Thursday, December 2, 2021

“Cheyenne Autumn”: John Ford’s Native American Elegy

In Hollywood westerns, you can always count on Indians getting the short end of the stick. They’ve traditionally been portrayed as blood-thirsty savages out to threaten heroic white men (and their women), or else as ignorant hangers-on who loaf on the fringes of western towns. Late in his career, the great John Ford sought to rectify that. Ford had directed such classic westerns as 1939’s Stagecoach, in which we root for an eclectic group of travelers who face the threat of Apaches on the warpath. Later Ford films, like those in his so-called Cavalry Trilogy, show more sympathy for the Native American perspective, yet all continue to focus chiefly on white characters who wrestle with military strategies and romantic entanglements. But Ford’s close personal ties to the Navajo Nation (he shot many of his films in Monument Valley, with full cooperation from the native residents) led him to seek to dramatize a story of the U.S. government’s failure to keep its promises to Native American populations.

 In Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Ford took on what’s been called the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-1879. Historically, following the Battle of Little Big Horn, a number of Cheyenne tribes were forced by the U.S. military to trek from their tribal lands in Wyoming to a dismal reservation in Oklahoma. Hungry and dispirited in their new surroundings, the Cheyenne set out to return home, with U.S. Army troops in hot pursuit. Ford’s version, which ended up playing fast and loose with the historical record, was not entirely the film he hoped to make.

 I’m relying here on the words of my colleague, film historian Joseph McBride, who knew Ford and wrote the highly regarded Searching for John Ford: A Life. In an invaluable collection called Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies, Joe broaches Ford’s attitudes toward Native American culture. Ford attributed much of his warmth toward native tribes to his own proud Irish heritage: “My sympathy is all with the Indians. . . .  More than having received Oscars, what counts for me is having been made a blood brother of various Indian tribes. . . . Who better than an Irishman could understand the Indians, while still being stirred by the tales of the U.S. Cavalry? We were on both sides of the epic.”

 In making Cheyenne Autumn, Ford aimed to shoot in sober black & white, using subtitles for authentic Native American dialogue, and casting actors of genuine Indian descent. But to get financing, he had to agree to a full-color wide-screen epic full of stars like Edward G. Robinson and (in an odd comic detour from the main plotline) James Stewart as Wyatt Earp. The major Indian roles were played by Anglos and Mexicans (Ricardo Montalban, Dolores del Rio), with Italian-American Sal Mineo in a prominent part. The $6.6 million budget was the highest of Ford’s career, and led to a box-office flop.

 McBride, well aware of the movie’s failings, admits that Ford, for all his emotional connection to the Native American tribal lifestyle, was never able to truly get inside his Indian characters. In this film, says McBride, “Ford views the Cheyenne as symbols rather than people.” Still, he makes a good case for Cheyenne Autumn as “a work of visual poetry,” majestically evoking a tragedy of  the Old West. For me, this is best seen very early in the film, as the  Cheyenne quietly assemble at a military outpost, then stand stock-still to wait – for hours –to plead their case before a Congressional delegation that never arrives Their dignity in this ordeal never fails them. Visual poetry indeed.


 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Simple Gifts of “Pather Panchali”

The first time I saw Pather Panchali, it was under unusual circumstances. I was a student in Tokyo, having a wonderful time but missing the chance to see movies that were not standard Hollywood fare. In a basement in Shinjuku I happened upon a tiny movie house that alternated between soft-core porn and the classics of world cinema. That’s where I’d go for my foreign film fix, taking care to choose movies made in the English language. Not that I’m opposed to reading subtitles—but these were in Japanese and therefore not of much help.

 One day, though, I couldn’t resist buying a ticket for the much-acclaimed first feature by the great Indian director, Satyajit Ray. This 1955 film, shot in Bengali using largely amateur actors, would later be near the top of many global “best picture” lists, and would lead to two additional features, making up what’s been called the Apu Trilogy. Pather Panchali (meaning “Song of the Little Road”) boasts gorgeous cinematography and a haunting score by a young sitar player named Ravi Shankar. I couldn’t miss the fact that it was about an impoverished family in rural Bengal, desperately hanging on despite the frequent absences of the man of the house. Though I sat in that basement cinema more than fifty years ago, I have a clear recollection of one of the most dramatic sequences, in which rain pelts the tumbledown shack while a mother – her eyes haunted by worry -- crouches at the bedside of her ailing child.  

 Pather Panchali is a strongly visual film, playing on emotions that are universal. But of course, without the help of language, there was so much nuance that I missed. That’s why I leaped at the chance to see a beautifully restored print in the sumptuous David Geffen Theatre at L.A.’s new Academy Museum. The museum is celebrating, in the first months of its existence, the work it has put into locating and restoring the entire Ray canon. This work is particularly noteworthy since the master prints of the entire Apu Trilogy came close to being destroyed in a warehouse fire.

 There’s no question that Pather Panchali seems long and slow. It is not without humor, but its basic tone is poignant. This is the story of a scholarly father who in another culture might be called a luftmensch: he has his dreams of a better life, but can’t seem to bring them to fruition, which is why he is mostly absent, scrounging in the big city for work. Meanwhile, the mother of the family desperately hangs on. There’s a sprightly daughter with wealthier friends she can’t help envying, and a charming little son, Apu, full of good-hearted mischief. And there’s a whole gallery of other local characters, including the irascible schoolmaster, the always-suspicious neighbor, the ascetic collecting alms, and a wizened old “auntie” who has taken up residence with the family and is not above commandeering what food there is on hand. We see others in this rural environment who can be petty and hard-hearted, but mostly come through when the chips are thoroughly down.

 Ray, with a background in art and advertising, turned to filmmaking after he first saw an Italian neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves (1948) during a trip to London. For those familiar with India’s Bollywood tradition, with its garish colors and non-stop musical numbers, Pather Panchali is a revelation. Shot in rich black & white, it is fully about the poetry of real life. Those quiet shots of waterbugs scooting leisurely across a local pond: daily existence doesn’t get much more beautiful.  


 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Seduced by Howard Hughes

It’s natural -- especially when you come from a family of engineers -– to think of Howard Hughes mostly  in terms of aircraft. And of course there’s the latter-day Hughes, a crazy old man whose fortune couldn’t shield him from mental illness and a lonely death. But Hughes’ life (1905-1976) was intertwined with the history of the Hollywood movie industry. As a dashing young millionaire, he became determined to be a force in the world of entertainment. 

 Starting in 1926, Hughes put his considerable money behind films that were nominated for, and sometimes won, Academy Awards. Most notably, he sank about $3 million (and three years of his life) into a pet project, the World War I aerial drama, Hell’s Angels. The film, which was nominated for Best Cinematography, launched the career of Jean Harlow, whom Hughes chose to outfit in slinky gowns of his own devising. But despite a massive publicity campaign, Hell’s Angels could not recoup its then-outlandish expenses. There were human costs too. The spectacular aerial stunt work led to the deaths of three aviators and a mechanic. And Hughes himself, as a participant in some of the stunts, crashed his plane and suffered a fractured skull, the first of many dramatic injuries that doubtless contributed to his strange, twisted view of life.

 In 2018, a new book on Hughes’ movie years made its appearance. Called Seduction:Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood, this heavily researched volume was written by Karina Longworth, the Angeleno behind You Must Remember This, a popular podcast that chronicles the secret history of the old studio system. Longworth does not neglect Hughes the industrialist, but her focus is on Hughes’ interaction with Hollywood, especially its women. There are lots of colorful details about his romances with Katharine Hepburn (who praised him as a lover), Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner, and other celebrated lovelies. Much time is spent, needless to say, on his relationship with the very young, very well endowed Jane Russell: while guiding the production of The Outlaw, in which she plays a half-breed Mexican beauty sexually assaulted in a hayloft  by Billy the Kid, Hughes famously engineered a brassiere that would dramatically emphasize her two most prominent assets. Russell’s relationship with Hughes was to complicate her later marriage to a prominent football star. While moving in and out of a leadership role at RKO Pictures, Hughes kept Russell under personal contract for decades.

 I learned, in passing, about many remarkable Hollywood women. One was Ida Lupino, admired today as one of the few American females able to break into directing, but also apparently someone who fostered her own career success by secretly cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the dark days of the Blacklist. Another was Terry Moore, a blonde and perky devout Mormon  (now 92), who still seems convinced that she and Hughes contracted a secret marriage in 1949. (She has since had 5 other husbands.) Most disturbing, though, is Longworth’s recounting of the way the middle-aged Hughes courted pretty and very young women, scouting them out in their hometowns, enlisting the support of their starstruck mothers, and dangling before them the prospects of a movie career. Once they came to Hollywood, Hughes would ensconce them in hotel suites or bungalows, provide them with cars and drivers, enroll them in acting and dance classes, then occasionally drop by to sample their charms. No surprise: few ever appeared in movies at all. But Hughes did, as portrayed by Jason Robards, in 1980s sad and hilarious Melvin and Howard.