Cheyenne Autumn was the last western film in the great career of director John Ford. Released in 1964, it was the first big Hollywood film to portray Native Americans as human beings, people who were not only more than primitive savages to be killed and driven off their lands by the white man, but people who were victims of the bigoted and corrupt government of the United States of America. For Ford, making such a film was a mea culpa for his entire career of westerns that depicted Native Americans as savages to be killed and driven off their land. Although I certainly approve of its historic context, it is definitely a movie with a lot of flaws.
The story concerns the remnants of the Cheyenne tribe who were relocated to Oklahoma from their native Montana. Ford, of course, relocates them to Monument Valley so he can capitalize on the scenery (almost every Ford western was shot in Monument Valley, which is part of the Navajo Nation). By 1878, most of the tribe had been decimated by starvation and small pox, so that the mighty group had been reduced to around 300 people, mostly women and children. Rather than watch the rest of the tribe die, they set off to return home, a trek of over 1,5000 miles, some on horse, but most on foot, and dogged by the U.S. Army most of the way.
The story is told from the perspective of Captain Thomas Archer, played mostly with restraint by Richard Widmark. He narrates the story, but Ford keeps his voice-overs spare, only filling what little detail is required for the story. There are times when he–and others in the cast–over-act and you know you’re watching a Hollywood movie. In point of fact, you always know you are watching a Hollywood movie. All of the extras are Navajo and they all speak in their native language rather than Cheyenne. And all of the Indian leaders are played by Anglo or Hispanic actors in make-up. Vying to replace the dying chief are Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) and Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban). Off to the side, Red Shirt (Sal Mineo) is attempting to steal Little Wolf’s second wife and generally making a hot-headed nuisance of himself.
The best performance in the movie is given by Carroll Baker as a Quaker school teacher who joins with the tribe on their journey north so that she can help take care of the children she’s been teaching. Edward G. Robinson is also quite good as the Secretary of the Interior.
The worst performance is given by the venerable Karl Malden as Captain Oscar Wessels, a commander who wears his German descent on his sleeve. Commanding Fort Robinson, where some of the Cheyenne have turned themselves in rather than starve along the road, he claims to have respect for the Indians, but at the same time he locks them up in a cabin without food or heat because they will not follow orders from back east to turn around and return their reservation in Oklahoma (Monument Valley). These conflicting emotions in the Captain lead to a great deal of theatrical histrionics that really take away from the film.
Epic in proportion, it is nearly three hours in length. There is much that should have been cut before the film was released, but at that point in his career, Ford had a little too much clout. The entire sequence with James Stewart as Wyatt Earp, Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holliday, and John Carradine as Major Blair should have been cut, despite the star power. Stewart looks bored, playing Earp as a half-sotted poker addict. The extremely long scene meanders and does nothing but distract from the movie. Plus, there’s at least another 45 minutes that could have been cut elsewhere to improve the film.
On the DVD that I watched, there was also a pretty good special feature. James Stewart narrates a documentary film in which three members of the Cheyenne tribe, presumably in 1964 or 1965, drive along the route of the Cheyenne Trail, retracing the steps of their ancestors in an RV. It gives an interesting perspective on the tribe with nearly a 100 year distance between them and their epic walk.
Although the film has historical importance–and sometimes it’s just fun to watch a hammy old Hollywood western–it really isn’t very good. So, if you’re going to watch it, put aside three hours, make a big bowl of popcorn, and understand what’s coming up on the screen. Have fun!