The Cheyenne, tired of broken U.S. government promises, head for their ancestral lands but a sympathetic cavalry officer is tasked to bring them back to their reservation.The Cheyenne, tired of broken U.S. government promises, head for their ancestral lands but a sympathetic cavalry officer is tasked to bring them back to their reservation.The Cheyenne, tired of broken U.S. government promises, head for their ancestral lands but a sympathetic cavalry officer is tasked to bring them back to their reservation.
The greatest John Ford Western?
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.
- Nov 1, 2003
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