“Cheyenne Autumn” is another case where the story of how the film was made is far more interesting than the film itself, much like “Spartacus.” This is the last western that John Ford ever made and was based on the true events of Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878, as group of nearly 200 Cheyenne Native Americans marched from their designated land in Oklahoma, given to them by the American government, back to their homeland in Wyoming.
Ford chose to make this his last western as a way to apologize to the Native American community after decades of portraying them as the heartless villains in his other westerns, such as “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers.” Instead of the rugged cowboy risking his life to save a town or a girl from the clutches of the evil Indians, the roles are reversed – The Native Americans are the heroes for fighting for what they believe in, and the cowboys are the villains for trying to stop them.
That being said, “Cheyenne Autumn” takes a lot of artistic liberties with history, namely the path the Native Americans take to get back home being vastly different and the many side plots of other forces trying to stop them outside of the U.S. cavalry. And although Ford made this film as a way to show his love and passion for the Native American people, it is not without the Hollywood touch that tends to be a bit racist. Namely, several of the lead roles for the Native Americans are played by non-native actors, with the biggest one being Ricardo Montalban played Chief Little Wolf and Gilbert Roland as Chief Dull Knife.
So the whole idea of racial equality is muddy and unclear with this film – it’s hard to promote a message about the power of Native Americans when you don’t cast native actors in the lead roles.
Beyond this, “Cheyenne Autumn” has no sense of direction or plot. Large chunks of the film are dedicated solely to side plots that never connect to the main plot. This includes a nearly 20-minute sequence involving an elderly Wyatt Earp (played by Jimmy Stewart) hanging out in a saloon and playing poker. Earp never meets up with the Cheyenne, nor does anybody in the town he’s in – it’s all just comedic filler. Even the presence of Jimmy Stewart in this role doesn’t help the meandering plot and dull pacing. But the biggest offender of this huge scene is that it isn’t funny, thus wasting everyone’s time in a film that’s nearly three hours long.
As the final western made by John Ford, it is admirable to make this film as an apology to those who didn’t need to be portrayed as the villains. Ford was the one to start the trend of Native Americans being the antagonists in most westerns, which would lead to so many things about cowboys and Indians. So to see the same man that started this trend come forward and say it was wrong of him to do gets my respect.
However, beyond this, there is nothing special about “Cheyenne Autumn.” It is dull, without emotion or passion, and is a sign that the western genre was dying as the energy and flare for the dramatic is missing. If you’re curious about this film, it’s better just to read up on the behind-the-scenes than it is to actually watch this film.
Final Grade: D+