Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Cheyenne Autumn


They say that John Ford’s last film was done partly in penance for all the nasty, murdering Indians he put into so many of his earlier westerns. This time he wanted to show how badly they were treated, show it from the Indian’s point of view. Well, cripes, John, would it have killed you to cast a few actual Indians in the picture? Instead we get a lot of whites (Sal Mineo, I shit you not) and Hispanics.

Well, of course he hired some Indians. There’s a few hundred extras portraying the few hundred starving Cheyenne who finally got fed up with the broken promises of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and set out for their homeland in Yellowstone country. Only this picture was shot in Utah, and the Cheyenne were interned and left to starve in Oklahoma, a thousand miles from Utah. And what sort of Indians do you get in Utah? You get Navajo, that’s what you get.

Now, Ford was so eager to make this all “authentic” that he had all the Indians, including Sal Mineo, speaking Cheyenne … only these extras, and the dialogue coaches who taught the “Indians” their lines, were all Navajo, of course, and didn’t know a word of Cheyenne. So they taught them Navajo. Who would know? Only another Navajo, of course.

According to Tony Hillerman, who knew a lot of Navajos, the actual dialogue is dirty jokes in Navajo. Which is probably why, in theaters all over the Four Corners area comprising the biggest rez in America, in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, audiences were falling in the aisles, dying of laughter, every time an “Indian” spoke. (Wiki says this story hasn’t been confirmed—if the Navajo know, they haven’t let the cat out of the bag—but I want to believe it. It strikes me as a very Indian sort of joke to play on the white-eyes.)

As for the movie itself … it’s large and lovely in the Super Panavision cameras, shot mostly in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley with its incredible spires and steeples and stone sailing ships. But it’s quite slow. In a modern film you can often sense when a director is padding a scene by how long it takes someone to drive into the scene, get out of a car, walk to a door, and wait for an answer. All that can be compressed radically and not only not ruin the film, it can actually make it more interesting and keep it moving. Here we get long, long shots of riders vanishing in a cloud of dust, and long, long lines of soldiers or Indians plodding along. Ford could have trimmed 20 minutes of run time from this 154 minute film just by shortening those scenes. And it needs it, believe me.

And then, inexplicably, right around the time these roadshow-type pictures used to break for an intermission, we cut to Dodge City. And who should be sitting there at a card table in a phony glamorous saloon but Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp. This long, long scene is played for laughs, with Jimmy at his drawling, cool-headed worst. He shoots a cowboy in the foot and then operates on him. Meanwhile, the town is in a panic, and all the men in town are arming to go out and shoot them some of them marauding Cheyenne who are said to be just outside of town. Earp and Doc Holliday ride out with them, and even more comic hijinx ensue.

I can hardly express how wildly inappropriate this is. The movie is about the long march of the Northern Cheyenne to rejoin their people, as they had been promised. These were 1300 people who had surrendered after their last big victory at Little Big Horn, and then been dumped in Indian Territory, a place they had never been. Their internment started in 1877. After a year there were only about 300 of them left, most of them dead from measles. And they said fuck this, and took off. The suffering was intense, just as with the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears, and the Navajo with that rat bastard Kit Carson. And in the middle of this you dump an entirely irrelevant comic scene in Dodge City, just so you can get Jimmy Stewart’s name on the marquee? Hell, I’ve got an idea. Why not, in the middle of Schindler’s List, have all the cast suddenly break into a rousing rendition of “Springtime for Hitler,” lighten the mood a little. That would be just about as insensitive as this scene.

Anyway … according to what I read at Wiki, the movie is a lot more accurate, historically, than most of these things. The main thing they seem to have left out was that during the long march north, the Cheyenne killed and raped a fair number of white settlers. They stole a lot of cattle, for which I don’t think anyone can blame them. And after all, what did you expect? The Cheyenne were a warlike people, a brutal people (but, in the end, no more brutal than the whites), and their land had been invaded by foreigners. International law permits fighting against invaders. Rape … not so much. I understand that Ford wanted to show the tribe as victims, which they certainly were, having had every promise made to them broken in only a few months or years. But let’s not pretend they were angelic.