CineFile – Cheyenne Autumn


Yesterday’s post on Geronimo put me in mind of John Ford‘s Cheyenne Autumn. The excerpt from We Shall Remain noted how within only several years of Geronimo’s capture he had transformed in the American consciousness from demon savage into the iconic fierce warrior. (The U.S. special forces operation that killed Osama bin Laden was code-named “Geronimo.”) John Ford spent much of a notable film career making Westerns that failed to represent the historic truth of European settler and Indian relations and that produced much great iconography mythologizing the U.S. government role. Cheyenne Autumn, at the end of his long career, and not one of his better films, was instantly recognizable as a kind of penitential self-corrective.

What strikes me about the following scene, decades after I first saw the film, is the dated character of even its political correction. It is painful to watch Cheyenne Indians, nonetheless, still portrayed by ethnically Hispanic and Mediterranean actors (cheekbones, noses, swarthy foreignness). The superfluous sign language, indicative of racial authenticity, and the authenticity of which I have no idea, is nonetheless simplistically rendered and hokey. Amid the didactic dialogue about the white man’s callous duplicity and Ford’s always stunning Monument Valley compositions, even the mise en scene and staging are creaky. Notice how the Major at one point stalks off, and a bit later, when he might have been on his horse and away already, he is just steps away in stride to be approached for a last appeal. The dashing of his cigar to the ground is cartoonish. At the end of the scene, Richard Widmark‘s conflicted Archer, takes a few unconvincing and stagy steps after the departing Cheyenne – with one last weak, despondent fall of his right leg – when we can see he was never really going after them, just to transparently embody his ambivalence.

The scene offers one essential and powerful line: “We are asked to remember much. The white man remembers nothing.”

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