May 22, 2007

Review of Cheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn is a 1964 western starring Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, James Stewart, and Edward G. Robinson. The film was the last western to be directed by John Ford, who claimed it to be a sort of elegy for the Native Americans who had been abused by the American government and misinterpreted by many of the director's own films.John Ford Mounts Huge Frontier WesternThere is poetry in the graphic comprehension—in a scene of the Indians at dawn, wrapped in their Government blankets, their chiefs standing stalwart and strong; in scenes of the cavalry wheeling and thrashing in skirmishes with the tribe. And there is tragic and epic grandeur in the enactment of the whole exodus theme."A big mess."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.Cheyenne Autumn B+As the scholar Place has noted, in the book, from which the story and film's title derive, the Indians' point of view is taken throughout, and the few white characters do not stand out as individuals. However, the Native Americans in Cheyenne Autumn are much like those of his earlier film, they stand for "something," rather than being flesh-and-blood individuals. Indeed, the Indians are not even presented as hostile individuals, just as a massive collective.Comment:  Let's look at the portrayal of Indians in John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn:

The good

  • The movie acknowledges that the Cheyenne were promised food and medicine. They're suffering from smallpox, measles, and malaria.

  • The Indians speak some unidentified language, possibly Cheyenne. A few speak English.

  • The Cheyenne are dressed in Western clothes: shirts and pants for the men, long dresses for the women.

  • Only three braves are shown riding off without shirts but with feathers in headbands. (Since they're fiery young hotheads, this seems reasonable.)

  • A cowboy cuts off the scalp of a fallen Cheyenne.

  • Politicians in Washington DC want the Army to oversee the Dept. of the Interior so they can better exploit the Indians.

  • A plain full of bones shows what the white man did to the buffalo.

  • Newspapers invent or exaggerate the "Indian menace."

  • The bad

  • Ominous drumming and chanting fill the initial Cheyenne encampments.

  • Some Cheyenne smoke peace pipes.

  • Richard Widmark and Carroll Baker are on hand to express sympathy toward the Cheyenne--presumably because the Cheyenne themselves aren't sympathetic enough.

  • The Latinos playing the primary Cheyenne characters are unconvincing as Indians. (The Indian "extras" may well be played by Indians.)

  • The interlude with Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp derails the whole film. Ford spends so much time here that he seems to lose interest in the main story. You get the feeling that this is the tale he really wanted to tell, but someone forced him to film the Cheyenne.

  • At one point a Cheyenne raises his hand and says "How."

  • The ugly

  • The opening shot of the movie shows tipis in Monument Valley (!), a spot where tipis have never stood except as a tourist attraction.

  • The movie takes place in and around Monument Valley. The narration tries to cover this by calling it "American Southwest." But the Cheyenne were encamped in Oklahoma, which isn't the Southwest and which looks nothing like southern Utah.

    This is a prime example of locating Indians in the wilderness "out there." The effect is to make them seem remote and exotic. The real Cheyenne probably met lots of homesteaders when they trekked through Oklahoma and Nebraska, but here they're out of sight and out of mind.

    This setting also commingles the Cheyenne with the real Indians of the Southwest, particularly the Navajo. The effect is to make all Indians seem the same. According to Ford's movies, they all lived, suffered, and died in some barren wasteland.

    You have to pity them--and here I mean all Indians--and shake your head at their folly. Who would choose to live in a desert when America had so much prime real estate? Although we understand the Indians' attachment to the land intellectually, we don't feel this is a fit place for human habitation.

    The stark, unearthly Monument Valley is just about the polar opposite of what we call civilization. So white men live in towns, homes, and forts while Indians live amid dirt, rocks, and cacti. In other words, white men are civilized and Indians aren't.


    Cheyenne Autumn isn't a masterpiece, but it has many good attributes. It's worth seeing for what it says about the changing perception of Indians. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.


    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    writerfella can add a few notes to the arcania about CHEYENNE AUTUMN. First, since George Paugyah, a Kiowa, was the technical advisor, the Native language spoken most often in the film is Kiowan. At one point, Sal Mineo tells Delores Del Rio, "Mah-ton, ame-ah!" (Woman, come here!) And the supposed Cheyenne songs and chants also are Kiowan songs and chants.
    The James Stewart interlude only was five or six minutes in the original theatrical release, with the TV/video/DVD version adding the scene of pointless rushing off from Dodge City en masse supposedly to find the Cheyennes.
    Richard Widmark was cast in the lead role only after John Wayne was hospitalized for lung surgery.
    The MAD Magazine parody was called "Cheyenne Awful" and it was hilarious.
    All things being noted, because of Native attendance, the film ran nearly two months here in southwest Oklahoma, just before writerfella was drafted into the US Air Force...
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    Rob said...

    I thought Richard Widmark was imitating John Wayne. Glad to see there was some basis for my supposition.

    So the language was Kiowan, eh? At least it was an Oklahoma-based language. That's closer to the mark than the Navajo speaking Lakota, as I believe they did in Geronimo.

    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    Note, please, that Richard Widmark even wore a John Wayne button-down plaque shirt because that was the wardrobe developed by the costumers for the movie! Then, if you have the ear for it, listen to the lines that Widmark spoke during the film. Riddle me this, Bat-person: if John Wayne was unavailable, did Richard Widmark play his own character, or did he try to play John Wayne?
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    Back from the Gulf Coast!
    Which GERONIMO? TV-movie w/Joseph Running Fox, or theatrical w/Wes Studi, or both? Funny thing that, at that time in the 90s, the curator of the Chiricahua Apache museum in Apache, OK., Michael Darrow, took technical advisor work with both films at writerfella's suggestions, but once he was on-set only to find himself blocked by HENRY Geiogamah, who in no uncertain terms said that, as head technical advisor, it was his job to make sure the script stayed exactly as it was written!! Shades of the same 'rubber-stamp' advisory work done many times by 'Sonny' Robideaux and/or Mark Reed, though they profess otherwise...
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    Rob said...

    I'd say Widmark was trying to play Wayne.

    I was referring to the theatrical version of Geronimo.

    A comment from an IMDB poster:

    Ford wanted American Indians speaking in appropriate native languages. Both were nixed by Warner Bros.

    Anonymous said...

    Hello !
    Well, as far as I know, the minor roles and extras appearing in "Cheyenne Autumn" were actually Navajo people who had appeared in all of John Ford's movies previously. He even had them come from the Dinetah when filming "Two Rode Together", which was not shot in Monument Valley but in Brackettville, Texas. (I recognized them on a lobby card) ; Andrew Mc Laglen even hired three of them for "McLintock". Most famous ones were Lee Bradley (who also acted as translator with Navajo extras since 1939), Billy Yellow (a revered hataalii - "medicine-man"), Many Mules Son (who was a code-talker, I think, and who is the Medicine-man in "Cheyenne Autumn"), John Stanley i.a.
    These gentlemen speak their Native tongue ; in his book "Sacred Clowns", Tony Hillerman has one of the Navajo characters say that "Cheyenne Autumn" was a favourite in Navajo country because the extras who are given a few lines (Many Mules, for ex.) actually say sexual things and have dirty jokes about "Pappy" Ford and "Duke" Wayne. This is confirmed by Ms Lilian Bradley Smith (Lee Bradley's daughter) to Joseph McBRIDE in his book "Searching for John Ford".
    The songs are not Cheyenne (see Ralph & Natasha Friar's book "The Only Good Indian", but I think I recognized at least one Navajo riding song ; having heard Kiowa songs, I doubt any of the songs of the movie are actually Kiowa, but I am no expert).
    On the other hand, the words that can be read on the blackboard in the classroom on the reservation, before the exodus, are actual Cheyenne words (for "father", "mother"... etc, according to what I heard and my Cheyenne-English dictionary).
    If that can help answering a few questions... (?)
    (As for "the concrete pipe" in "She Wore...", it is an emptied tree trunk...)
    Yours very sincerely,
    Chris K.

    Rob said...

    Thanks for the info, Chris.

    A hollowed tree trunk? That must've been the most perfectly cylindrical tree trunk in history. And where did it come from? I wasn't aware that there were any 3'-diameter trees in the Monument Valley area.

    Anonymous said...

    Well, OK, Rob, I should have written "it MAY be a hollowed tree trunk", or "what it is meant to represent is certainly a hollowed tree trunk" ! (Pardon my English : it is neither my mother tongue, nor do I live in an English-speaking country). I was just guessing... So, I watched "She Wore ..." (one more time, to check)AND "Cheyenne Autumn", because you can see some more of these concrete pipes of yours at two different moments in that one too). Well, my guessing is just as good as a "concrete pipe", I think, don't you ?
    No 3'-diameter trees in the Monument Valley area ... ?
    Sure : all the Native Nations from Northern America supplied themselves with 3'-diameter tree trunks -to be used as "drums"- from the Monument Valley area. That is why there are no more trees in Monument Valley nowadays. (This is a free to use theory for archaeologists).
    Surprised to find dead tree trunks in Monument Valley, more than you would by concrete pipes... ?! Well...
    And since you say you were not aware that there were (had been) 3'-diameter tree trunks in the Monument Valley area ... were you aware there weren't supposed to be Cheyennes, Arapahoes, tipis... etc. in that area either... And yet... John Ford put them there !
    That MAY be part of what one would / might call "props" (whether trees or concrete pipes)on the one hand, and "poetic licence" or something of the kind, on the other, I guess.
    I do not want to "outsarcastize" you, but just wanted to help.
    Now, in case you were interested to know about the Native language used in "Geronimo" ... but that is another story ...

    Chris K

    Rob said...

    I noticed a big pipe in another John Ford movie. But I don't recall which one. If you say it was She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I believe you.

    So you were just guessing about the hollowed tree trunks? Why didn't you say so? I thought you were imparting some deep-seated knowledge of Indian lore. ;-)

    I bet it wasn't long after the Indian Wars when we began laying pipes in the West to channel water and oil. After all, the French began constructing a Panama canal in 1880. So in late 19th-century Monument Valley, I'd say an abandoned piece of pipe was about as likely as a hollowed tree trunk. Especially when the object in question appeared to be a perfect (manmade) cylinder.

    "Poetic license" that a fancy way of saying "stereotypical mistake"? Because I call it a stereotypical mistake when you haul in hollow tubes just to show Indians drumming. War chants and war drums are two common stereotypes in Western movies, including Ford's. These stereotypes are a problem because they mislead people into thinking all Indians were warlike.

    P.S. Don't worry about being more sarcastic than I am. I don't think that's possible.

    Spring Begay said...

    Sal Mineo is not Hispanic. It's strange that the Indigenous Indian people of Mexico aren't considered Indian. Yet all the Mohawk people that I have met are European looking and called Native Americans

    Spring Begay said...

    Sal Mineo wasn't Hispanic. He was born in Brooklyn, New York. He was Jewish. For some reason you consider Mexicans as "non-Indian." They are Indigenous to this continent. The Mohawk nation has more European looking members. Are they real Indians?