Sunday, May 21, 2017

Movie review - "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964) **

A terrible movie - long, dull, lacking insight or interesting/empathetic characters, full of actors doing "bits". I think even the hardest core John Ford fans struggle to enjoy this.

There are one or two good things. An impressive cast. The colour, A few stylistic compositions of Indians and cavalry standing in line. There's a bad ass moment where James Stewart shoots a cowboy in the foot through his pocket with a hidden gun. And it's John Ford, and you always get something out of a John Ford movie.

But by god was it heavy going. 154 minutes long! You feel every day of that Indian trek.

You get the feeling at the beginning it's going to be a hard slog, with Richard Widmark's narration not really explaining anything we can't figure out, and endless shots of Indians standing around in the hot sun, and badly written and staged love scenes between Widmark and Carroll Baker (I did like him writing his proposal on the blackboard, but there's no heat, no affection, no chemistry between them).

Eventually the Indians make a bolt for it but it's a dull slog. Widmark doesn't have a character so much as a bunch of lines about how much the Indians have suffered and what good fighters they are. Baker just gets lines about how much they have suffered; she accompanies them, basically a saint in training. Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Montalban give interchangeable performances as stoic, noble Indians. Montalban is more of a fighter than Roland I think and there's a plot about Montalban's second wife having the hots for Sal Mineo, which threatens to be vaguely interesting... but Ford trims that to the bone and instead gives us endless - and I mean endless - scenes of men on horses travelling through Monument Valley, or standing on crests of hills.

We also get characters doing "turns". Widmark has a bit of a go at the beginning, then along comes Mike Mazurski (playing the Victor McLaglen role) and he's given a drunken Polish sergeant bit, and some other random actor is given a drunken Irish surgeon bit, then Jimmy Stewart and Arthur Kennedy get an extended bit as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. Edward G Robinson comes along and does a bit. Ford completists will enjoy seeing people like John Carradine, Ben Johnson and George O'Brien.

There's some action, none of it too memorable - the Indians are said to be good fighters but are never given the opportunity to kick some arse. Their only real victory comes because gung go Patrick Wayne (in a wooden performance) stuffs up(he doesn't even die). They march and starve, and are saved at the end by white men.

I thought at the least they'd get the chance to get some revenge at the viciously racist Texan cowboys who shoot two starving Cheyenne just for fun (an affecting scene even if the cowboys over act). But it never happens. One of them later gets shot by Earp but not because of what they did to the Indians - only because they pick a fight with Earp.

It's an inherently depressing story - the Indians are treated badly, escape north, starve, most of them are massacred at Fort Robinson, and give up. But surely it could have been more interesting/entertaining? It feels like Ford was bending over backwards to show how liberal he had become about the Indians - the main issue is he'd become more dull about them.

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