Directed By: John Ford
Screenplay By: James R. Webb
Suggested by the book Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz
Produced By: Bernard Smith
Cast: Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Montalban, James Stewart, Edward G. Robinson
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 154 minutes
Review Date: November 26, 2010
John Ford was responsible for some of the greatest westerns ever to grace the silver screen. Stagecoach, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers are just a few of the masterpieces that Ford seemingly tossed off as though crafting a classic film was just as easy as tying his shoelaces. in 1962, Ford delivered The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, arguably the first revisionist western. On the surface, it was a classic western with John Wayne as the hardened gunslinger and James Stewart as the naïve lawyer seeking to bring law and order to the wild west. In reality, it was a startling subversion of the gunslinger myths and clichés that Ford had used in countless films. Like many of his other westerns, it also stands as a classic of the genre. Just two years later, Ford tried to do the same thing to the Cavalry/Indian film with Cheyenne Autumn. It turned out to be his last western. Sadly, what should have been the culmination of a great career ended up a muddled, cumbersome mess.
The true story: In 1878, a Cheyenne tribe became fed up with living under the thumb of the U.S. government. After being relocated from their native lands in what is now Wyoming and Montana to a reservation in Oklahoma, they were left to fend for themselves in a barren wasteland with no game to hunt. Hunger, disease, and the elements killed nearly ¾ of the tribe. Despite orders to remain on the reservation, they began a slow march to their native homelands with the U.S. Cavalry in hot pursuit.
What should have been high drama is watered down by Ford’s refusal to focus solely on the Cheyenne. He gives extra time to the men of the cavalry in pursuit. They are a collection of stock characters led by Archer (Richard Widmark), an experienced officer who does his best to avoid any bloodshed between the two sides. This extra screen time takes away from the more interesting story of how the Cheyenne keep one step ahead of Archer, while growing tensions between Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland), the two leaders of the tribe slowly reach a breaking point. Even worse, Ford drops in subplots involving Edward G. Robinson as the saintly Secretary of the Interior, who is committed to saving the Cheyenne from the politicians, and a bizarre side trip to Dodge City featuring an extended cameo by James Stewart as Wyatt Earp.
With the Dodge City sequence, the film flies off the rails. Not only does it fail to feature a major player from the rest of the film, it’s tonally out of place. Where the main story is deadly serious with characters pulling grim faces, the Dodge City scenes are played for broad comedy, with Stewart taking obvious delight in some very witty dialogue. But it doesn’t matter how witty or entertaining these scenes are — they don’t belong in this film.
Ford does treat the Cheyenne in an extremely sympathetic manner. In the film, they are honorable and don’t fight until pushed too far. They often encounter racism, abuse, and straight-up murder at the hands of the settlers they stumble across. At the same time, Archer and his men are ambivalent at best, sickened at worst by their task. They know that if they catch up to the Cheyenne, there will be a fight with much blood spilled on both sides. But, if through some miracle, the Cheyenne surrender peacefully, they will be forced to march them back to the reservation where they will surely die. It’s a miserable duty and Widmark does a fine job of portraying the frustration of a situation where they can be no winners.
I just wish that the whole affair would have gelled together. There are some good performances by Montalban, Roland, and Karl Malden as the commander of a fort. The central story is compelling and heartbreaking. But the film makes too many digressions and features a woefully miscast Sal Mineo as a brash young Cheyenne warrior. It would be hard to get past the silliness of his performance in a tightly put together film, let alone this head scratcher.
The Cheyenne march is a fascinating true story that I hope will one day be made into a good film. Ford definitely tried his hardest to make up for the stereotypical way he often depicted Native Americans in his past films, he just didn’t have a focused story to pull it together. He deserves better for his final western, so I’d rather pretend he stopped making them after Liberty Valance.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.