Monday, December 5, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964)

I was surprised by how inert and ineffective "Cheyenne Autumn" is. I've been meaning to catch up with it for years and came away quite disappointed from the experience.

The film is seminal for a couple of reasons: it was John Ford's last Western, and it was pretty much the first deliberate attempt by Hollywood to cast American Indians in a positive light, showing how they were ill-used by the American government as it expanded into the West.

It's based on a real bit of history, the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-79, during which hundreds of native people left the harsh, arid reservation land that had been set aside for them and traveled more than 1,000 miles north to their ancestral home. There were several skirmishes with the U.S. military along the way, and newspapers of the day portrayed it as a rampaging army of Indians on the warpath.

In truth, they were largely elderly, women and children, and posed no threat to anyone unless their trek was opposed.

The movie was actually based on two novels, "The Last Frontier" by Howard Fast and "Cheyenne Autumn" by Mari Sandoz, though only the latter received a screen credit. Screenwriter James L. Webb had recently won an Oscar for another Western, "How the West Was Won," of which Ford directed one of the five sequences. They ended up reusing a lot of the same talent for this picture, including stars Richard Widmark and Carroll Baker, Webb and Ford.

"Cheyenne" can't quite decide who is its main character. Its heart seems to lie with the Indians, particularly Little Wolf and Dull Knife, the two main leaders of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. They're played by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, respectively, both actors of Mexican heritage. Italian-American Sal Mineo plays Dull Knife's hot-headed son, Red Shirt. Most of the other Cheyenne are played by Navajo, and speak in their own language during the film.

But Widmark is put front and center as Capt. Thomas Archer, a fictional Army officer assigned to make them stay put, and later pursue them after they begin their exodus. He's a sympathetic figure torn between his military obligations and his own recognition of the suffering of the Cheyenne. Baker plays Deborah Wright, a Quaker devoted to educating the Indian children who ends up tagging along on their quest.

Their tepid romance is barely sketched in the early part of the film, then quietly tucked away for the rest. There isn't even a big reunion scene and kiss at the end. They have a little cheeky repartee, addressing each other as "Friend Deborah" and "Friend Thomas" in the Quaker way.

The movie's pacing staggers this way and that, an occasional fight scene between the Cheyenne and Army with lots of talking in between. Archer tries to convince his superiors to show the Cheyenne more respect and restraint, but it falls on deaf ears. Eventually he takes his case directly to the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson).

Karl Malden has a small but vigorous role as an Army officer who imprisons the Cheyenne on orders, leaving them to freeze and starve to death in a warehouse because he's too afraid to take other action without authorization. The character refers to himself as a Russian, though his accent sounds more German to these ears. Perhaps we'll be generous and say Malden was going for Prussian, and leave it at that.

Patrick Wayne, son of John, has a small part as an impetuous young officer Archer has to continually reprimand. John Carradine turns up in Dodge City as a gambling gentleman.

The music by Alex North is quite good, but often too obtrusive. There's an opening piece and an intermission that is probably unnecessary.

By far the biggest problem with the film is the Dodge City sequence. It arrives just before the intermission, and completely rips the audience out of the story of the Cheyenne.

It stars Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp and Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holiday, portrayed here as peevish, aging gamblers who have taken up the offices of sheriff and deputy simply to allow them to sit in the saloon and play cards all day. They want nothing to do with the Cheyenne "horde" passing nearby, and Earp even contrives to lead the ad-hoc force of vengeful vigilantes in a different direction.

It's a weird, weird sequence that belongs in another movie. It's completely comedic in tone, right down to a saloon wench losing her dress and some vagrant cowpunchers getting one-upped by the wily Wyatt. One wonders what Ford and Webb were thinking including it in the film, especially seeing as the original cut was creeping up on three hours -- Ford's longest movie.

Indeed, after being initially released in theaters the Dodge City section was cut out, and wisely so. Most modern versions on video include it, to the detriment of the overall experience. This is where the "chapter skip" button comes in handy.

"Cheyenne Autumn" is undeniably a magnificent-looking film, shot largely in Ford's beloved Monument Valley with widescreen and lots of vivid colors. Cinematographer William H. Clothier deservedly received the film's sole Academy Award nomination.

At the time of its release, John Ford publicly declared "Cheyenne Autumn" to be an elegy for the Native American. It says something of the man that during his lifetime he came to recognize that his own work bore a great deal of responsibility for the popular depiction of Indians as whooping savages, and it was something he regretted.

He tried to get the movie made for years without success. When he finally did, it was his longest and most expensive project, and one of the few that was a commercial failure. Ill health and a lack of confidence from the studios resulted in Ford only completing one other feature film.

It's such a shame that one of the greatest movie directors ended his career on such a sour note. John Ford's song of regret for the Indian, while noble in purpose, is a discordant and dull affair.

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