John Ford made Cheyenne Autumn in 1964 and with it he bade farewell to the western, the genre with which he was and is most frequently associated. By his own admission, Ford wanted this to be his attempt at setting the record straight with regard to the injustices visited upon the American Indians. Taken as such, it is fairly successful in depicting a people hounded almost to the point of extinction, without indulging in the politically correct schmaltz that more recent Indian centered epics have fallen prey to. Yet it is not a perfect film and does have its faults, not the least of which are the uneven tone and, to a lesser extent, some of the casting decisions.
The story concerns the Cheyenne who, having been moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, were dying a slow death as a result of disease, starvation and neglect. When a promised meeting with a Congressional committee fails to materialise, they take the bold and, in their minds the only viable, decision to strike out on a march back to their tribal homeland in Montana, 1500 miles to the north. Their journey is seen from the perspective of both the Cheyenne chiefs (Gilbert Roland & Ricardo Montalban) and the soldiers (under the command of Richard Widmark) charged with running them to ground. While the film’s sympathy lies with the hunted, the main focus is on the the various soldiers and civilians who pursue or encounter them. This is both a strength and a weakness of the film; a weakness because the characters of the Cheyenne are never explored in any great depth. The strength comes from the way the white characters are represented as holding a whole variety of, often conflicting, views on the fugitives.
The roles of the principal Cheyenne characters are filled by Mexicans (Montalban, Roland & Dolores Del Rio) and an Italian (Sal Mineo). In truth, this doesn’t work out too badly (I’ve never felt that a part can/should only be played by an actor of the same ethnic origin as the character – it’s called ‘acting’ fer chrissakes!) although Sal Mineo is far too much of a wuss to be taken seriously as a fiery Cheyenne warrior. Richard Widmark is good, as always, as the reluctant cavalryman who knows he has a job to do but also knows he doesn’t have to enjoy it. Pat Wayne is quite wooden as a young Lieutenant who experiences a “road to Damascus” type conversion, going from rabid bloodlust to outraged empathy over the course of the story. Karl Malden is a caricature of a Prussian officer whose blind devotion to duty and orders ultimately leads to tragedy. There are also small roles for George O’Brien (a ‘the-only-good-Indian-is-a-dead-Indian’ Major) and Sean McClory (a professional Irishman). Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jnr appear as cavalrymen and get to show off some mighty impressive horse-riding skills – and there’s a nice running joke where Widmark can never remember that Carey is playing a character called Smith, referring to him variously as Jones, Murphy etc.
Now a word about the Wyatt Earp scene in the movie. To be blunt, I hated it when I first saw it and I still hate it. The whole thing feels wrong, like it was grafted in from another picture. It’s the kind of sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Carry On’ film – that bad! We get twenty minutes of Earp (James Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) playing poker in Dodge City and having their game interrupted by the news of the Cheyenne being sighted nearby. There follows a Wacky Races type chase through the desert, culminating in a saloon girl losing her dress and winding up with her legs around Stewarts neck. Laugh, I thought I’d never start. In his biography of Ford, Joe McBride claims that the director used this sequence as a means of highlighting (through satire) the casual racism of the civilian population, but I don’t buy it. That bigotry had already been shown when a trail hand (Ken Curtis) callously murdered and scalped an Indian begging for food. In fact, the power of the aforementioned scene is effectively ruined by the subsequent clowning of Curtis in Dodge. I can’t think what came over Ford but this part of the movie definitely didn’t need to be shot.
Warners put Cheyenne Autumn out on DVD as part of their ‘John Ford Film Collection’. As far as I know it is still only available as part of that set. The transfer is probably the best of all the films in the collection. It’s anamorphic scope with no damage of any consequence and strong true colors. The disc carries a commentary from Joe McBride and a featurette on the film and the historical events that inspired it. Maybe it’s not Ford’s best film but it works well enough for the most part, offering a different perspective from the director yet retaining his trademark visual and narrative touches.