Cheyenne Autumn

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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.

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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.

Winchester 73

Down through the years there have been a number of significant collaborations between directors and actors, such as Ford and Fonda, Ford and Wayne, and Huston and Bogart. In 1950 another such partnership was born, that of Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Their work together was to change the direction of both their careers, and produce some of the best cinema of the decade. Anthony Mann had made his reputation with a series of fine noirs in the last half of the 40s, but he had never done a western. James Stewart’s name had been built on the light leading man roles he excelled in before the war; with the exception of the comedic Destry Rides Again he was another relative stranger to the Old West. However, as a result of the success of Winchester 73 the names of both men would be forever linked to the oldest genre of them all. They went on to make eight films together, five of them westerns.

The story concerns Lin McAdam (Stewart) who arrives in Dodge City on July 4th 1876 and enters a sharpshooting contest presided over by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Virgil Earp and Bat Masterson. The contest’s first prize is the famous rifle of the title, and it soon comes down to a run-off between McAdam and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). There’s clearly a history of bad blood between the two men, and when McAdam wins it’s not long before Dutch Henry robs him and makes off with the gun. The film then chronicles McAdam’s search for his stolen rifle, and his pursuit of the man who took it. But that’s really only a plot device, a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin – something of greater significance to the characters than it is to the audience. While the gun is admired, valued and coveted by everyone who comes across it, it is not the sole, nor even the most important reason for McAdam’s dogged quest. This is a dark tale of revenge and the settling of old scores and, despite the dropping of a number of hints, the cause is not stated explicitly until the end.

James Stewart’s pre-war career consisted mainly of Mr Nice Guy roles, while the years following his return found him floundering around in search of a niche. Although It’s a Wonderful Life and Rope offered him roles with a greater complexity, Lin McAdam was a complete departure for him. This part, and subsequent ones with Mann, allowed him to display a cold ruthlessness that the public hadn’t seen before. In addition, he seems so completely at home in the saddle that it’s hard to believe this was his first serious western character. The film boasts a marvellous cast of character actors and up and coming talent: Stephen McNally and Dan Duryea (playing Waco Johnny Dean – lots of exotic character names in this movie) as villains, Shelley Winters as a luckless saloon girl, Millard Mitchell, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, and early parts for Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson.

The character of Wyatt Earp is really only incidental to the story here. His appearance is limited to the first twenty minutes or so and doesn’t add much to the narrative. Earp was an assistant marshal in Dodge at around the time the story takes place but the film suggests he was the principal lawman in the city. Will Geer portrays him as a folksy, down home type which seems at odds with the popular conception of the man. When McAdam challenges his authority early on, he fumbles around in his vest pocket for his tin star before almost sheepishly revealing his identity. One would have expected the real Earp to have kicked the upstart’s butt up and down the street.

Winchester 73 is a Universal release on DVD in R1 and R2, and it’s a fine looking disc. Not only is the transfer clean and tight, but there’s one fantastic extra. The film comes with a feature length scene specific commentary by James Stewart. I’m not usually one who gets too excited by extras in general, especially commentaries – but this kind of stuff is cinematic gold dust. Most of the stars of this period were long gone by the time the idea of recording commentaries occurred to anyone, so this is one to be treasured.

 

Night Passage

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Two brothers, one an outlaw and the other a former railroad troubleshooter in disgrace, square off. That’s the basic premise of  Night Passage.

Jimmy Stewart is the honest man who is now reduced to scratching out a living as an accordion player after letting his no-good sibling Audie Murphy escape five years previously. He gets a last chance to redeem himself when his ex-boss hires him again. The railroad payroll has been repeatedly robbed by a gang of outlaws led by The Utica Kid (Murphy) and Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) – Stewart is assigned to see that the next one gets through. So the stage is set for a showdown.

Night Passage is the Anthony Mann western that never was. Mann was slated to direct Jimmy Stewart once again but pulled out at the last minute. His replacement was James Neilson (a debut director) and he managed to produce a serviceable movie, but fails to properly use the edgy quality that Mann always seemed to extract from his lead.

There are a number of weaknesses present, not least the overuse of Stewart’s accordian playing! The plot tries to pack in too many ideas and never really develops any of them sufficiently; Murphy and Stewart’s battle for the soul of Brandon De Wilde could have been expanded upon. It is shown early on that Stewart’s old flame is now married to his boss, but again nothing much is made of this.

Nevertheless, there are lots of good things here. The cinematography of William H. Daniels shows off the Colorado scenery to breathtaking effect in some beautiful shots and Dimitri Tiomkin provides one of his great trademark scores. I’ve heard it said that his music is sometimes too overpowering and in-your-face but I can’t think of any examples of his work that I didn’t like. Murphy is good in the role of the black sheep; he always seemed to give better performances when playing anti-heroic characters (No Name on the Bullet and John Huston’s The Unforgiven come to mind). There’s also a fine array of familiar support players in Jay C. Flippen, Jack Elam, Olive Carey, Hugh Beaumont and Paul Fix.

The film is available on DVD from Universal and looks very nice indeed in anamorphic scope – I have the R2 but I imagine the R1 uses the same transfer. Recommended.