Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cheyenne Autumn

Although I had read about the Cherokee Trail of Tears in secondary school and Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce's attempted journey to Canada in college, I had never heard about the Navajo Long Walk until I visited the Navajo Reservation in 2004, nor had I ever heard about the Cheyenne Autumn Trail until I watched Cheyenne Autumn, a movie from 1964. Even though I am a history buff, it is only thanks to ASJ that I am learning about many events of the 19th century American West.

Cheyenne Autumn is the fictionalized account of the 1,500 mile trek undertaken by a small band of Cheyenne Indians, now known as the Northern Cheyenne, in 1878 from Oklahoma, where they'd been forced onto a reservation, back to the Yellowstone area of Wyoming and Montana, their traditional homeland. None of the actors in this film ever appeared in ASJ; however, there are echoes in the series of some of the characters, scenes and lines in this movie.

Richard Widmark stars as an Army captain named Archer. Unlike Mr. Archer in High Lonesome Country, though, this character never betrays anyone. Carroll Baker plays Deborah Wright, a Quaker who seems to be a missionary, as she is trying to educate the Cheyenne schoolchildren who live on the reservation. Unlike Sister Grace in Six Strangers at Apache Springs, this young religious woman who dedicates her life to helping those less fortunate than herself is much more assertive and worldly, and like Mr. Fielding in the same episode, she rides fearlessly into the Indian encampment and decides to stay with them, a decision that will have serious consequences.

James Stewart plays Wyatt Earp, and Arthur Kennedy plays Doc Holliday, in a section of the movie that seems transposed from an altogether different film; it appears about halfway through the running time and is a jarring comedic interlude into what is an otherwise serious and tragic story. These characterizations are nothing like those in Which Way to the O.K. Corral? and instead, are apparently played for laughs as both Earp and Holliday are portrayed as bumbling buffoons. In one scene, though, Earp is playing poker and declares that a deck of cards he is holding in his hand is light, just like in The Fifth Victim.

About 41 minutes into Cheyenne Autumn, Captain Archer calls for a soldier named Jones; at first the man doesn't respond and when he finally does, he says, "Name's Smith, sir." Just like Heyes tells Molly in The Reformation of Harry Briscoe!

Cheyenne Autumn is long; it runs 154 minutes and watching it seems to take almost as long as the actual trek itself. Much of the film consists of long, slow shots of either the Indians or the Army walking or riding horses. Nowadays, movies wouldn't spend nearly as much time on these establishing scenes but here they give John Ford, in the last movie he directed, the opportunity to show off the spectacular scenery of Monument Valley and the area surrounding Moab -- where many scenes in third season ASJ episodes were filmed -- including Castle Valley, which can be glimpsed at about the 72nd minute.

Overall, though, Cheyenne Autumn left me feeling flat. Perhaps it was because most of the dialog spoken by the Indians was not in English, nor was it subtitled or otherwise made clear what the characters were saying. In a movie told sympathetically from the Indians' point of view, this omission often made it difficult to know what exactly was going on. However, on the audio commentary for this movie as well as in other media, it is noted that the dialog spoken by the Indians was not necessarily that which was written in the script.

There are two bonus features on the DVD. One is a hokey but nonetheless interesting documentary, lasting around 20 minutes, where three members of the Cheyenne tribe retrace the journey their ancestors took; it is narrated by Jimmy Stewart. The other bonus feature is an excellent audio commentary by Joseph McBride, a film historian and John Ford biographer. McBride offers not only a different perspective of the movie but also a great deal of information about John Ford's personal views of Cheyenne Autumn and after listening to it, I have a much better appreciation and understanding of this film.

Official website of the Northern Cheyenne Nation:

Meta site with numerous links to websites dealing with many aspects of Cheyenne history and culture:

Website that is an overview of traditional and contemporary Cheyenne culture: