Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

“The White man remembers nothing.”

During the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, a cavalry captain (Richard Widmark) is required to try to stop the tribe — led by Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) — from returning to its stolen lands; meanwhile, a Quaker teacher (Carroll Baker) accompanies orphaned children on the trek, and a young Cheyenne warrior named Red Shirt (Sal Mineo) is eager to fight on behalf of his people.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Carroll Baker Films
  • Cavalry
  • Dolores Del Rio Films
  • Edward G. Robinson Films
  • Jimmy Stewart Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • John Ford Films
  • Karl Malden Films
  • Native Americans
  • Richard Widmark Films
  • Ricardo Montalban Films
  • Sal Mineo Films
  • Westerns

John Ford’s final western was also his attempt to finally humanize the Native Americans who had simply served as the Enemy in so many of his earlier films. He’s somewhat (though not entirely) successful, given that we see the lethal treatment the tribe is subjected to:

… and get to know a few of them (albeit minimally) as protagonists. (For Marlon Brando’s decidedly different take on the subject, see here.) Front and central to the storyline, however, are Whites — specifically Widmark and Baker as sympathetic allies of the Cheyenne, and would-be lovers kept apart due to Baker’s rock-solid dedication to her students.

The film’s most notorious misstep — actually cut out of some viewings — was a section Ford purportedly added as an informal intermission (!!), in which Wyatt Earp (Jimmy Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) suddenly emerge as comedic figures in Dodge City.

Setting that sequence aside (as one must do; it simply doesn’t “belong”), the remainder of the storyline gives us Edward G. Robinson as Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz:

… and Karl Malden as a sadistic concentration camp commander with a German accent.

Mineo’s role is pretty thankless, as is that of his mother (played by Dolores Del Rio).

Most notable is the beautiful cinematography by William Clothier, with good use made of location settings in Monument Valley and elsewhere.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • An honorable attempt to more authentically portray history from a Native perspective
  • William Clothier’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though Ford fans will likely want to check it out. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

  1. First viewing (1/31/22) Not must-see, but Ford completists will want to see it.

    This late-career Ford entry is notable for its fair depiction of the plight of the Indians – among the most fair in Ford’s work (acc. to the DVD commentary).

    The film itself is uneven, although the photography is generally excellent. The storyline is rather simple if a bit under-developed and the film would have benefitted from more of a concentration on its main plot.

    Instead, just before the intermission (!), there are a couple of unnecessary sidetracks. The first has James Stewart (as Wyatt Earp!) in a long saloon sequence in which he is playing cards. That gives way to the ‘Battle at Dodge City’ sequence which, in part, is oddly played for comic effect. Neither section adds to the overall film and throws its tone off.

    Some scenes are particularly strong but, generally, some scenes are better than others.

    Widmark stands out and Robinson does dependable work as the Secretary of the Interior.

    Ultimately, it’s something of a missed opportunity but it’s mostly watchable.

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