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Cheyenne Autumn Movie Review

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1964 – John Ford –

Throughout his career the venerable John Ford often examined the effects of civilization coming to the American frontier. The famous comment by Frederick Jackson Turner that “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization” receives one of its best cinematic expressions in a Ford film like My Darling Clementine. Other Ford movies offered a classically glamorized and mythological version of the Old West. Cheyenne Autumn, however, is unique for Ford in that he attempts to show how the advancement of civilization has victimized the American Native. Prior Ford films—Stagecoach is an example—had typically portrayed the American Indian in a very prejudiced and stereotypical light. White travelers or settlers are usually shown as peaceful and decent, only wanting to raise their families and make a new start. Rarely does Ford depict any wrong with driving off the American Indian from their homelands. In this true story from the Mari Sandoz novel of the same name, Cheyenne Autumn is Ford's most sympathetic gesture, a kind of cinematic apology to the Native American.

Set in September, 1878, the story depicts a desperate but proud group of 300 Cheyennes attempting a treacherous 1500 mile migration from a desolate Oklahoma reservation to their homelands in Wyoming. For once Ford uses his normally heroic American Cavalry as the villains, inflicting callous and cruel mistreatment upon the Indians.

Star cameos turn up frequently in this epic, along with hundreds of Navajo extras. The scenery, typical of Ford, is magnificent. The story is at times moving and generally well acted. Overall, however, it lacks the boldness and grit one would expect of a John Ford endeavor. In a sincere effort to make amends for his previous cinematic attitudes toward the American Indian, Ford gives his tale the grandeur of an epic. Possibly a more intimate and less panoramic approach would have proved more effective for the more personal point he sought t make. What sympathy Ford does achieve may well be negated by the incongruous comedy relief of James Stewart as Wyatt Earp in an irrelevant Dodge City interlude. This small subplot seems rudely out of place considering Ford's very somber theme.

Cast: Richard Widmark (Capt. Thomas Archer), Carroll Baker (Deborah Wright), Karl Malden (Capt. Oscar Wessles), Delores del Rio (Spanish Woman), Sal Mineo (Red Shirt), Edward G. Robinson (Carl Schultz), James Stewart (Wyatt Earp), Ricardo Montalban (Little Wolf), Gilbert Roland (Dull Knife), Arthur Kennedy (Doc Holliday), Patrick Wayne (2nd Lt. Scott), Victor Jory (Tall Tree), John Carradine (Maj. Jeff Blair), Mike Mazurki (1st Sgt. Stanislaus Wichowsky), John Qualen (Svensen), George O'Brien (Maj. Braden) Screenwriter: James R. Webb Cinematographer: William H. Clothier Composer: Alex North Producer: Bernard Smith for Warner Brothers Running Time: 156 minutes Awards: Academy Awards, 1964: Nomination: Color Cinematography.

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