Monday, May 6, 2013

Cheyenne Autumn

USA  (154 mi)  1964  d:  John Ford

Even a dog can go where he likes... but not a Cheyenne.    —Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland)

No self-respecting Quaker could fall in love with a soldier.    
—Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker)

An apologetic film that attempts to right the wrongs of the racist and historically inaccurate portrayal of Indians in the John Ford mythology, one the director is responsible for creating throughout his storied career, where he unapologetically portrays Indians as savages while anointing the white settlers and Cavalry officers to noble American heroes, where the contrast between the two differing characterizations couldn’t be more imposingly different, where in Ford’s filmography, whites are the master race, the one’s with superior intellect and culture, and the only ones to ever display any hint of personality and character, where we never follow the lives or families of Indians, who were never seen in a sympathetic light and never written into the storyline of the films except to be killed, as Indians were utilized only as barbarous objects standing in the way of civilized white progress, where their eradication is always seen as boldly heroic and noble, as if this is how the West was won.  Even if nothing could be further from the truth, this is the West as John Ford tells it, building his career on capturing the so-called authenticity of the Old West in his westerns, becoming the most esteemed movie director of the entire western movie genre.  Simultaneously fixated on the beads and buckskins of the plains Indians, Ford brought his cameras outdoors to the breathtaking desert topography of the Southwest’s Monument Valley, both of which he described were for “aesthetic reasons,” where generations of moviegoers were led to believe that western Kansas looks just like northern Arizona, where the territories of the Commanches and the Cheyenne are indistinguishable from that of the Apaches.  Ford made seven Monument Valley westerns, which is actually located on Navajo Indian Territory, where the untranslated Indian dialogue is in Navajo, not Cheyenne, and he was proud about employing Navajos as movie extras, though he paid them less than what he paid whites, winning Academy Award nominations for two of the pictures, STAGECOACH (1939) and THE SEARCHERS (1956), while the others include MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), FORT APACHE (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), which won Best Cinematography, WAGON MASTER (1950), and CHEYENNE AUTUMN, also nominated for Best Cinematography. 

CHEYENNE AUTUMN is what you might call a patronizing view of Indians, where only whites can be trusted to tell the “right” story to the audience, so in the end, despite its obvious sympathies for the plight of the Indian, it is equally misguided with its overly stiff and near cardboard cut-out, Hollywood portrait of Indians, starting with the miscasting of Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf with Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Montalbán, while Red Shirt is played by Sal Mineo, who never utters a word, while an Indian wife known only as Spanish Woman is played by Dolores del Rio.  Making the case that the Hollywood studios just couldn’t find Indians capable of playing themselves on screen “convincingly,” they instead consistently hired whites or Hispanics to impersonate Indians in a more “believable” manner.  This practice backfired, as the wooden performances are projections of Indians as stereotypes, where nothing more detailed or complex was ever written for them.  This is in stark contrast to the meticulously researched book that inspired the film, written by Mari Sandoz who wrote extensively about pioneer life and the Plains Indians, known for her attention to detail.  She was not used as a consultant on the film, though she was available, where Ford’s screenwriter James R. Webb, and the near stolen contribution of Howard Fast’s The Last Frontier (whose left-wing politics Ford despised, so he was not credited or paid for his story), literally combine to include the absurd presence of a pacifist white Quaker teacher (Carroll Baker) driving her buggy with the desperately fleeing Cheyennes during the 1878 Breakout, when a band of less than 300 Cheyenne Indians decide to flee from Oklahoma Indian Territory, a makeshift reservation where they had been sent by the U.S. government, which then failed to provide adequate food and shelter, causing an epidemic of famine and disease where more than 700 of them died, so they escaped to their original Wyoming homeland in the Yellowstone country mostly walking on foot, avoiding the chasing U.S. Cavalry troupe led by the film narrator, Richard Widmark as Captain Thomas Archer, who had orders to return them to the reservation.  The inclusion of an attractive white teacher among the Indians softens the genocidal implications of what was actually done to the Cheyennes, inappropriately and inaccurately generating Indian sympathy through her “whiteness.”  Even in a film that attempts to portray Indians in a sympathetic light, highlighting the historical implications of grievous mistreatment, John Ford requires the presence of whites to generate the sympathy.    

Ironically, it was white activists from the 60’s who were protesting the war, fighting for Civil Rights, or even making movies in Hollywood who were predisposed to think well of American Indians.  Following the Kennedy assassination, the nation was charged with emotion, led by youth protests publicly demonstrating against an increasingly unpopular war, where change was the order of the day.  It was in this rapidly changing social and political climate, attempting to deliver a film in step with the liberal mood of the country that Ford made CHEYENNE AUTUMN, using the American Indian as a metaphor against oppressed people.  Reflecting back on his own legacy, Ford reevaluated his own role when he previously turned a blind eye to the idea of Indians not only as an oppressed people, but mystical and in harmony with their natural environment.  This film goes against the grain of everything John Ford stood for, where he fictionalized events to create mythical white heroes, which were extremely popular with the public, while here he bases the film on the Fort Robinson tragedy, an actual historical incident, destroying the legend that he himself created, which may be one of the reasons it was less successful.  Contrary to the previous methodology of Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy pitting two conflicting forces against one another, Captain Archer is actually an admirer of the people he is ordered to chase across the American plains, a nearly decimated people, the reservation Indians, whose arduous trek marching across nearly 1500 miles of heat and dirt and snow and ice only reinforces his admiration.  The point being, once you remove the blinders of the Hollywood stereotype and the reality of the situation comes into focus, respect and justice can finally occur.  The problem lies in the distorted imagery.  No clearer example of this exists than the scene where a cowboy shoots down an unarmed Cheyenne begging for food, where the cowboy sentiment is reflected in his view that “I always wanted to kill me an Indian,” because he’s the only one of his friends not to have an Indian scalp.  Cold-blooded murder is justified in his eyes based on the racist imagery.  Ford follows this with a host of wildly exaggerated newspaper headlines, each one a greater distortion of the truth than the last, until one publisher finally insists, “From now on we’re going to grieve for the noble red man.  We’ll sell more papers that way.”  This seems to be the sentiment behind this film, which ironically was a box office flop, showing perhaps how out of step Ford was with the times, where both he and his iconic movie star John Wayne, incidentally, were two of the most outspoken supporters in favor of the Vietnam War.   

The opening credit sequence of Frederic Remington Indian sculptures suggest shedding a different light, showing, finally, a nobility in being Indian, and while the beautiful panoramic vistas of Monument Valley are used to wondrous effect as visual poetry, this time telling the story from the Indian’s point of view (though narrated by a white Army officer), with a near burlesque Dodge City sequence that goes for over-the-top humor, this sad and melancholy movie is the most expensive in Ford’s entire career, but is never very engaging.  From the outset, the Cheyenne Indians are already dying by the hundreds of famine and disease, but Ford makes no reference to a systematic policy of genocide, but blames the circumstances on utter indifference, so when the Indians stand around in the hot sun all day to meet a congressional delegation that never shows, it’s clear that words, especially white man’s words, so essential in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), have been reduced to nothing here, just empty rhetoric with no meaning, where Dull Knife utters “We are asked to remember much. The white man remembers nothing.”  Despite Ford’s claims that this was “a true story, authentic, the reality as it was,” the movie is filled with more historical inaccuracies that are quite different from the book, as the Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz never traveled West and was basically uninvolved with the Cheyenne affair, Dull Knife never killed Red Shirt in a tribal ceremony, but Thin Elk at a trading post.  Lone Wolf was never a noble warrior, but a drunk, where the runaway girl in question was his daughter, not his wife.  Ford, one must remember, is the director who told Peter Bogdonovich in an interview, “I’ve killed more Indians than Custer, Beecher, and Chivington put together,” something he was proud of, as if this was the legacy he was looking for in his lifetime.  And without Indian killers, he’s made a movie without heroes, without any clear depiction of purpose, where much of its overlength feels lost to aimless wandering, like Moses wandering in the wilderness searching for direction.  Even when Ford darkens the skies with a landscape of dead buffalo bones, all senselessly killed for buffalo hides, we see no evidence of who slaughtered them.  Who is to blame?  Everyone?  And when a similar landscape of dead bodies lay upon the frozen ground just outside the Fort Robinson prison gates when Indians made their suicidal escape, where are the heroes, and who does one sympathize with?  While there is a contrived, Fordian feel good ending tacked on at the end, this is mere make believe, as in real life, those escaping Cheyenne were all tracked down and either killed or returned to the fort, hardly a noble victory, captured in a painting entitled After the Final Battle at “The Pit” FortRobinsonPit006.jpg, by Frederic Remington, originally appearing in the August, 1897 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.

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