Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Clean Trail

It's such a shame so many filmmakers in the late 50s and early 60s had to overdevelop consciences. That's the main problem with John Ford's 1964 film Cheyenne Autumn. Or maybe it was simply the folly of using a morally muddy historical event for a feature length apology for the way Native Americans had traditionally been portrayed in American cinema. It's frequently a beautiful film to look at and a brief subplot involving James Stewart as Wyatt Earp is entertaining, though out of place. Ford fails in creating the morally sharp sermon he set out to make--achieving instead a simplistic tale far inferior to the metaphysical battle between America's two hearts in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or the frightening, human ambiguity of The Searchers.

Part of the problem is that in attempting to humanise the Cheyenne Ford felt nonetheless compelled to cast non-north Native American actors in the lead Native American roles--a broad and ineffective Ricardo Montalban as one of the chiefs, Little Wolf, and Dolores del Rio cast somewhat cheekily in the role of a Cheyenne woman named Spanish Woman.

Ford also felt it necessary to include a blonde Quaker woman (Carroll Baker) to provide the audience with a point of empathy among the Cheyenne. The movie tells the story of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, an incident in 1877 when a few hundred Cheyenne decided to leave their reservation and return to their ancestral homeland near Yellowstone.

It's an ensemble film but the closest character to a central protagonist is Captain Thomas Archer played by Richard Widmark who, in this context, made me realise how much he sounds like John Wayne. But he does a great job in his own right, the steely empathetic person Ford needed for the role. He feels bad for the starving Cheyenne but is also willing to shoot back if they shoot at him.

John Wayne's son Patrick plays Archer's Lieutenant Scott, still kind of a pipsqueak despite being twenty five at this point. Maybe it was hard carving out a niche of masculinity with his father in the house throwing his gut around.

He leads a charge against Cheyenne at one point in the film in one of the many brilliantly choreographed sequences. In regards to choreography and composition--including in his signature location of Monument Valley--Ford is in top form.

The episode with Stewart as Wyatt Earp is also entertaining, as I said, though Ford may have been better off creating his own character rather than trying to tie Stewart's part to an historical figure. Stewart's character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the man from the East trying to tame the West with the letter and spirit of the law, embodied so much more by being Ford's fantasy. But Earp has an amusing plot in Cheyenne Autumn about a prostitute acquaintance of his.

The other great supporting performance is Edward G. Robinson as Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz though his presence also drags the film down in two ways. For one, I was pleased with how little Ford relied on soundstages for outdoor scenes, unlike in his later film 7 Women which was severely diminished by being shot almost entirely indoors. But the one crucial scene which features Robinson outdoors features a distracting rear projection.

But Robinson was seventy years old at this point so I suspect there may have been health issues related to his inability to go on location. The more disappointing aspect of his character is that there's no mention of the fact that the historical Carl Schurz was born and educated in Germany and fought in the German Revolution. Part of the reason this is so disappointing is that Karl Malden plays Captain Oscar Wessels, an officer in the American army who is shown to be personally responsible for the worst of the hardships the Cheyenne endure. He's portrayed as a stereotype of a Nazi soldier, having sympathy at first for the Native Americans but totally reversing his feelings to fall in line with orders he's given to restrain the Cheyenne. Schurz in the film is shown as a great advocate for Native American civil rights.

But here we are in the pointless pursuit of apportioning the just quantities of good and evil in different races and peoples. One can see Ford was probably using the German as a place to divert the racial hatred audiences might have customarily spent on the Native Americans. The solution to Ford's problem was simpler than that--it's a shame he didn't see it; just write all the characters as people.

Twitter Sonnet #596

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