Cheyenne Falls at Dodge
In his career John Ford directed some of the most iconic western's in cinema's history, he set the benchmark very high and very few ever came close to matching his direction in the western genre. And in a way it makes watching "Cheyenne Autumn" a sad experience because not only was it to be Ford's last western but sadly it wasn't up to his usual high standards. Oh there are the touches of Ford brilliance about it and no once captured a western landscape like he did but this is a bloated movie which tries to make the already powerful story of the Cheyenne returning to their ancestral home more powerful but ends up spoiling it. Don't get me wrong as it is still entertaining and like with Hitchcock even a poor John Ford movie is still at least average, but it doesn't quite work.
Having kept their side of the deal and moved into a reservation the Cheyenne become tired of waiting for the US government to uphold their side by supplying them with their needs in their baron new home. Betrayed the Cheyenne embark on a 1500 mile trek across country to return to their ancestral home but having now broken their side of the deal by leaving the reservation have the US Army hot on their trail. US Cavalry Capt. Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark - How the West Was Won) is ordered to ensure the Cheyenne return to the reservation but as he leads his men he comes to understand and sympathise with them as well as seeing how poorly the US Government has treated them. It's this which leads him to go against his orders and try to help them.
Now I'm no expert of American history, the subject wasn't taught in the school I went to and as such I have no idea how much fact and how much fiction there is going on in "Cheyenne Autumn" but I can say that it is a very good storyline. The whole thing centre's on the Cheyenne leaving the reservation having been betrayed by the US Government and US Army, trying to return to their ancestral home, an arduous 1500 mile trek in an already weakened state. And so we have the journey which leads them into conflict with the US Army as they try and stop them but also a split in the Cheyenne's as it all becomes too much. At the same time you have Capt. Thomas Archer who is ordered to stop the Cheyenne but actually sympathises with them, feels that not only have they been treated badly by being betrayed but also that plans to make them return are suicidal.
One of the strengths of "Cheyenne Autumn" is that we are lead to sympathise with the Cheyenne and unlike the westerns which came 15 or so years earlier the Cheyenne are not portrayed as savages. We also sympathise with Archer because he seems to understand why the Cheyenne feel the need to return home. Yes there maybe action as well as a touch of romance as this storyline progresses but rather than just being about western cliches it is about why the Cheyenne felt the need to risk their lives in order to go home.
But the trouble is that "Cheyenne Autumn" feels bloated and at 154 minutes it drags on. You can sense that John Ford really wanted to highlight the amazing journey that the Cheyenne took as well as the courage it took them to do it, whilst also highlighting the ignorance of the US Army and Government but it ends up feeling laborious and not snappy. It also doesn't help that there is a series of scenes which happen in Dodge City where we meet Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday which have little to do with the actual story. So yes there is the fact that the US Army leave Dodge to deal with the Cheyenne and the locals arming up ready to fight but it feels like it's been thrown in to allow James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy to show up as Wyatt and Doc and in doing so pads things out. In fact these scenes in Dodge City have a comedic feel to them with jars with the rest of the movie which is all about the drama.
Despite the issues with "Cheyenne Autumn" feeling bloated it still works and a big reason why it does is because Richard Widmark is on fine form as Capt. Thomas Archer. Now there is something a bit stereotypical about the character, he is handsome, has a fondness towards Quaker Deborah Wright as well as sympathising with the Cheyenne but Widmark never over plays him. In fact Widmark is very restrained throughout with very few forced moments even when there is plenty of action going on but in a way less is more and he commands the cameras attention by not being false. But Widmark is not alone and Carroll Baker is solid and lovely as Deborah Wright and Patrick Wayne does a grand job of playing a hot beaded young soldier who sees the Cheyenne breaking the treaty as an excuse to kill.
What this all boils down to is that "Cheyenne Autumn" is a good western covering a very powerful story but is spoilt by ending up feeling bloated. It just feels like John Ford was trying to turn what was already a powerful storyline into something epic but failed because he ended up watering it down by padding it out with such scenes where we meet Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Dodge City. It's not all bad and Richard Widmark is on fine form as is Carroll Baker, it's just a shame that John Ford's final western wasn't as magnificent as some of his earlier ones.