In 1964, Warner Brothers released John Ford’s last epic western, which cost four million dollars to make. It was a crappy movie that didn’t break even. It ran two and a half hours in the final theatrical cut, and improved when a comedic island of nonsense was removed from the middle. ARCH is a little too understated a description of performances that drive socially-relevant points home with heavy expository hammers as ethnic caricatures trudge stoically through Ford’s emblematic mid-space of human history and his stars articulate plotpoints in the foreground, and geologic time looks on these mortal eccentricities from far beyond our focus and nearly every frame.
A movie about the 1500 mile return journey in 1878 of fewer than 300 Northern Cheyenne Indians to their ancestral homeland in Montana from their year-long internment in Oklahoma starred Sal Mineo, Dolores Del Rio, Victory Jory, Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, as the primary Indian representatives. Monument Valley, on the border of Utah and Arizona, stands in for Oklahoma. Richard Widmark and Caroll Baker head a cast of compassionate, ineffectual white people whose indecisive ambivalences result in the gradual near-extermination (by cavalry, inclement weather and illness) of a whole lot of pseudoCheyenne in the forms of Navahos, Mexicans, Italians and Whatnots. No Cheyenne, and none of the Navaho extras speak. They’re scenery, but what kinds of subversive, postmodern things might Ford-subsidized Navaho have to say if they were allowed to speak?
When Dull Knife and Little Wolf speak to one another in their native tongue, Montalban’s and Roland’s words aren’t subtitled in English, because the filmmaker didn’t give a screaming shit what those characters actually thought. And sometimes the speak English to one another, for reasons that don’t make much sense unless those central characters are simply shallow plot devices that nudge the story along, kinda like scenery.
Cheyenne Autumn is a very odd kind of apology for Ford to have made approaching the end of a long career laden with extremely-familiar, creaking stereotypes forged in 4.5 dozen successful, self-serving American films about cavalry, cowboys and Indians. It’s a movie about the destruction of people beneath the wheel of an oblivious political machine controlled by people so remote that the stifled anguish in our foreground is inaudible to anyone who isn’t present, yet the pseudoCheyenne representatives remaing largely impenetrable masks of stoic resignation, even to the attentive audience that paid to see this story unfold. It might as well be a tale of Irish Nazis following crazy-lethal orders as a revisionist western set in OklaUtah.
John Ford made history. John Ford also made history stupid.
Our modern tendency to repeat mistakes previously made whenever The People square off against The Wealth would be more predictable and less disaster-prone without the screen of self-congratulating obfuscation John Ford dropped between us and the American Indian.
The inevitability of Manifest Destiny and the inevitable offshoring of American jobs are not separate processes. People unite to protect Life and Liberty, but the protection of Property requires a draft that’s organized by people with jeopardized property.
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