John Ford said that no other director killed more native Americans in westerns than he did. In doing his last one, 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn, he would make up for the lack of social conscience by depressing the hell out of us about the insufferable plight this country has put the natives through. (And still does.) As sincere as he may have been, he had neither the depth of script nor acting from his cast to measure up to his intentions, so in the end this epic is the final travelogue of his favorite locales. You keep suppressing the bitch, “How many more times must we see what look like the same g.d. stone monuments?” Just when he began to suspect the material was boobytrapped is open to some speculation. During the rushes about midway through production? When he put together a rough cut? He claimed that he didn’t want an intermission, ostensibly to keep the “mood” in place, but of course that runs counter to what he provided (under pressure?)a sequence using James Stewart as Wyatt Earp and Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holiday, in effect a brief getaway from the relentless march of gloom. There’s not a movie lover or Ford devotee who doesn’t ask, WTF? (Of the three laughs in the whole dreary enterprise, Stewart supplies two, Edward G. Robinson elsewhere the third.) Richard Widmark does his screamer routine; Carroll Baker does her earnest thing; Karl Malden has a drunken madman exit; Robinson gets robbed of the prestige he brings when jarring if not fatal studio process shots are used for his pivotal scenes with the Indians. One of the pitfalls for older westerns has been the casting of central Indian charactersit almost never worked because we usually ended up with well-known Hispanics (or sometimes bronzed numbers like Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler) sounding nutsy spieling off a nutsy lingo. Fully aware of how bigoted that reads but with Gilbert Roland, Delores Del Rio and Ricardo Montalban pattering away, it’s the awful truth. Peacock Sal Mineo struts sans dialogue, the wisest decision Ford makes throughout. Alex North’s score is an excessively orchestrated yet mournful rehash of Spartacus and Cleopatra, with a few feathers and tree log drums thrown in. (Intrada recently released a 2-CD set, sending the FSMers into orgastic response.) Warner Bros promoted the depressive as a holiday season roadshow attraction, bombing hugely. Original length 170 minutes, futilely cut down to 156, then, in wide release and on TV, to 144. On DVD, it’s the 156 minute version. Filmed in Super Panavision 70. (Opening 12/22/1964 at the McVickers, running 8 weeks.)

Oscar nomination: best color cinematography.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2010 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 10/2016)  All Rights Reserved.