Cheyenne Autumn Reviews
The Cheyenne's reserve is in the middle of the desert where they can barely survive. The United States as part of their treaty with the Cheyenne are supposed to deliver supplies. When the supplies fail to show, the Cheyenne begin dying off. They begin a March back to their homeland where they plan to settle since the white man broke their treaty. A military sergeant initially assigned to contact the Cheyenne decides to help them on their conquest.
"The trick to being brave is not to be too brave."
John Ford, director of Grapes of Wrath, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Last Hurrah, Mogambo, The Wings of Eagles, and Rio Grande, delivers Cheyenne Autumn. The storyline for this picture is very well done, well written, and worth following. The cast delivers awesome performances and includes James Stewart, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy, Richard Widmark, and Sal Mineo.
"From now on you don't scratch till I itch."
This was recommended to me by Fios so I DVR'd this western classic. This storyline is very interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed the characters, bar scenes, script, and sub plots. This isn't an all time great western, but it is worth a viewing for fans of the genre.
"White man's words are lies."
1964 was smack in the middle of the Western revival that hit television starting in about 1959. In the same year, though, [i]A Fistful of Dollars[/i] came out. It was a time of change for the genre. It was well after [i]The Searchers[/i], which I suppose was John Wayne's first attempt at reconsidering the classic tropes of the Western. John Ford's, too. I think if the revisionist Western had gone this route instead of the [i]Fistful of Dollars[/i], you don't actually like anyone, anti-hero route, I'd like a lot more revisionist Westerns. The whole subgenre was a backlash, it seems to me, a way of recognizing the failings of the movies that came before. This movie chose to look at what was happening to the Indians while we were busy making heroes out of the cavalry, and I think that's a better response than claiming that there weren't any heroes to be had.
In 1878, a band of the Northern Cheyenne decided that they were no longer going to live on the reservation with the Southern Cheyenne. The Northern Cheyenne were from Wyoming. The Southern Cheyenne were from what is now Oklahoma. The Northern Cheyenne went home, leaving the reservation in Indian Country. They are led by their chiefs, Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland). The US government considers their leaving the reservation to be an act of rebellion, but really, it was just a wish to go home and live as they always had. It's easier for the Army to police the Indians if they're in a smaller area, and the speculators can then take their land. It's better for everyone, except the Indians. And so Captain Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark) leads his troops to catch the Cheyenne and bring them back. His love interest, Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker), is a Quaker who goes with the Indians. And Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson) is the one ultimately responsible for what will happen.
There is also a silly and unnecessary interlude, or intermission, with the citizens of Dodge City, Kansas, freaking right out about what will become of them when the Cheyenne come through and kill them all. Their fear is based on the fact that the Cheyenne did battle the cavalry, and nine cavalrymen were killed. And then, it was exaggerated, and then, everyone along the nineteen hundred miles to Wyoming was afraid that the Cheyenne, who mostly just wanted to go home, would kill them, too. And I get that. But instead, we get this whimsical passage with far-too-old Wyatt Earp (Jimmy Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy). (Though it is, perversely, one of the few movies to get it right that Doc was a dentist.) This was supposed to stand in for an intermission, though I'm not completely sure how or why. What it mostly does is kill the tone. I think it was intended to be a tension breaker, but there are some things which work for that and some which just destroy the mood completely.
It's also worth noting that not a one of the credited actors is even Indian. I mean, this film was in the fiftieth year of Iron Eyes Cody's Big Lie, and they didn't even get him. (He was Sicilian and just claimed to be an Indian.) Their Cheyenne chiefs were Mexicans. (As was "Spanish Woman," played by Dolores Del Rio.) They cast Sal Mineo and wouldn't let him speak a word in English, because his accent was so thick that you couldn't believe him as an Indian. According to Tony Hillerman, the "Cheyenne" extras were all Navajo, and the "Cheyenne" dialogue was as well. (Apparently, if you speak Navajo, the movie is much spicier.) John Ford was willing to work on addressing some of the wrongs he'd perpetrated against Indians in his films, but apparently not by going so far as to actually cast them. At that, Sal Mineo is the first Indian character to get billing, and Arthur Kennedy gets billing over some Indian characters much more important to the plot than Doc Holliday. In that they're important to the plot.
Okay, and apparently, Monument Valley stretches from Oklahoma to Wyoming. Fair enough. This whole thing would be done better by other films; this isn't as good as Clint Eastwood's atonement for his own Westerns, [i]Unforgiven[/i]. All of that is true. However, what I think this film does best is show a turning point in how people looked at the West--and show that the American people weren't ready to change that view yet. After all, this movie tanked at the box office. It was long, and the cavalry was compared to the Cossacks. Most of the time, the Indians didn't speak English. This is a complicated film in a lot of ways, and what Americans mostly seemed to want at the time was to sit and watch [i]Gunsmoke[/i] instead. It seems kind of a shame, though I will also say that this is very much a lesser John Ford. One thing this does have in common with both the Westerns which went before and the revisionist Westerns to come was that there isn't much of a happy ending for the Indians.
We've just had nearly an hour and a half of serious, dour commentary about racial relationships, the similarities between the Cheyenne and the white folk, as well as their differences, and then we get treated to something out of [i]The Hallelujah Trail[/i], with Jimmy Stewart and Arthur Kennedy cameoing as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday for basically no reason whatsoever. All sorts of wacky, Fordian hijinks ensue, and the main plot is abandoned for the next 20 minutes.
I'm all for a bit of levity, but A) it was already being provided by the Johnson/Carey combo (unobrtrusively), and B), you're about halfway through the film. You can't just go ahead and introduce a massive structural and tonal shift that late in the game without cause or preamble. It just about kills the film stone dead. I guess it was the only way that Ford could get in his machismo absurdity and the mutation of legend themes in the most obvious and loud way possible. By comparison, it would be like if the car chase from [i]The Blues Brothers[/i] was spliced into the middle of [i]Schindler's List[/i], or if the Wayne/McLaglen fist-fight from [i]The Quiet Man[/i] was spliced into the middle of [i]The Grapes of Wrath[/i].
Thankfully the film returns its focus to Widmark et al, and Gilbert Roland gets an opportunity to deliver a really excellent performance. And as mentioned, the cinematography is great, and it's a treat to see how Ford handles Super Panavision 70, creating some really striking images. Alex North's score is suitably... loud and roadshowy. All in all, it's not a stinker, but boy does it have issues.