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 Calendar-Girls-001Calendar Girls

Even though the cinema is full of buddy movies and mindless stupid comedies, the joy of friendship, through good times and bad, isn’t celebrated enough in film, yet it is the heart and soul of this wonderful 2003 British comedy-drama.


 Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-CapoteCapote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood.  The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.


Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn

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.


 Chocolat VienneChocolat

Most things that are good are not necessary bad.  In fact, most things in life that we enjoy are quite without sin, even if they do induce sensual pleasure, such as, let us say, chocolate, that most wonderful of confections.


 John WayneThe Cowboys

This 1972 coming of age western stars John Wayne as Montana rancher Wil Anderson.  When his hands abandon him to join in a gold rush, Anderson solicits the aid of local schoolboys to help him move his herd of cattle and horses 400 miles to market.


Broken Arrow

Broken Arrow Stewart PagetThis 1950 movie was one of the first to portray western Native Americans in a balanced manner and carries as its message racial equality and peaceful relations between Indians and Anglos. Based on the popular novel, Blood Brother, by Elliott Arnold, the film adaptation by Michael Blankfort dramatizes the historical relationship between Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) and Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler).

When Jeffords goes panhandling for gold in Apache territory, he runs across a boy who is dying from buckshot wounds. He nurses the lad back to health, but is discovered by members of the tribe.  The boy intervenes on his behalf and they decide to spare him.  They are interrupted by the arrival of prospectors.  The Indians tie up and gag Jeffords while they ambush the prospectors, killing most of them.  When the melee is over, Jeffords is released.

In Tucson, he hears one of the prospectors who survived the raid giving a false picture of it and he corrects the man, then must describe what happened to him. The men berate him for being friendly to the Indians, but Jeffords has a plan to bring peace between the Chiricahuas and Whites.  He learns to speak Apache and is taught smoke signals by a member of the tribe living in the city, then he travels to meet Cochise face to face.  Impressed with Jeffords bravery and honesty, he agrees to let the mail go through unmolested.  While in the Apache camp, he meets a young girl, Sonseeahray (Debra Paget) and falls in love.

An Army unit, attempting to catch Cochise off-guard, goes into Apache territory and gets caught in an ambush. Although many of the soldiers are killed and their wagons stolen, General Oliver Otis Howard (Basil Ruysdael) survives and returns to Tucson, just in time to save Jeffords from being lynched as a collaborator with the Apaches.  The general has been dispatched from Washington to negotiate a peace with Cochise that will give the tribe 50,000 acres of land as a reservation.

Directed by Delmer Daves, the film strives for historical accuracy, but succeeds only in a Hollywood-skewed way. It was filmed near Sedona, Arizona, although the action should have been filmed hundreds of miles south near Tucson.  Even so, hundreds of Apaches from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation were used as extras. 

It is very unfortunate that Hollywood did not trust real Indian actors to accomplish most of the major Apache roles, although the venerable Jay Silverheels (“Tonto”) played the renegade Geronimo in the movie. Although both Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget are not completely believable as Indians, they are the only two Anglos to portray Native Americans in the film.  Paget, by the way, was only 15 years old at filming.  The actors were aided by a script that readily swapped out English for the assumption that they were all speaking Apache.  At least, no one spoke the broken English that ruled in films of the day.  Paget may have been misdirected to speak too proper English, but it doesn’t detract from the movie.

Most of the performances are quite acceptable, although none stands out as being a great performance.

The true value of the film is in its message, that we can all live side by side in peace. In 1950, this was rather a brave stand.  The film goes out of its way to make the point that there are both good and bad Indians and Anglos and it is more important to be true to an ideal than to condemn a man based on his ethnicity.  This was also a complete break from other Westerns.

The music in the film is unobtrusive, which is a good thing in a movie like this. There is no Hollywood orchestra playing some hackneyed Anglo version of an Indian war song, thank goodness.  The scenes with Indian music and dancing feel authentic, perhaps because they are being performed by real Indians. 

Broken Arrow claims high ground in the Western genre of filmmaking. The presence of James Stewart certainly adds weight to the message of racial equality and justice.  It’s a very good film that I would recommend for the entire family.

 

Cheyenne Autumn

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.Cheyenne Autumn

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!