Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Cheyenne Autumn

Based on the novel The Last Frontier by Howard Fast, Cheyenne Autumn is the story of a cavalry captain who reluctantly takes part on a mission to track down a tribe of migrating Cheyenne. Directed by John Ford and screenplay by James R. Webb with contributions from Mari Sandoz, the film is Ford’s final western as it play into a man being forced to take down a Native American tribe as it play as an elegy for the West and for Native Americans who had been mistreated by the American government. Starring Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland, Sal Mineo, Dolores del Rio, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy, and James Stewart as Wyatt Earp. Cheyenne Autumn is a majestic and sprawling film from John Ford.

Set in the late 19th Century, the film is based on the real-life Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-1879 where a group of Cheyenne decide to leave their reservation in the Oklahoma Territory to return to their homeland in Wyoming due to a promise that wasn’t fulfilled by the U.S. government. It plays into this cavalry officer who is order to pursue a tribe of migrating Cheyenne and take them back to the reservation as he doesn’t want to harm them but knows the mission is futile. Adding to this in this pursuit is then Secretary of the Interior in Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson) who trying to prevent violence happening while some in the press are spreading lies into what the Cheyenne has done when the reality is that the death toll of soldiers were actually small. James R. Webb’s screenplay is largely told from the perspective of Captain Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark) who talks about his pursuit as well as wanting to keep the peace knowing that he’s tried to help the Cheyenne anyway he can and was angry that a meeting between a major government official and the Cheyenne didn’t take place because the former didn’t keep his promise.

Captain Archer tries to ensure two of its chiefs in Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) to stay in the reservation despite its poor condition so he can reach out and give the Cheyenne what they want. With their head chief in poor health, Little Wolf and Dull Knife make the decision to return to Wyoming as they’re aided by the schoolteacher Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) who is concerned for the children as the Cheyenne allow her to travel with them. Wright is Captain Archer’s lover as he would learn that she had fled with the Cheyenne making his reluctant pursuit personal as well as wanting to ensure that no harm comes to her. The film also showcase others encountering the Cheyenne including Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) in a comedic moment in the film as it play into this exaggeration of the press. Much of the film’s second half is about this divergence between Little Wolf and Dull Knife over their journey with the latter seeking shelter where things don’t go according to plan which angers Captain Archer and Wright forcing the former to turn to Schurz for help.

John Ford’s direction is definitely grand for the way he captures the world of the American West as it is shot largely on Monument Valley at the Arizona-Utah Border to play into not just some of the desolation of the location but also into a world that is ever-changing. Ford’s usage of the locations has him use a lot of wide shots with some precise compositions such as the scene of the Cheyenne waiting for the government official as they remain still with Captain Archer and his superior waiting as they would learn that the man won’t show up prompting the Cheyenne to leave. Ford’s usage of the wide shots doesn’t just play into the beauty of these locations but also in how vast the number of the Cheyenne as well as Captain Archer’s troops who are trying to pursue the Cheyenne but don’t want to create any conflict that could get both parties killed. The attention to detail in the compositions says a lot of what Ford wanted to say about the West and its mistreatment towards Natives including the Cheyenne.

While there are some intimate moments in the close-ups and medium shots that include a brief detour in a scene at a small town where Earp and Holliday are first seen playing cards and then get involved in a scuffle with the Cheyenne that is a comical moment in the film. It’s a scene that does seem out of place but it does play into this air of exaggeration the press will make in order to stir trouble and sell newspapers though there is a scene of one newspaper that wants to tell the truth. It all play into Ford’s need to have the Natives tell their side of the story as well as their mistrust towards whites with the latter wanting to make amends for their past sins. Though the eventual meeting between Schurz and the Cheyenne chiefs is presented in an awkward backdrop, it is a key moment that would create a step forward into a peaceful settlement between the Cheyenne and the American government. Overall, Ford crafts an evocative and mesmerizing film about the real life Northern Cheyenne Exodus.

Cinematographer William H. Clothier does brilliant work with the film’s Technicolor cinematography as it captures the beauty of the locations as well as the great attention to detail for many of the colors including some of the interior lighting for scenes set at night. Editor Otho Lovering, with additional work by David Hawkins, does excellent work with the editing as it is straightforward to play into the action and suspense. Art director Richard Day and set decorator Darrell Silvera do amazing work with the look of the town where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were playing poker as well as the look of some of the cavalry forts. Costume designers Frank Beetson Jr. and Ann Peck do fantastic work with the costumes for the look of the cavalry uniforms and the lavish clothes for the people at the small town as well as clothes of the Cheyenne. The sound work of Francis E. Stahl is terrific for its natural approach to sound as well as the way it captures gunfire and war drums from afar. The film’s music by Alex North is wonderful for its sweeping orchestral score that play into the sense of adventure and suspense along with the usage of percussions for some of the bombast as well as low-key moments for the drama.

The film’s superb ensemble cast include some notable small roles and appearances from Judson Pratt as a mayor, George O’Brien as Captain Archer’s superior Major Braden, Sean McClory as the fort doctor O’Carberry who tends to a young Cheyenne girl, Mike Mazurki as 1st Sergeant Stanislus Wichowsky who helps out Captain Archer later in the film, John Carradine as Major Jeff Blair who plays poker with Earp and Holliday, Elizabeth Allen as a woman trying to flirt with Earp, and Patrick Wayne as 2nd Lieutenant Scott as a young cavalry officer eager to kill some Cheyenne yet has to endure some humility.

James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy are terrific in their brief appearances in their respective roles as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday with the two legends who provide some humor in their roles but also prove to be capable badasses that no one should mess with. Dolores del Rio is terrific in a small role as Spanish Woman as a Cheyenne who is a liaison for the Cheyenne and Wright as she sees good intentions in Wright but also know there is trouble going on. Sal Mineo is wonderful as Red Shirt as the son of a chief who has immense disdain towards the white people as he would often get the Cheyenne into danger while he pines for a chief’s wife. Karl Malden is fantastic as Captain Oscar Wessels as a cavalry fort captain who takes in a portion of the Cheyenne for shelter until he is given the order to take them back to their reservation as tries to instill his idea of order.

Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland are excellent in their respective roles as Little Wolf and Dull Knife as two Cheyenne chiefs who both share the same views about White people only to diverge over ideas of survival as they would both struggle to maintain their friendship. Edward G. Robinson is brilliant as Carl Schurz as the then-Secretary of the Interior who is trying to maintain some order as well as securing a peaceful resolution with the Cheyenne as well as discredit any kind of news that puts them in a bad light. Carroll Baker is amazing as Deborah Wright as a Quaker schoolteacher who joins the exodus to watch over the children and help them as she deals with the troubles of the journey. Finally, there’s Richard Widmark in an incredible performance as Captain Thomas Archer as a cavalry officer who is trying to ensure a peaceful resolution with the Cheyenne as he reluctantly pursues them where he becomes aware of Wright with them as he tries to ensure that he and his troops don’t kill anyone.

Cheyenne Autumn is a remarkable film from John Ford. Featuring a great cast, gorgeous visuals, an exhilarating film score, amazing action, and a compelling story. The film is definitely one of Ford’s finest westerns as well as a touching elegy to Native Americans who were often depicted in an unkind light in the genre. In the end, Cheyenne Autumn is a marvelous film from John Ford.

© thevoid99 2018

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