IN "Cheyenne Autumn," which opened at the Capitol last night, John Ford, that old master of the Western, has come up with an epic frontier film. It is a beautiful and powerful motion picture that stunningly combines a profound and passionate story of mistreatment of American Indians with some of the most magnificent and energetic cavalry-and-Indian lore ever put upon the screen.
It is based on an actual event—a footnote to history, as they say—when a small tribe of Northern Cheyenne Indians that had been deceitfully transplanted from their ancient area in the Yellowstone River country to a bleak and barren area in the southwest, decided they had had enough of the white man's evasions and broken promises and, in 1878, sick and starving, started a painful trek back to their homeland, 1,500 miles away.
But it is more than a footnote in this picture, which Mr. Ford has endowed with the kind of atmospheric authenticity and dramatic vitality that he so brilliantly achieves, when in top form. It is a stark and eye-opening symbolization of a shameful tendency that has prevailed in our national life—the tendency to be unjust and heartless to weaker peoples who get in the way of manifest destiny.
On a huge screen (Super-Panavision 70) and in color that does full justice to the awesome beauty of Monument Valley and other desert and hill country of the southwest, Mr. Ford has spread a rumbling, throbbing drama of the stoicism and self-sufficiency of the Indian who is an alien in his own country, of the meanness and perfidy of the whites and of the compassion and heroism of some good people who try to see that justice is done.
Opening on a scene of the Indians coming across the desert at dawn to await a Congressional delegation that, characteristically, never arrives, Mr. Ford and his screenwriter, James Webb, trace the toils and tribulationss of the tribe as it doggedly moves towards its homeland, pursued by a troop of cavalry assigned to return it to the southwest but led by a captain who has no stomach for that job.
There 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.
Along toward the middle of the picture there comes an odd and disconcerting break, which initially makes one wonder whether Mr. Ford has suddenly and frivolously abandoned the Cheyennes. In a switch to a barroom in Dodge City, he embarks on a lengthy, comic phase in the spirit of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," one of his less brilliant films.
The gist of it is that a passel of Dodge City denizens, hearing that the Cheyennes are approaching, ride out into the country to see the fun, headed by Arthur Kennedy as Doc Halliday and James Stewart as Wyatt Earp. But like the elegant people of Washington who went out to watch the first battle of Bull Run, they flee in amazement and terror at the sight of a lone Cheyenne scout.
Although richly and roaringly comic, it seems entirely superfluous — until one senses that Mr. Ford is subtly mocking a familiar attitude in Western films. He is actually injecting a satiric estimation of the usual callous way the pathos and plight of the Indians are tossed off in favor of sheer clichés.
However, it must be acknowledged that the picture does not rise again to its early integrity and authenticity after this episode. There is a powerful dramatic incident with the Indians at a frontier fort, where they are tricked into imprisonment under a brutish alcoholic, whom Karl Malden plays extremely well. But the climax, with Carl Schurz interceding on behalf of the Indians after a hurried trip by the cavalry captain to Washington, is neither effective and convincing drama nor is it faithful to the novel of Mari Sandoz, on which the script is based.
Even so, "Cheyenne Autumn" is a strong film, grandly directed and expertly played by a large cast, which includes Richard Widmark as the humane cavalry captain; Victor Jory, Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Montalban as the chiefs of the Cheyenne tribe, Sal Mineo as a hot and head-strong brave, Dolores del Rio as a stoic Indian woman and even Carroll Baker as a Quaker schoolteacher who accompanies the displaced people on their desperate homeward trek. Also, William Clothier's spanning camera and Alex North's vibrant musical score merit particular mention in giving credit for this film.
Bosley Crowther, NY Times, December 24, 1964