John Ford to Peter Bogdanovich
John Ford, the director of Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956), wanted to try a different approach to the Western, the genre for which he still stands today as poet laureate. Ford felt, perhaps in his old age or perhaps because of his Irish Catholic guilt, that amends should be made to the Native Americans, a group that was routinely demonized in others' Westerns, or delegated to the mysterious 'Other' in his own films. Ford chose as the basis for his story, Cheyenne Autumn, a novel by Mari Sandoz. The plot follows a small band of Cheyenne Indians attempting to escape their infertile Oklahoma reservation to their own lush Wyoming homeland, from which they were transported after having surrendered to the U.S. government in 1877. Originally numbering more than 900, only 300 Cheyenne managed to survive starvation and debilitating health to even attempt to make the trek back home.
Ford had worked on a treatment of the book in 1957, but could not generate the funding until Bernard Smith, who had produced How the West Was Won (1962), coaxed four million out of Jack Warner for its ambitious budget. Smith convinced Warner to pony up the cash as insurance against the studio's other big budget gamble, My Fair Lady (1964). Smith reasoned that Warner needed "a picture that has a guaranteed audience...", namely, a John Ford Western.
Given the uncommercial nature of the subject, a Western with an overt social message, Ford called in favors by casting big name stars whenever possible, including Richard Widmark as a sympathetic Army officer, James Stewart as Wyatt Earp, and Carroll Baker as a Quaker schoolteacher committed to helping the rebellious Cheyenne. Ford's first choice to play Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz was Spencer Tracy but the actor didn't like the script, so he backed out, claiming illness. Ford's second choice, Edward G. Robinson, his star from The Whole Town's Talking (1935), stepped into the role and brought much-needed energy to the story's back room debating over the Cheyenne tribe's future.
Adding to the value of the film, the rich cast for Cheyenne Autumn nearly overwhelms the theater marquee. Silent screen star Dolores del Rio, Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland played leaders of the Cheyenne tribe, while Sal Mineo is a hot-headed young brave. Arthur Kennedy deals his hand as Doc Holliday, Karl Malden appears as sadistic military officer and Ford stalwarts John Carradine, John Qualen, George O'Brien, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr. and Ken Curtis all have small roles in the film. Much of the criticism of Cheyenne Autumn came from Ford casting such ethnic actors as del Rio, Montalban and Roland in lead roles as Cheyenne characters. While this criticism is valid, the three actors play their roles with a quiet dignity that matched Ford's portrayal of Native Americans in such films as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
Ford was unhappy with Alex North's score. "I thought it was a bad score and there was too much of it-didn't need it." But Ford was more than please with William S. Clothier's gorgeous cinematography, shot in Super Panavision 70mm Technicolor. Clothier received an Academy Award nomination for his work, but also genuine appreciation from the usually cantankerous Ford. On the last day of production, Ford kissed Clothier on the cheek and said, "This is the best-photographed picture I ever made in my life."
Cheyenne Autumn was John Ford's last Western. It came at a time when the great director's health was in serious decline, and his overall engagement and interest in his career was wavering. Ford admitted to his old friend George O'Brien one night, "George, it's not fun anymore." Patrick Ford said, "He was sick...and he physically wasn't up to the heavy load he had to do. His eyesight had gone, to a great extent...and with it his sense of composition...." Still, hints of the director's masterful eye for composition is there, capturing Moab, Utah, Gunnison, Colorado, and for the last time, Monument Valley.
Reviews of Cheyenne Autumn were modest and were mostly in sync. Among the bigger points of criticism were the length and the sluggish pace of the film, as well as the odd comedy sequence set in Dodge City, featuring James Stewart in a cameo role as Wyatt Earp. Ford had intended this sequence to stand as a sort of comical intermission, an interlude of lightness from the heavy drama of the Cheyenne's relentless journey. According to Peter Bogdanovich: "In initial engagements, the studio ruined the effect of this 'intermission'-a comedy sequence in the midst of an otherwise tragic story-by arbitrarily placing an actual intermission in the middle of it. In subsequent engagements of the film, the point of the sequence was obliterated when the entire second half showing 'the Battle of Dodge City' (which had followed the studio's intermission) was deleted."
Cheyenne Autumn was nominated for one Academy Award®, for William Clothier's photography. Ironically, Warner Bros had no interest in campaigning for Oscar® on the film's or Clothier's behalf. All of the studio's publicity and energy was put behind My Fair Lady, the heavily-budgeted and risky film that producer Bernard Smith mentioned as being reason enough to back the commercially-assured Cheyenne Autumn.
James Stewart said of the picture, "It set out to be an honest, realistic, truthful picture, and I think it largely succeeded. Sure, in my sequences they were trying to apply some escapist counterbalance, some humor and fun, and maybe the picture doesn't have the pace it should have-Jack Ford was not at his best, admittedly-but in all honesty, in its hands-on approach, it was a film with the best of intentions, and I'm not sorry I made it."
Producers: Bernard Smith, John Ford (uncredited)
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: James R. Webb (screenplay); Mari Sandoz (novel "Cheyenne Autumn"), Howard Fast (novel "The Last Frontier") (uncredited)
Cinematography: William Clothier
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alex North
Film Editing: Otho Lovering, David Hawkins (uncredited)
Cast: Richard Widmark (Capt. Thomas Archer), Carroll Baker (Deborah Wright), Karl Malden (Capt. Wessels), Sal Mineo (Red Shirt), Dolores Del Rio (Spanish Woman), Ricardo Montalban (Little Wolf), Gilbert Roland (Dull Knife), Arthur Kennedy (Doc Holliday), Patrick Wayne (Second Lieut. Scott), Elizabeth Allen (Miss Plantagenet).
by Scott McGee