Cheyenne Autumn is John Ford’s farewell to the genre he is most closely associated with, the western. That alone makes it significant, which is good. For the remainder of this would be epic recounting the tragic attempt of the Cheyenne to leave the reservation and return to their ancestral homeland in Wyoming misfires on many levels and never really comes together as perhaps anyone involved intended.
Made in 1964, perhaps as a type of sequel to the rabidly popular How the West Was Won, of which Ford was one of several directors, Cheyenne Autumn is shot in glorious 70mm. The cinematography is top-notch -William Clothier did receive an Academy Award nomination- but after the visuals (Monument Valley, of course) the luster fades a bit. The score by Alex North is strong if unmemorable. The most memorable part of the score is the minimal role of the traditional folk songs so favored by Ford in his film.
The casting is, well, interesting. Richard Widmark is the lead as Captain Archer, the cavalry officer tasked with pursuit and capture of the rogue band. For a film so centered on the perspective of the Native Americans it is extremely interesting to note that the Cheyenne here are almost exclusively played by other minorities- primarily Hispanics but no Native Americans. The Chiefs are played by Victor Jory, Ricardo Montalban, and Gilbert Roland, for example. They do a good job but the irony isn’t lost on the viewer. At least not on the viewer of today as this was standard procedure in the 1960s.
Widmark, although never a favorite, is adequate here. The screenwriters did him few favors in his dialogue as large pieces seem like they were written for John Wayne, who doesn’t star in the picture at all and if so would have been miscast.
At a hair under three hours total run time the film is a bit long for the story it tells. The plot is tedious and plodding – and yes, perhaps by design to reinforce the Cheyenne’s return trek- but the first purpose of a film is to entertain. In this regard Cheyenne Autumn simply isn’t very good. We get preludes, an intermission, and an oddball twenty minute insert with Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp: all of which drive the run time absurdly. The twenty minute sketch with Stewart has no bearing on the storyline whatsoever (the characters do not appear before or after the insert) and is almost farcical in tone.
Everyone disagrees why it was there – perhaps to build on the somewhat similar structure of How the West Was Won or perhaps as perceived comic relief for the somber story of the film itself. In any case it is a serious misstep and does much to demean the rest.
The intentions of the film were noble – to tell the story, and an extremely important one in the history of this country, from the Native American perspective – and from a director who had slain so many in his other films this cannot be overlooked. The fault is just in the execution.
Recommended for Ford completists only. Those looking for a signature Ford title should look to The Searchers (1956), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).