CHEYENNE AUTUMN, the legendary John Ford’s epic swan song western, came loaded for bear in 1964, with a bulging star cast, a supporting platoon of the director’s reliable character players, rich production values and a ‘New Frontier’ publicity angle. The Americana-mastering auteur did a revisionist course-correction with the classic cavalry vs. braves template, one in line with his hardening pessimism and society’s changing perspective. The Native Americans were now the good guys.
In 1878, Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf lead their 300 surviving followers on a desperate 1,500 mile fall & winter journey from a parched reservation back to their traditional homeland. A Quaker teacher accompanies them, her sympathetic suitor leads the pursuing cavalry. White settlers panic, the press exploits it, the government comes down hard.
Based on fact, it has a few names and incidents right, and fictionalizes the rest. Though Mari Sandoz’ 1953 novel is credited, the story and script came and went through several hands, including Howard Fast (from his 1941 “The Last Frontier”, also a novel) and a treatment from Ford’s son Patrick. James R. Webb then wrote the screenplay. Ford’s original concept of a black & white docudrama went by the wayside; Warner’s wanted a sure-thing bet to backstop their huge investment in My Fair Lady. The cast grew and so did the cost.
Poetic injustice saddles the movie and its aftermath: sadly, like the desperate historical trek it portrays, it mostly comes off as a gallant, circular, finally dispiriting slog. Though there are some fine elements and striking moments, gloom permeates an unevenly structured script. Ford’s direction is slack, almost perfunctory; the tone wobbles, with a lengthy, badly-misjudged, 20-minute humorous sequence crammed into the middle of a slow, overlong running time of 154 minutes. Some of the acting is stiff, some broad, some lousy (not even John Ford could get a good performance out of Patrick Wayne), and since the scenery, majestic as it is, rarely shifts, stasis arrives early and never leaves; two romantic subplots go nowhere. James R. Webb wrote some great westerns—Vera Cruz, The Big Country, How The West Was Won, taking an Oscar for that one—but he’s M.I.A. this time, and the needless narration tells us what we can already see. Scale-wise, while the movie has a big look, it still doesn’t get across the scope of the real event, which saw 10,000 soldiers and 3,000 civilians in on the chase.
Westerns were always snidely undervalued by reviewers, and the aging and ornery director was seen as passe by a brash new breed of
self-appointed twits critics. They slammed it something fierce, with even MAD magazine piling on in “Cheyenne Awful”.
Behind the negative reviews, the box office lagged, ranking it just 30th among the year’s earners, doing $10,980,000 worldwide. Budgeted at $4,166,177, it had eventually reached a $6,587,122 negative cost; when factoring in prints and advertising the film lost $5,700,000. Ford’s last charge ended limping. *
I remember seeing this in a theater when I was nine years old, and being disappointed even then. Watched it numerous times since, always wanting it to be better than it is. That said, problems or no, there’s more than enough to recommend a view, and it’s staple stuff for fans of the genre, the director and the cast. First off, it’s just plain beautiful to look at, blessed with eye-watering cinematography from William H. Clothier, his Super Panavision 70mm camera making the locations in Monument Valley, Arches National Park and assorted spots in Colorado and Arizona look like they’re three feet in front of you. He earned the film’s sole Oscar nomination, losing to My Fair Lady. Clothier should have won the award.
Richard Widmark is customarily fine as the decent captain leading the pursuit, and while they took flak (and still do, in every lockstep p.c. review) for playing Native Americans but not actually being them, Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland, Sal Mineo, Dolores del Rio and Victor Jory are suitably impressive. Karl Malden overplays his historical character of Capt. Wessells as an obvious tie-in to more-recent Germanic enemy types. Carroll Baker has little to do but look worried as the Quaker gal. Edward G. Robinson is shoehorned a cameo (in terrible back-projection work at the finale), while the lamentable “Dodge City” sequence wastes James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, John Carradine and Elizabeth Allen. The best single piece of acting comes in a neat little monologue about “Cossacks” from Mike Mazurki, Ford giving the big bruiser a chance to shine.
The few action sequences are well handled passages of fury, punctuated by Warner’s booming sound effects. Watch out for that surprised stuntman getting trampled by a runaway caisson team—ouch! Alex North’s music score blends a mournful defiance into the dramatic surroundings and noble posing. Sean McClory and George O’Brien have boisterous scenes, bellowing Judson Pratt gives you an earache. Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson are on hand to gallop about, but aren’t even allowed billing, nor were a slew of others familiar to Ford & western fans: Denver Pyle, Willis Bouchet, Shug Fisher, James Flavin, Bing Russell, Chuck Roberson, Carleton Young and John Qualen. As per custom, Navajos play the rest of the Cheyennes: you’ll spot some of the same faces from other Ford films.
* Truth or Dare—Ford on the subject matter: “I’ve killed more Indians than Custer. This is their side…There are two sides to every story, but I wanted to show their point of view for a change. Let’s face it–we’ve treated them very badly—it’s a blot on our shield; we’ve cheated and robbed, killed, murdered, massacred and everything else, but they kill one white man and God, out come the troops.” Fair enough. The plight of the Cheyennes was genuine. Due redress or no, the script leaves out the untidy details that when they crossed Kansas, the tribe murdered 41 men and boys and raped 25 women and girls.
Herr Schnozz: Karl Malden’s play-it-big Prussian may have been a snootful of Nuremberg misjudgement (the real Capt. Wessells was born in New Jersey), but the actor’s vaunted beak was cast to fit: the Cheyennes actually referred to Wessell’s as “Long Nose”.
As for noses bent out of shape and re-set, a neat degrees-of-separation thing played out off this project. Ben Johnson’s uncredited bit was Ford’s way of welcoming him back to the fold, 14 years after being cut out of favor for being Man Enough not to take crap from the director during Rio Grande. During this shoot, Sal Mineo turned then-journalist Peter Bogdanovich—visiting the set to interview Ford—on to Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show”. Seven years later Bogdanovich made the movie of it, and cast Ben Johnson in a supporting role which won him an Oscar.
This film had the last of 11 parts that Ken Curtis did under Ford, who was his father-in-law. Curtis, 47, divorced Barbara Ford the next year, and went on to comfortable check-cashing with 306 episodes of Gunsmoke, doing a much friendlier version of the Texican cowpoke he played in Cheyenne Autumn.
Cavalry westerns died on the field in ’64-’65; the casualty list carried A Distant Trumpet, Apache Rifles, The Great Sioux Massacre, The Glory Guys, Major Dundee and the comedies Advance To The Rear and The Hallelujah Trail. TV contributed the ignominy of F-Troop.
And…the Cheyennes—-Dull Knife died in 1883, in his early 70s. Little Wolf became a U.S.Army scout. He lived to be 84, passing away in 1904.