Cheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne Autumn

Movie: Cheyenne Autumn
Director: John Ford
Produced by: Warner Brothers
Released By: Warner Brothers
MPAA Rating:

John Ford’s last western film, Cheyenne Autumn was allegedly produced to compensate for the hundreds of Native Americans who had bitten the dust in Ford’s earlier films. Set in 1887, the film recounts the defiant migration of 300 Cheyennes from their reservation in Oklahoma territory to their original home in Wyoming. They have done this at the behest of chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife, peaceful souls who have been driven to desperate measures because the US government has ignored their pleas for food and shelter. Since the Cheyennes’ trek is in defiance of their treaty, Captain Thomas Archer, who agrees with the Indians in principle, reluctantly leads his troops in pursuit of the tribe. While there was never any intention to shed blood, the white press finds it politically expedient to distort the Cheyennes’ action into a declaration of war. Thanks to the cruelties of such chauvinistic whites as Captain Oscar Wessels, the Cheyennes are forced to defend themselves–and whenever Indians take arms against whites in the 1880s, it’s usually misrepresented as a massacre. Only the intervention of US secretary of the interior Carl Schurz prevents the hostilities from erupting into wholesale bloodshed. Based on a novel by Mari Sandoz, Cheyenne Autumn is a cinematic elegy–not only for the beleaguered Cheyennes, but for John Ford’s fifty years in pictures. It is weakest when arbitrarily throwing in a wearisome romance between Richard Widmark and pacifistic schoolmarm Carroll Baker, who out of sympathy for the Indians has joined them in their 1500-mile westward journey. When the Warner Bros. people decided that the film ran too long, they chopped out the wholly unnecessary but very funny episode involving a poker-obsessed Wyatt Earp. Contrary to popular belief, this episode was included in the earliest non-roadshow prints of Cheyenne Autumn, the scene was excised only when the film went into its second and third runs in 1966.

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