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.
13 thoughts on “Cheyenne Autumn”
Another fine analysis Colin, and as usual I agree on all points!
The Dodge City sequence really is a head scratcher isn’t it? I have a few theories as to why it’s there, not sure though if any of them make it any more bearable:
As the film is Ford’s farewell to the Western, the scene may be a callback to the slapstick comedy of the Silent Era where he made his start in pictures.
The intentional buffoonery of the city folk a not too subtle underlining of the chasm that existed between whites and native American – Reminiscent of the way the Law is portrayed in Lonely Are the Brave?
The scene is added to pad out the run time, thus warranting an Intermission – Cheyenne Autumn made around the time “Roadshow” pictures were very popular, especially with exhibitors – For more on this, check out this article:
Thanks for the link Chris. The Dodge City sequence does feel like padding in a way. Of course Ford liked to indulge in broad comedy throughout his career, his films are noted for this aspect. In most however, the humor was integrated into the main narrative – whether or not one responds to this is another matter though – and became less obvious. Here, the whole section is essentially played for laughs and stands alone, separated from the main body of the picture. Personally, I feel the idea was to satirize the buffoonery of the residents of Dodge, as you stated, and simultaneously offer a little respite to the viewer from what is a pretty grim story. Over time I’ve come to think that Ford didn’t want to lessen the impact of the tale or be seen to take a light view of the protagonists woes, but it seems he also wanted to offer his audience a little breathing space amid all the suffering.
Take out the Earp scene here and put it in another movie or show it on TV and maybe some fun can be had. Here, though, it couldn’t be more disruptive or out of place. The earnestness of the first half of the film not only comes to a halt but is completely upended. It always seems like the movie is saying “Time for an intermission. Enjoy this short film.” Then we get back to the real film.
I like Widmark in anything.
Yes, it’s problematic. I’ve tried to justify its inclusion in my mind but it really feels like a misstep in the middle of the movie.
Nice work, Colin. Been far to long since last I took this one in. Time to hunt up a copy.
That comedic interlude still doesn’t work for me, I think it was a misstep. However, the rest of the film is just fine.
Pingback: Wichita | Riding the High Country
Excellent review of this fascinating flawed film. I was just giving this disc another spin listening to Mcbride’s awesome commentary. I love his and Scott Eyman’s tracks on Ford films. They really add to the experience. I think this is still a worhy film even with all its problems.
Yes, both of those guys really “get” Ford and what they have to say is always worth hearing. McBride’s bio of Ford, which you’ve no doubt read, is a terrific piece of work.
Yes I really love Mcbride’s massive book on Ford. I own multiple copies (!) and enjoy going over parts of it over the years. I try to collect all the books on Ford. I also like the illustrated one by Eyman from Taschen, Lindsay Anderson’s, and JA Place’s. Oh and another favorite just on the music in his Westerns. I read and go back over the films constantly as an American history fanatic. DVDs and Blu rays are such a boon for this hobby. The books and films are at your fingertips.
What are your favorite Ford books? I think I enjoy reading about him and his films the most besides Welles, Wilder, Peckinpah, and Kubrick among others.
I think McBride’s book is only one dedicated exclusively to Ford that I have read, although I keep meaning to get a copy of Tag Gallagher’s book.
Years ago, I reviewed a book looking at how the careers of Ford, Wayne and Ward Bond intersected here.
Thanks. Reall enjoyed your review of it and all the comments it generated. I wonder just how many more recent actors and directors will have this much discussion.