Cheyenne Autumn (1964): John Ford’s Western Swan Song

If we had to provide a broad sense of Cheyenne Autumn, it would be all about the mass Exodus of the Cheyenne in 1878 as they journey from the arid land they’ve been subjugated to back to the land the white man had promised to return to them all along.

This is a Hollywood rendition so, obviously, it’s not expected to stick strictly to facts nor does it. The extras John Ford used throughout the picture were in fact Navajo, who spoke their native tongue. He also loaded up on a Hollywood cast headlined by Richard Widmark returning after Two Road Together, portraying an officer in the U.S. Army, Captain Thomas Archer, far more disillusioned in his post than his predecessor.

In the film’s opening grand gesture, the Cheyenne make the long trek hours early, in preparation for their meeting with the white man — a meeting that was supposed to come through on a wealth of promises. Everyone is there waiting anxiously at the military encampment. Among them, Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) and her uncle have made it their life’s work to minister to the Native Americans as suggested by their benevolent Quaker faith.

The only people who don’t show up are the big wigs from Washington, offering yet another rejection and another sign of disrespect. As they leave the encampment, empty-handed once again, there’s in a sense of unease about it. Though the pompous blaggards back east have no concept of their egregious blunder, there’s no question reckoning will come in some form.

This is made apparent and for once in a Ford picture, beyond simply casting a sympathetic eye, the director finally seems to be acknowledging the grievances against the American Indians. Because they have to face arrogant, deceitful men who fatuously believe they have a right to everything they touch. They have no respect for the land, only what they can acquire from it. Soldiers who are supposed to be peacekeepers, as well as tacticians, are equally suspect.

In a fine bit of casting, Patrick Wayne plays a young upstart who has waited his whole life to have it out with the Cheyenne, and the circumstances make no difference to him, even if he has to create them himself. Other soldiers like Karl Malden’s commander espouse unprejudiced mentalities only to be frozen by the chain of command. It proves equally inimical, if not more so.

Under Archer’s command are also numerous steady, career soldiers like Mike Mazurki, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. To have the latter two in yet another Ford picture is certainly a fitting remembrance. They were as crucial to his work as any of the larger stars like John Wayne or James Stewart (more of him later).

Wagon Master and Rio Grande, from 1950, would be enough for many actors to build a reputation on. Even over a decade later, it’s a testament to this close-knit bunch that they still remained steadfast to the end. These are when the sentimentalities of the picture are most apparent.

In all candor, Cheyenne Autumn is long, at times arduous, but within that runtime, it speaks to so much, including Ford’s own legacy. This is what makes it such a fascinating final marker in his career. Again, it’s the side of the western movie he never truly showed before. It’s as if age has softened him to what he did not see before.

We’re in Monument Valley on the eve of a skirmish. We’ve seen this scene before but from the other side. Native Americans digging in to fight the cavalry on the other side of the canyon. This is not a battle between the heroes and villains but the victors and the victimized.

Whatever flaws come to the fore with a white director making a movie about Native Americans, so be it. They are present, but none of this can totally discount the interludes of natural beauty and deep affecting sympathy on display.

Initially, Ford had wanted to cast some version of Anthony Quinn, Richard Boone, or Woody Strode in the roles of the Indian chiefs. All men consequently had some Native American heritage. The parts of Little Wolf and Dull Knife ultimately were given to Mexican-American actors Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland. The addition of Dolores Del Rio and a wordless Sal Mineo also feel equally peculiar. Mind you, these are only caveats mentioned in passing.

Cheyenne Autumn feels like a glorious mess of a film. It’s as epic as they come and striking for all its splendor; it’s also all over the place in terms of narrative. Perhaps Ford’s not totally invested here. This was never his main concern nor his forte. And in his final western, he does us a service by coming through with what he does best.

What else can we mention now but Monument Valley — the locale most closely identified with him — and yet it could just as easily be turned around and commended as the place he most identified with. Again, we can almost speak in parables because it can represent so many things from beauty to ruggedness from life and then death.

Take, for instance, when the chief elder is finally laid to rest, and the rocks are dislodged to form his burial chambers — off in the distance more of his people ride across the plateaus — it says everything that needs to be said. It is a moment of closure on all the images Ford himself ever captured in his home away from home.

As a short respite, John Ford provides a highly comedic Dodge City intermission with Jimmy Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, and John Carradine among others. You’ve never seen Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday quite this jocular as they play poker, ride around in a buggy, and help rescue a floozie (Elizabeth Allen) running around with a parasol and a ripped dress.

Now it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It would be easy to cry foul for mixing disparate tones and totally flipping the script of the movie. This isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t fully take into account Ford’s intentions. He knows full well what he is doing, using the language of the moviegoing public bred on the epic. It injects brief levity into an otherwise dour picture. In fact, it might be too much levity, although it could make a fine comic western all its own.

Because I won’t pretend the drama doesn’t wear on. The beginning is far more compelling than the end, but the journey is of paramount importance and what it represents. Although Edward G. Robinson plays one voice of reason back east and Widmark plays another enlightened savior out in the field, not to mention Baker’s tireless quaker acting as a protector of the Cheyenne children, they are not all-powerful.

It’s as much a story of loss and failure as it is of tragedy and miscommunication. Again, this is not to say any of this is to be taken as truth and lines drawn in the sand when it comes to what the history books say. But Ford is working the only way he knows how, with the strokes of a painter on this canvas illuminating a story. He is making amends in an imperfect, fragile way. Do with it what you will.

While it’s not the glorious heights one might have guessed for John Ford’s final picture in Monument Valley and his final western, somehow it feels like a fitting capstone just the same. The tone says as much as anything else in the picture. It’s yet another elegy reminiscent of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and many of his earlier works. Except this would be the last one. It was the autumn of his career as well.

3.5/5 Stars

7 Women (1966): John Ford’s Final Film

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7 Women is an oddity that nevertheless deserves a more prominent reputation. Here we have the inauspicious final film of John Ford, becoming the capstone to a career spanning decades and plenty of classics.

However, there’s no John Wayne in this picture nor western panoramas. Nevertheless, it sticks with you and delivers a considerable drama chock full of immense potentials in such a short span of time.

The story takes place in, of all places, a Christian mission situated in China near the Mongolia border. The year is 1935. Though the territory has some protection, there is still a world of feudal violence brooding around this stronghold of Christian virtue.

The religious subtext alone has enough thematic intrigue to keep the story continuously intriguing. On top of this, you stack the rather unusual circumstances (both then and now) of having an entire cast stacked with top tier women performers.

What sets the picture apart is how it becomes a kind of battleground for morality as people of different breeds chafe against each other, further exacerbated by the harrowing backdrop all around them.

Miss Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) runs her compound with puritanical virtue that would be off-putting if there were anyone to stand up against her. Instead, all her cohorts take her pharisee-like fervor benevolently because they share faith in the same God.

Among them is the right-hand Miss Argent always prepared to pay her services.  Sue Lyon is able to subvert her image as a youthful seductress in Lolita for that of an angelic missionary, who is taken under Andrew’s wing. She leads the orphans in renditions of “Jesus Loves Me” and is a sheltered young woman of genuine faith.

Eddie Albert feels strangely cast as a teacher — especially since it’s the Green Acres era — but bless his soul, he’s still as wonderful as ever. He could do it all, and he’s the perfect counterpoint to all the women in his stead, including his peckish wife, the pregnant Florrie (Betty Field).

Their lives could very easily continue in relative peace if not for the arrival of a lady doctor named Cartwright (Anne Bancroft as a last-minute replacement for Patricia Neal). It becomes apparent all too quickly she is the utter antithesis of all that Miss Andrews aspires for her immaculate city on a hill to stand for.

They immediately have it out over everything from cigarettes at a dinner table (ironic for a doctor who is supposed to care for the human body) and the liberal use of coarse language unbecoming a woman. They very much represent two distinct worldviews, and they have an impasse. Dr. Cartwright won’t agree to be shipped out; she has a job to look after Florrie’s baby, while her employer isn’t about to let her camp become a house of sin.

Her protests are final, noting the good doctor will never fit into “a Christian community,” and she takes this as a personal affront, asking the impressionable Emma if she wants to live in Dr. Cartwright’s world.

Admittedly, her points aren’t entirely unfounded as their new apothecary proclaims spiritually is dead because she’s never seen God take care of anyone. It’s the pragmatic truth as she sees it but to such an ardent zealot as Miss Andrews, these are blasphemous words.

While Ford never strikes me as a persistently religious figure, he was raised Catholic and his pictures from 3 Godfathers and The Quiet Man to 7 Women do provide portraits of different figures of the faith. This is arguably the most robust conversation, a heavy indictment of holier-than-thou morality versus actual sacrificial lives lived out of love.

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If all this back and forth is playing out in the foreground, the background begins to heat up with word of marauders ravaging the territory.  Miss Andrews’ own hypocrisy is laid to bear when missionaries from differing denominations (among them Anna Lee) are begrudgingly allowed asylum.

At least Dr. Cartwright is a straight-shooter. It’s when the real crisis strikes, true character is always revealed. Our suspicions are confirmed as the real heroes come out of the woodwork.

When the compound is overtaken by cholera and drastic measures are in order, the Dr. takes charge for the sake of everyone. Then, the local Chinese garrison flees, leaving them as sitting ducks. It’s inevitable. The feared Warlord Tunga Khan will soon be on their doorstep.

What we don’t know are the results of this impending invasion. To its credit, 7 Women does not spare us from the senseless killing; it is a horrible feeling to know no life is sacred in a film. Those who are spared are locked away to watch the bloodshed.

Mike Mazurski and all his Mongolian cronies are the film’s one obvious blind spot. It’s a moment where the film acts its age. And yet even underneath this apparent flaw, you have this strange counter-story as if in an alternate reality Woody Strode, former UCLA star, is going head to head against Mazursky who was himself a professional wrestler. It’s this weird subtext that’s strangely riveting as they battle for control of this rowdy assemblage of bandits.

With time, Miss Andrews becomes completely unhinged spouting off scripture and losing all pretense of a peaceful, righteous figure. She finally gets put in her place by one of her closest companions. (“What right have you to shout abuse behind our celibate walls”). She sees the Pharisee for who she is.

Again, it is the heathen — the woman of the world — who shows wells of affection when it comes to protecting the weak and the helpless and even those who despise her guts. There is another verse pertinent to her character, redeemed as she is, in her unapologetic profaneness. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The actions are what speak on her behalf.

In her final hour, Ford christens Bancroft with what should be remembered as an iconic doorway shot all her own because she knows what she has done, sacrificing herself for everyone, ready to drink the cup of wrath.

She goes out as fiery as she came in. In fact, Anne Bancroft kills it, despite Ford christening her with the rather unflattering moniker of “The Maid of Monotone.” This movie would lose so much fury without her husky heart and soul at its core.

The 7 Women is a fitting final twist in an illustrious career. In a mountain of westerns revolving around men’s men where only a few sturdy lasses on par with Maureen O’Hara were ever able to break in, Ford goes and makes a film populated with women.

What’s even more rewarding is how much there is to cull through. While it might have unceremoniously become the bookend of Ford’s career, it’s no less of an achievement. Taking stock of everything, it’s a criminally underseen gem that adds yet another compelling contour to the old coot’s already complex career in Hollywood.

Once asked in an interview about his favorite picture of Jean Renoir, Ford always the eloquent elocutionist responded curtly, “I like all of them.” We certainly can attribute this to the usual irascibility of the director, but it seems like a fitting way to consider his own work.

While pictures like Stagecoach and The Searchers get their due, even an offering like 7 Women, seemingly minor, taken as part of a broader career, is still full of Ford himself. “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” could not be further from the truth.

With Ford, it’s like each individual picture is giving you another side of him; artistically and thematically he is a part of these movies. The images speak on his behalf. All the better for someone so notoriously difficult to pin down. Look at his films if you want to know the man.

4/5 Stars