Dir. John Ford. Starring Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Gilbert Roland
There’s a shot in Cheyenne Autumn that my little heart took note of, either because I am very sensitive to bravado or because I am very partisan. Wright (Walter Baldwin), a Quaker ministering to the Cheyenne’s needs on the reservation as best he can, works with his niece, Deborah (Baker). When the Cheyenne leave, Deborah goes with them, refusing a proposal of marriage from the movie’s protagonist, Captain Archer (Widmark) and leaving Wright with a threadbare farewell indeed. Wright walks further into the schoolhouse and sits down at one of the benches. It’s a building which looks to have been made quickly, cheaply, and by amateurs. The sandy floor is only an extension of the sand outside. The boards in the walls do not entirely meet one another, and so little cracks of sunshine peek through the walls where they oughtn’t. The sand meets the light, and Wright sits in a hazy glow, wondering any number of things. Ford does not take pleasure in breaking Quakers the way that Wyler or Zinnemann do—at no point will Deborah pick up a gun to fight the soldiers or anything like that—and so we’re allowed to guess that Wright’s contemplation is the kind of push-pull one finds in people of genuine faith. Has the good he and his niece were able to do for the Cheyenne in the face of the government’s apathy and the army’s distrust worth the chance that Deborah might die while traveling with the Cheyenne? Is it wrong to question one’s own devotion to God while facing a personal tragedy? Sitting there, in this janky little schoolhouse where every beam and plank is a testament to the not-quite craftsmen who rigged it together, what were meant to believe in is a sense of place. Ford puts us in that one-room schoolhouse with Wright, and because we’re there with him, we’re there with him. It’s why the haze is so meaningful: in a room where the dust and dirt rises into the air with every footstep, the light would necessarily come into the room so heavily that it seems tangible. This is not literally Ford at his best, but it’s a telling example of why he might be the greatest filmmaker this country has ever produced. His work looks absolutely spectacular—I mean, light coming in that way is almost cheating—but how spectacular it is works in service of genuine feeling rather than service of spectacle for its own sake. Ford can be corny, and Cheyenne Autumn leans so fully into the corniness in the middle that it risks ruining the movie. But there’s no doubt that the haze in the schoolhouse is there because it’s meant to help us sympathize with Wright, to see a man in the kind of spotlight from heaven typically saved for saints and fear for him the way we fear for the ends of those good people.
Someday I hope I love anything the way John Ford loved sneaking overlong comedy sequences into his movies. The story of this movie is emphatically about the Cheyenne, who are ignored one time too many and decide to go more than a thousand miles north from their reservation to their original lands, knowing that this movement will trigger an armed response and put all of them in danger. When it sticks to the Cheyenne, this is an outstanding movie. When it spends half an hour with Jimmy Stewart and Arthur Kennedy, playing Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, it falters badly. Stewart and Kennedy are good little vaudeville team, certainly. A woman calling herself “Guinevere Plantagenet” (Elizabeth Allen) strolls into a saloon where Earp and Holliday are playing poker with a shady character named Jeff (John Carradine), sashaying over to Earp with total confidence that he’ll be eating out of her hand in Dodge City the way he presumably did in Wichita. Earp is pretty invested in his poker game, and claims not even to recognize her. A while later, while the drunken citizens of Dodge City realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew in taking some potshots at the nearby Cheyenne, Plantagenet, her dress all shredded, winds up on her back on the floor of Earp’s rig. With her legs in his face, Earp realizes that he does know her. It’s a good bit, but heaven knows why this movie wasn’t trimmed down to two hours by simply cutting all the hijinks in Dodge City. It’s not even that it’s not all that funny, which it isn’t, but that it’s got virtually nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s not unwelcome to see Mayor Kelly (Judson Pratt) come out in his too-tall hat and too-florid vest to harangue the leader of the soldiers being sent as reinforcements to hunt down the Cheyenne; he does not understand the irony of being afraid for his life and property at the hands of those whose lives and property were shattered years ago. But this is no more than a minute or two in a much longer sequence, and there are better sequences about the venality of the white people in this movie anyway.
If Cheyenne Autumn works best as a rebuke to white supremacy, then the scenes where white people do jokes are less successful at maintaining that rebuke. The Texans who wander into Dodge City after having murdered an Indian just for sport have already had their scene, really; the worst of them decided to scalp the one he killed and throws it around for show. Watching him get knocked over the head with a mallet while Wyatt Earp carves the bullet he shot into the malcontent’s foot out of it is fine, I guess, but the rebuke has already happened. “Only an Indian would do something as gross and creepy as scalping.” No: a white man scalps an Indian for sport. “Only an Indian would get stinking drunk when the stake are high.” No: Wessels (Karl Malden) gets sloshed on the night that everything comes to a head at Fort Robinson, and his wide-eyed, silent look of horror is one of the movie’s most memorable moments. “Only an Indian would torture women and children.” No: the order to send the Cheyenne who have surrendered to military custody at Fort Robinson back to their reservation through a harsh winter is something close to genocidal. Ford’s aim is to reject stereotypes where he can, and more than that show that white people are hardly so holy themselves. In the years after World War II, Ford made a number of movies about the cavalry fighting the Indians, and while the army was not always right in taking on the Indians, it was clear that we were meant to identify with one side of that battle. In Cheyenne Autumn, there are multiple skirmishes between the two sides, and the movie never asks for us to pull for the cavalry. (Being expected to root for the cavalry rather than the Native Americans in a movie like Winchester ’73 is part of what makes that, and its ilk, a tough sit anymore.) One of the officers, Scott (Patrick Wayne), who lost his family to Indians, has it out to kill as many as he can. He leads a cavalry charge that the Cheyenne know will come, and are perfectly ready for the assault. They’ve sent out a group with torches to set fire to the sagebrush, but strategically: the only open corridor available to the cavalry is the one the Cheyenne have purposely left that way, and they train their fire on that spot. The men firing their repeaters at the soldiers are fighting to be left alone, to protect their nearby families, to go home. There’s no choice but to pull for them.
Like a lot of revisionist westerns about Native Americans (lookin’ at you, Dances with Wolves), the rebuke of old stereotypes does not prevent the movie from playing into others about the “noble savage.” Even though there are a number of scenes from the perspective of the Cheyenne, including the beginning and the ending, it’s not about the Cheyenne as individuals. In a different movie, Dull Knife (Roland) and Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) would be played by Native Americans and, frankly, be the protagonists of their own story. In Cheyenne Autumn, the main character is Archer, whose understanding of the Cheyenne has made him, by military standards, amenable to them; it doesn’t mean that he’s any less afraid of them than the other soldiers, as an impassioned monologue directed at Deborah proves, but it does mean that he recognizes them as people. When other officers like Wessler ignore the humanity of the Cheyenne so that they can say they obeyed orders, or because they doubt the humanity of the Cheyenne in the first place, Archer takes the matter to the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson), who ultimately sets up a deal with the Cheyenne where they can basically come back home. In other words, the movie feels the need for a white intermediary who can give the presumably white audience someone to be interested in. As a product of its time, the movie’s ultimate rejection of white supremacy is admirable, and especially so given Ford’s closeness to and influence on a genre where white supremacy is very often taken for granted.