often prone to encompass peripheral detail to the detriment of moving purposefully forward. But who can quibble when the end result encompasses one magnificent image after another in William Clothier's splendid 'scope photography and the only music score - by Alex North - that ever did real justice to a Ford picture. For once we actually get away from those endless medleys of sentimental hymn and folk melodies with an astringency of style that matches the serious content of the film.
This film is the perfect counterpoint to early John Ford films such as Stagecoach. In Stagecoach every indian was painted as a bloodthirsty savage, out to menace all of the civilized folk. Cheyenne Autumn, on the other hand is a very revealing film... behind it all you can almost feel John Ford questioning himself and his previous views on American history. In this film it is the US soldiers who are painted as the brutal savages, and the indians are the civilized folk. It's amazing to see Ford, who practically built his career glorifying the chivalry of the western hero, do a complete 360 to end up de-glorifying it. I have the feeling that this was a very personal film for Ford and in that light it really does make him one of the great auteurs of cinema.
This is probably the wrong place to discuss the plight of the
indigenous population of North America but there's no denying the
Native American has got a raw deal over the last couple of hundred
years and watching CHEYENNE AUTUMN you're left in no doubt whose side
John Ford is taking . Wouldn't it have been so much better then if Ford
had actually cast Native Americans to play the Cheyenne characters in
the movie instead of latino actors ? Of course you can't say Ford was
guilty of hypocrisy in doing this , in 1972 Marlon Brando sent an
Indian women to collect his best actor Oscar in protest at the plight
of the native population of North America . Only thing is that she
wasn't an Indian at all she was of Italian descent . Same as the tear
stained Indian chief in the legendary advert from the 1970s who weeps
when he sees the litter the white man has left in his country - He
wasn't an Indian at all he was an Italian American . Say what you like
about Kevin Costner but at least he had the decency to cast red Indians
in his liberal study of American tribes in DANCES WITH WOLVES
I shouldn't be too hard on Ford since this was typical of film makers at the time , it didn't matter if you were Hispanic , Jewish or black you could still pass as a redskin . Hell if you were a white European by ethnicity you could still play an Indian , you'd just have to put on some brown make up and viola you're Chief Running Horse . No my criticism of this movie isn't to do with the portrayal of American tribes , it's all to do with a totally unfocused screenplay . There we are watching the white man stabbing the noble Indian population in the back once again , the Cheyenne have to trek across the desert plains then for some reason which is unknown to anyone except the producers the story cuts to Dodge City with the hopelessly miscast James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy playing Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday . Serious historical academics will also have a problem recognising these real life characters while the rest of the audience will wonder if this th same movie they were watching 20 minutes ago . Then we cut back to the Cheyenne trek again as we're left to wonder what the heck the Dodge City segment had to do with this aspect of the story
CHEYENNE AUTUMN isn't a total loss . I'll repeat it does take the side of the Indians and refreshingly humanizes them and Ford deserves some credit in not casting John Wayne in Richard Widmark's role and like most of Ford's films the cinematography is breath taking but the movie comes crashing down due to the screenplay that seems to have two entirely different stories within its pages
Historical and overlong movie recounting the legendary Cheyenne trek
led by the Indian chiefs , Little Wolf and Dull Knife . The picture is
an epic portrait of the historic story about celebrated Cheyenne (they
are actually Navajo, telling dirty jokes in their native tongue) and
their legendary feat leading the tribe on a journey to freedom ,
uprooting them from the Yellowstone and resettling them in distant
Oklahoma . This majestic flick illustrates the callous disregard with
which the government treated the Cheyenne in the 1880s as the US agency
fails to deliver even the meager provisions due by peace treaty to the
stubborn tribe in their stark desert reserve without proper supplies
for survival ; then the starving Indians have taken more abuse than
it's worth and break it too by embarking on a 1,500 miles trek back to
their ancestral hunting grounds , being led by Little Wolf and Dull
Knife (Ford was urged to cast Richard Boone and Anthony Quinn , as both
had Native American blood ; Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, who
were of Mexican descent, were cast instead) . Meanwhile , proud
Cheyenne tribe square off US cavalry commanded by Thomas Archer
(Richard Widmark) who leads his army on a wild chase across the barren
plains in this saga of the old west . Red Shirt (Sal Mineo , John Ford
would not allow Sal to speak any English dialog in the movie due to the
actor's Bronx accent) , a rebel Indian does the first shot against
cavalry . Captain Thomas Archer goes to deal with Secretary of Interior
Schulz about the unfortunate Indians (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). The tribe refuses to surrender in this chronicle of a bitter
fight between the tribe and the US cavalry in the struggle for the
This sprawling epic film displays action Western , shootouts , drama and spectacular battles . It's a thoughtful piece for its time that had an original tragic ending and imbued with moments of sensitive poetry . This nice Western contains interesting characters , full of wide open space and dramatic moments . This classic , sturdy picture ranks as one of the most sentimental of John Ford's work .Thought-provoking , enjoyable screenplay portraying in depth characters and brooding events with interesting issues running beneath script surface and suggested by Mari Sandoz in "Cheyenne Autumn¨ with screenplay by James R. Webb and based on a novel titled Last Frontier by Howard Fast who also wrote Spartacus . This excellent film featuring a magnificent performance by whole casting , including a top-notch support cast . Awesome Richard Widmark in a larger-than-life character along with a gorgeous Carrol Baker and a magnificent Karl Malden as deranged captain Wessels . In the film appears , as usual , Ford's favourite actors as Ben Johnson , Harry Carey Jr , Mike Mazurki , George O'Brien , Mae Marsh , Patrick Wayne , Dolores Del Rio , Ken Curtis , Elizabeh Allen , Willis Bouchey , and of course James Stewart as obstinate sheriff Earp . Ford added the segment with Stewart in place of an intermission , he didn't want people leaving the auditorium to go the bathroom or concessions counter, even though the film was long, and so he came up with the Wyatt Earp segment ; Ford later quipped to Stewart that the actor was the "best intermission" in the movies . Outdoors are pretty good and well photographed in Super Panavision 70mm by William H Clothier and filmed on location in Moab, Utah,Fort Laramie, Wyoming, Monument Valley, Utah , Gunnison Canyon, Colorado . Rousing and an impressive musical score by Alex North who composed other masterpieces as Spartacus and Cleopatra.
This may not be Ford's best Western , as many would claim , but it's still head ad shoulders above most big-scale movies .You'll find the ending over-dramatic according to your tastes , though it's lovingly composed by John Ford who really picks up battle , drama and sensibility towards the ending . Rating : Better than average , worthwhile watching . The motion picture well produced by Bernard Smith was brilliantly directed by John Ford at his last film . This powerful movie will appeal to Indian Western fans
In the 1870s American West, the Cheyenne Indians of Wyoming are sent to
an Oklahoma reservation. When the lands proves barren, and most of the
tribe dies, the 286 remaining Cheyenne leave for their once happy
hunting grounds. Calvary Captain Richard Widmark (as Thomas Archer)
leads a regime sent to stop the Cheyenne. Accompanying the tribe is
tightly-outfitted Quaker schoolteacher Carroll Baker (as Deborah
Wright), who also happens to be Mr. Widmark's love interest. Naturally,
Widmark wants to avoid casualties, but hot-blooded Sal Mineo (as Red
Shirt) isn't going quietly...
This was John Ford's last western, and his penultimate film. Reported to be in declining health, Mr. Ford's directorial skills are, happily, still sufficiently in evidence. Widmark (in a role that sounds like it was written for John Wayne) and a few of the cast do well. And, the cinematography, by William Clothier, was understandably nominated for an "Academy Award". BUT, "Cheyenne Autumn" moves at a laborious pace, and is ultimately done in by a bizarre interlude involving Jimmy Stewart (as Wyatt Earp) with Arthur Kennedy (as Doc Holliday); the film needed something, but this wasn't it.
***** Cheyenne Autumn (10/3/64) John Ford ~ Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, James Stewart, Sal Mineo
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I think of this film, primarily, as Ford's last and best cavalry film,
which happens to center on the historical escape of the northern
Cheyenne from their hated lethal Oklahoma reservation, and attempt to
make their way back to their homeland in the Yellowstone region. It
rather follows the formula established in "Fort Apache", where we have
a new commanding officer of a fort(played by Fonda), who sees it as his
main responsibility to keep the local 'Indians' under control. He
regards 'Indians' as inferior beings, and underestimates their military
prowess, resulting in his Custer-like demise. In this film, we actually
have two such officers in Major Braden and Captain Wessels, in
different time frames. They lack Fonda's arrogance, but nonetheless are
determined to follow their superior's harsh orders in dealing with the
renegade Cheyenne. In contrast, Richard Widmark takes on John Wayne's
role in "Fort Apache", as a very conflicted second(often first) in
command, trying to give the Cheyenne a break, while maintaining his
status as a cavalry officer. His Quaker girlfriend, played by striking
blond Carol Baker, has run off with the Cheyenne. Being an Irish
Catholic, Ford identified with certain other often persecuted Christian
sects, such as the Mormons, in "Wagon Masters", and the Quakers, who
had tried to get food for the Irish during their famine years.
Many of the details of this historical incident are fictionalized. For example, it's implied that the Cheyenne felt compelled to give themselves up at Ft. Robinson to avoid certain death from winter exposure and starvation. In fact, one group successfully overwintered in the sparsely populated infertile Sand Hills region of Nebraska, which had abundant game, if not bison. It's not acknowledged that the Cheyenne did sometimes raid, kill and rape settlers when they felt it necessary for their survival, or as revenge for past massacres. Thus, there was some justification for the panic among Europeans. It bothers me that filming obviously was done in Ford's favorite places on the Colorado Plateau, which looks nothing like the prairie country that most of this historical trek took place in. On the other hand, the Ft. Robinson massacre was relatively accurately portrayed. Of course, Widmark's journey to Washington, and the journey of the Secretary of Interior out to Montana, are pure fiction, if providing a promising resolution to the Cheyenne's problems.(It's not made clear, but these Cheyenne were eventually given a reservation in their preferred habitat, minus the bison). The characterization of Secretary Schurz(not Shultz), well played by Eddie Robinson, as a 'good guy' has some historical support, but is overblown. Robinson asks his portrait of Lincoln, one of Ford's heros, for guidance. Although we follow only one cavalry group, in fact, many thousands of soldiers from several forts, as well as many civilians, were involved in trying to recapture these couple hundred Cheyenne.
Famous Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio, at age 60, has a fairly prominent role, as a Spanish woman who has joined the Cheyenne: the only such woman who speaks English. Her most remembered line, repeated, is the defiant "They will not go back", in response to the fort commander's received order that the Cheyenne must return to their Oklahoma reservation, even in the dead of winter.
Now, as to the much maligned Dodge City slapstick farce episode, which superficially seems little related to the rest of the film. At one level, try thinking of this as the bonus comedy short, which happens to be inserted within the main feature film as part of the intermission, instead of its usual place. Ford knew that occasional humor, sometimes involving slapstick, was an important ingredient in his successful films. In this case, the laughs are nearly all concentrated in this bizarre segment. But, it's also clear that Ford meant this episode to have serious relevance to the main point of the film. In part, it's meant to burlesque the striking contrast between the white man's often out of touch corrupt urban world with that of the Native American's viewpoint of themselves as merely one part of a complex web of the natural world. In the last portion, most of the town, including a wagon load of prostitutes and an open bar wagon, go galloping out of town with guns blazing and a wagon of explosives and ammunition, to counter a reported nearby party of rampaging Cheyenne. But, this hysterical mob goes in the opposite direction from the reported location of the Cheyenne! They encounter one lone Cheyenne on a distant hill, who causes further panic with one bullet, which blows up the munitions wagon. This segment, no doubt, is meant as a satire on the huge number of soldiers and civilians(and their general incompetence) deemed necessary to track down and tame or kill a few hundred fleeing starving Cheyenne. Jimmy Stewart, as Wyatt Earp, plays his dominating role in this farce to the hilt: quite possibly his best, if least understood, film performance! Actually, his character is a carbon copy of his character in the beginning of Ford's previous "Two Rode Together". Watch also for Ken Curtis, who wants to pick a fight with Stewart, while the latter is card gambling. Stewart shoots him, under the table, in the foot, discombobulating him. Then, Stewart supposedly extracts the bullet from his foot. Curtis is most remembered for his role as Festus, in the TV "Gunsmoke" series. However, believe it or not, he was Frank Sinatra's replacement as Tommy Dorsey's lead male singer in 1941! He was also director Ford's son-in law, and had been included in minor roles in many of Ford's previous films. Elizabeth Allen, a tall striking brunet, plays the pushy lead prostitute, ending up upside down, bloomers showing, in a fast-moving carriage, in the laps of Stewart and Arthur Kennedy(as Doc Holiday)!
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