John Ford shot to stardom behind the camera thanks to success in one particular genre, the western. Starting with Stagecoach in 1939 and continuing into the 1940s with his 'cavalry trilogy,' Ford became a go-to director westerns that he was able to put his own personal -- often romantic -- look at the American west in the latter half of the 19th century. And in almost every one of these westerns, Native Americans were portrayed in a negative light, whether as a fearful presence or as murdering on-screen savages.
With his last western, 1964's Cheyenne Autumn, Ford did an about face in terms of the depiction with something that has since been dubbed 'white man's guilt.' Based on a true story, the movie attempts to put Native Americans in a positive light instead of the stereotypical savage so often associated with westerns. It's a noble concept and feels like a bit of an apology on Ford's part, but too many things work against this movie from the start, ranging from the casting to the dull, slow-paced storyline.
It's 1878 and 300 members of a Cheyenne tribe on a reservation in the southwestern desert have had enough. They don't receive supplies promised to them -- food, clothes, medicine -- and are basically being ignored by the U.S. government. Led by two proud warriors (Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland), the Cheyenne leave the reservation in the dead of night with hopes of marching almost 1,500 miles north to their ancestral hunting grounds in South Dakota and Montana. Pursuing them is a cavalry outfit led by the sympathetic Capt. Archer (Richard Widmark) who tries his best to bring the Cheyenne in peacefully. Nothing comes easy though and the terror sets in of 300 Cheyenne roaming the west in towns all along their trail.
To tell this story, Ford assembles a remarkable cast but as is so often the case with huge casts of big name stars, many are lost in the shuffle. Along with those mentioned already, there's also Karl Malden, Edward G. Robinson, Dolores Del Rio, Carroll Baker, Jimmy Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Sal Mineo, George O'Brien, and Sean McClory, along with several others I'll mention later. Needless to say, that's a ton of talent involved, but the odd thing is almost NOTHING happens the entire movie. It's downright dull at many points and never really gets the viewer invested in what's going on.
First off, the story does represent the Cheyennes in a positive light as a tribe just trying to survive now that their heyday has passed. But then Ford spends a majority of the time with the white characters as the Cheyenne tribe disappears here and there for long stretches. There's also the issue of casting Hispanic actors as Indians which just doesn't make much sense to me. I figure there weren't many Native American actors working in Hollywood in the 1960s, but for a story trying to be authentic and fair, it would have been worthwhile to cast one or two. Montalban and Roland represent themselves well as the warriors leading the tribe while Mineo says two or three words and enthusiastically takes his shirt off at one point.
One criticism of Ford over his career is his bawdy, broad humor that populates his movies, and Cheyenne Autumn doesn't disappoint. About 90 minutes in, a 20-plus minute segment takes a complete detour from the story for some incredibly out of place humor in Dodge City with Stewart playing Wyatt Earp and Kennedy playing Doc Holliday. Besides being incredibly miscast as the famous gunfighters, the tone of this extended segment is comical and over the top. The tone to this point has been downbeat if not entirely interesting, and we get a segment here that is ripped right from any of the cavalry trilogy. This comedic segment is so out of place that it can be difficult to watch in its badness.
What I enjoyed most about this movie were the scenes on the trail with the Indians or with the cavalry pursuing them. Widmark makes the most of a part that just doesn't give him much to do, but Ford seems incredibly comfortable in the cavalry scenes. Patrick Wayne (the Duke's son) plays Lt. Scott, a young officer out for blood, Mike Mazurki plays the veteran sergeant, and in a nod to Rio Grande and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr play troopers Plumtree and Smith. A running bit between the two has Archer consistently forgetting Carey's name. Both parts were uncredited ones for the veteran character actors. Maybe because it feels like a throwback to better westerns, but the cavalry portions of the story are infinitely more watchable than much of the rest of the movie.
For all its flaws, 'Autumn' is still worth watching just to see that huge cast work together and as is typical with a Ford western, the Monument Valley scenery. Through all the movies ever shot there, I don't know if its ever looked better serving as a backdrop for the story. Overall though, this is an average movie from a great director like Ford. It's too inconsistent to call a good western, but one that fans should still see. A disappointing but intriguing last western from one of the genre's best.
Cheyenne Autumn <----trailer (1964) **/****