CHEYENNE AUTUMN (director: John Ford; screenwriters: James R. Webb/suggested by a book by Mari Sandoz; cinematographer: William Clothier; editor: Otho Lovering; music: Alex North; cast: Richard Widmark (Capt. Thomas Archer), Carroll Baker (Deborah Wright), Karl Malden (Captain Wessels), Sal Mineo (Red Shirt), Dolores Del Rio (Indian Woman), Ricardo Montalban (Little Wolf), Gilbert Roland (Dull Knife), Arthur Kennedy (Doc Holliday), James Stewart (Wyatt Earp), Edward G. Robinson (Carl Schurz), Victor Jory (Tall Tree), Major Braden (George O’Brien); Runtime: 161; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bernard Smith; Warner Brothers; 1964)
“A big mess.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A big mess; an epic Western that is burdensome and wooden and even though it gets the story right about the Indians and humanizes them in a sympathetic light it still fails to give them well-developed characters and further slights them by casting Latinos such as Sal Mineo, Gilbert Roland, Dolores Del Rio and Ricardo Montalban to portray them. John Ford’s belated tribute to the Indians after his insensitive past treatment of them in earlier films is a rambling and unfocused episodic account based on an actual event—referred to as a footnote to history—set in 1878, as it chronicles the surviving 300 of over 1,000 Northern Cheyenne Indians who trek through 1,500 miles of natural hardships and cavalry harassment from their home on an Oklahoma Indian reservation back to their ancestral lands in the mountainous Yellow River terrain of the Dakotas. They are accompanied by Quaker schoolmarm Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker), who becomes the love interest of the Widmark character (an unnecessary diversion in telling the Indian story). The Cheyenne are a defeated, diseased and starving people who have had it with the government’s broken promises after a year of pleading with the Indian Bureau to feed them and take care of their medical needs and as a result go on their migration after a Congressional delegation fails to meet them as promised.
It’s written by James R. Webb from a book by Mari Sandoz. It comes at a time when the aging Ford was ill, but it still has many fine features to recommend it that include the sensitive performance by Richard Widmark as a sympathetic to the Indians cavalry captain, the fine score by Alex North, the stunning photography of the Southwestern landscape (Monument Valley) by William Clothier (filmed on Super-Panavision 70), and a ludicrously comical cameo by James Stewart as a poker-playing obsessed Wyatt Earp in Dodge City (the comic interlude, which unfortunately broke the flow of the Cheyenne migration story, was supposedly put in by Ford to avoid an intermission for the overlong pic suggested by the studio bigwigs). This was Ford’s final Western film, and should certainly by viewed by fans of the great director who need to see all his films.
REVIEWED ON 1/2/2006 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ