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.



  1. Dear Beverly, Thank you for your insightful overview of this movie(which I never saw-more about that later) and the in-depth details about Mr. Ford as a director and more importantly as a person-the total opposite of what I thought I knew about him. As a child of the ‘50’s I saw every Saturday morning western at the movies, every old western movie on early TV and all the half-hour shows ( Lone Ranger, Have Gun…, Gunsmoke, (Ex-Dodger) Rifleman-hated Hoppalong Cassidy, Roy Rodgers & Gene Audrey). I luckily had a teacher older brother who told me the truth about how we REALLY treated native Americans (and most certainly Black slaves for 250 years), so I stopped watching westerns in protest (thus no Cheyenne Autumn in ‘64). Simply stated, I consider how white Americans treated non-white inhabitants of this continent as a US Holocaust. Heavy, I know, but my POV. Bob.

    1. Thanks, as always, for your thoughts, Bob. Joe McBride tells me that Ford's "Fort Apache" was a revelation for him, because it definitely takes the Native Americans' side. I intend to watch it soon.