cheyenne-autumn1One of the few inarguable statements in all of cinema is, “John Ford made Westerns.” It’s inarguable in the sense that it’s patently true—like saying Preminger made noirs or Sirk made melodramas—but also in the sense that Ford seemed to embody the ethos of the genre. Perhaps the more apt statement is “John Ford mastered the Western,” or even “John Ford created the Western.”

Ford made a number of notable films outside the genre, but in looking specifically at his Westerns, one is able to discern all they need to know about the director: his sense of humor, his moral and political values, his trademark visual and thematic idiosyncrasies. Ford’s earlier Westerns possess something of a sunnier disposition, or are at the very least a kind of mirroring of the “Wild West” forever etched into the American consciousness: dusty trails, ten gallon hats, rolling tumbleweeds and, perhaps most prominently, the six-shooter pistol. Such iconography can be found throughout Ford’s work, but it is essential to note just how the context shifts over time.

Ford’s post-WWII films tend to reflect the burgeoning American Dream, an ideal that came into being after U.S. citizens sought comfort during a transformative time in the country’s history. The old adage of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage encapsulated what was considered an ideal American life: tranquil, economically viable and, most importantly, acquiescent and inconspicuous. But the American Dream, for all intents and purposes, was simply the way the country wished to see itself, not a true reflection of the national populace. Hollywood would end up playing a key role in its pervasiveness: between 1945 and 1950, the industry would proudly dole out such borderline propagandistic films as Miracle on 34th Street (1947) yet abjectly decry its most important figures, seen in the poor treatment of Charlie Chaplin and his film Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

Around this time, Ford, who operated primarily in the studio system throughout his career, began a slow shift in his personal ideologies, which eventually found their way into his films. In what can now be aptly titled his revisionist phase, Ford began to distill the mythos that surrounded the American Dream and, conversely, himself. Transcending mere deconstruction, Ford reinvented the genre. His time spent overseas documenting the war left an indelible mark, and by the time he returned home and settled back into the routine life of a Hollywood filmmaker, Ford ceased to make Westerns in the conventional sense, instead approaching the genre from a more historiographical standpoint. American history ceased to act as a backdrop and quickly became his primary mode of assessing the present.

Of all the idioms commonly used to describe the so-called “American Dream,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is perhaps tossed around the most. It’s usually the motivation—and justification for—many actions taken in American history. But John Ford, under the guise of his Westerns, illustrates the fundamental flaws with such an ideal. He deglamorized the American frontier experience in such films as Wagon Master (which explores new ideas of manifest destiny), The Searchers (which comments on changes in familial and communal dynamics) and, most notably, Cheyenne Autumn, which analogizes the Civil Rights movement while simultaneously denigrating the ethos of a film genre he helped create.

Though it is generally considered a minor work, Cheyenne Autumn is a suitable bookend to Ford’s Western canon. In many ways, the film is a somber reconciliation, a denouement that recognizes the past and acknowledges the future. The film details the tragic fate of the American Indian and seeks rectify the injustice perpetrated against them in previous films. The Civil Rights movement also influenced Ford, which was in full swing at the time of the film’s release.

The film details the plight of three hundred weary Cheyenne who leave their reservation in route to their native Wyoming. The U.S. government, taking this a threat, sends Captain Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark) and a fleet of troops to stop them. As the mainstream media misrepresents the Cheyenne’s intentions and the White House pressures Archer, the stakes rise to nearly dangerous heights.

Cheyenne_Autumn2There’s a grand anomaly in Cheyenne Autumn that is essential to note: Ford cast predominantly white actors to play the roles of Native American characters, which has been labeled as disingenuous by a number of critics and historians. However, Ford frequently cast real Native Americans to play the Indians in his films, such as Chief John Big Tree who appeared in Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, and, most notably and prominently, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Of course, he often defied this, as well, as when he cast white actor Henry Brandon as Scar in The Searchers.

Initially, Ford fought for Native American actors to be cast in the film, particularly for the main characters of Little Wolf and Dull Knife. As talks progressed, however, he grudgingly resolved to hire actors who could pass for Native American (giving roles to such dark-skinned actors as Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo and Victor Jory). Ford encountered other production troubles after J. Edgar Hoover prohibited Warner Bros. Studios from licensing the film’s intended source material—Howard Fast’s Communist-leaning novel, The Last Frontier (1941)—resulting in a claptrap of a screenplay, to which Ford held no affinity.

These troubles are all apparent in Cheyenne Autumn, contributing to the popular rhetoric that it is an uneven and potholed film. Mari Sandoz, author the of film’s official source material, expressed consternation toward the film’s seeming lack of action, saying, “I don’t see how you can make a slow story about one of the great chases in history.” Yet this is, in fact, Ford’s aim. Rather than a sensationalist action epic, Cheyenne Autumn is a methodical and deliberate account that favors moments of analysis over moments of adventure. As Ford’s last Western, it remains an imperative addition to his canon that, boasting a distinct formal sophistication and the kind of thematic preoccupations which Ford had long been tooling.

Ultimately, Cheyenne Autumn is both a filmic apology for the treatment of Indians in movies and an examination of present-day racism, utilizing a predominately white cast in order take the full responsibility for any and all atrocities. This allows for a distinct lack of scapegoats and eradicates any passing of the blame. In fact, had actual Native Americans been cast, the film would have been yet another “us against them” Western. Instead, Cheyenne Autumn is an acknowledgement of guilt—Ford’s way of admitting he was wrong.

In Ford’s eyes, blacks and Indians were dealt similarly marginalized cards. Thus, the film is an attempt to give both groups a voice—blacks in the thematic sense and Indians in the literal and textual sense. Though one could certainly make the argument that such an approach is inherently unethical, it’s worth noting that, despite the successful passing of the Civil Rights act, much of America, as late as the early ‘70s, was still unwilling to see films about oppressed African Americans. Considering Cheyenne Autumn was released in 1964, had Ford been any more explicit about his sympathy toward the Civil Rights movement, his growingly fragile career might not have survived the inevitable backlash. Instead, he reappointed a familiar classic Western trope—the Native American as “Other”—in order to make a more inclusive “Other,” one that could include African Americans or any other oppressed minority.

Operating under the guise of what critic André Bazin labeled the surwestern — “A western ashamed to be just itself” — Cheyenne Autumn counteracts notions of extreme tragedy with extreme absurdity. The trials of the Cheyenne are given fittingly serious treatment, heightened by the apparent lack of reason on behalf of the government and its rationale behind stopping their trek North. This is Ford’s way of suggesting, as the 1960s began to fully take shape, that the need for community was as important as ever, and those who stood in the way were nothing less than illogical.

So goes yet another seeming contradiction in the film, as the only real, extended example of a stable community in the comes in the form of Dodge City. The sequence is perhaps the most infamous in Ford’s canon—it’s certainly the most misunderstood. Upon hearing that the Cheyenne are approaching, a motley crew of Dodge City citizens—led by Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holliday and James Stewart as Wyatt Earp—leave town to head them off. They eventually flee at the sight of a lone Cheyenne scout, resulting in a kind of mob scene harvested for comedic effect. Earp and Holliday make their escape with a sultry bar wench in tow, successfully subverting the courageous mystique that surrounds the two figures.

At first glance, the 20 or so minutes spent in Dodge City seem superfluous. But not only does the scene further Ford’s transcendence of familiar Western iconography in addition to commenting on the inherent dimwittedness of racial prejudice, it also juxtaposes the aforementioned notion of tragic absurdity with comic absurdity. Ford’s strange, sardonic sense of humor is among his most unsung calling cards. In Cheyenne Autumn, humor and tragedy are presented as eristic entities, between which the Cheyenne must find solace, continuing their quest for solidarity amid a polemic society. As William Luhr points out in Thinking About Movies, “part of the vitality of genre art results from the tension between convention and invention.” Indeed, there is distinct tension that permeates Cheyenne Autumn, both textually (seen in its fairly straightforward narrative) as well as contextually.

A final, ominous layer in Cheyenne Autumn lies in the film’s production corresponding with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As Jim McBride details in his book:

“Late in the morning of Friday, November 22, 1963, Ford was at White’s Ranch in Moab Utah, filming the violent climax of Cheyenne Autumn. At that same moment in Dallas, Texas, “the New Frontier” of the 1960s was coming to an end with the assassination of President [Kennedy]. The news reached Ford and company a short while later. Distraught, Ford called a wrap and spent the rest of the day in his motel room.”

Not unlike the air of global political strife that was concurrent with the production of Fort Apache, the sociological impact of Kennedy’s assassination was somehow in step with what Cheyenne Autumn seemed to be addressing. The reference McBride makes to the 1960s as “the New Frontier” actually began much sooner, as early 1946 when riots broke out over a lack of nylon stockings after the war. This was the frontier of a shifting Americanism, whose ideals represented an uncharted landscape in which the rules were rewritten, the parameters widened and the illusion of opportunity was ever-present.

The day after Kennedy’s death, Ford, who ardently admired the president, donned his WWII fatigue jacket, assembled his cast and crew and held a memorial ceremony in which taps were sounded and a flag was lowered to half-staff. A purely Fordian gesture, it’s impossible to ignore the analogous nature of the death of “the New Frontier” and Cheyenne Autumn as the death of the Ford Western.

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