Fipresci Home the international federation of film critics  
  about us | festival reports | awards | undercurrent   contact | site map 
home > undercurrent > issue 5 > John Ford > Cheyenne Autumn  

about the writer

Toshi Fujiwara is a filmmaker, working in both documentaries such as Cinema Is About Documenting Lives: The Works and Times of Noriaki Tsuchimoto (2007, Closing Film, Yamagata Documentary Film Festival), FENCE part one lost paradise / part two fragmented stratum (2008, world premiere, Sheffield Doc/Fest) and fiction such as We Can’t Go Home Again (2006, Berlinale Forum, Premio CinemAvvenire at Pesaro).


[1] Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 97.

[2] Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). p. 429.

[3] The legend regarding the shooting of the scene seems to be quite true; the scene was scheduled on Friday, November 22, 1963, and was shot around 11:30 a.m., Mountain Time, which was 12:30 p.m. in Dallas, Texas — almost the same time when John F. Kennedy was shot to death. However, what Ford's grandson Dan Ford wrote in the biography Pappy: The Life of John Ford seems to be rather exaggerated; Ford didn't halt the shooting that same afternoon after learning that Kennedy was assassinated. It was the only scene scheduled on that date; they completed it and departed from that location in Utah.

The People. Who Will Tell Them? Who Will Tell The People?
Cheyenne Autumn
By Toshi Fujiwara

Cheyenne Autumn
Cheyenne Autumn

The first shot is the dawn. Cut to a long shot of Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) crossing the screen diagonally, the square table mountains behind them. They walk towards the Cheyenne's village. Spanish Woman (Dolores Del Rio), her hair covered with cloth as if in a religious painting, comes out of a teepee and stands in front of it, accompanied by two young men. The three face the camera as if unconsciously posing in the form of a Christian triptych, or the traditional form of Buddhist altars. The body movements are reserved, slow, marked with ceremonial gravities. Dull Knife and Little Wolf join the white-haired "chief of the chiefs" Big Tree (Victor Jory), his aging body visibly making tremendous effort to maintain the vertical position that his name suggests. The three go beneath a sharp vertical rock that looks like a totem to pray, while the rest of the tribe watch them, chanting. The entire sequence is choreographed to the simple rhythm of ceremonial drums.

Thus, already with the first sequence, Ford defines the rhythm and the style of his Cheyenne's long voyage home, even its structure and meaning — the entire film is a ritual, a ceremony commemorating the past and traditions. The Cheyenne's long, desperate and courageous march is not just a journey to a wealthier, happier land, but a ritual to regain their genuine sense of existence. As we will learn soon, they would even dare to die before actually reaching their homeland, as dying closer to their ancestral lands means they will be dying as better humans. Their entire journey will be a ritual to give a meaning to their own lives, which would be ruined if they stay in the government-imposed misery of the reservation.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964) has always been either disparaged, respectfully ignored, or defended for not being what it was expected to be, while almost never appreciated for what it really is. Ford's final western, in many ways a summation/conclusion to what he explored in his career, is not a powerful epic spectacle in a conventional entertainment sense that many have expected from the multiple-Oscar-winning master, nor is it successful as a simplistic, politically correct epic grieving for the noble red men, a 1964 forerunner of Dances with Wolves. The film itself dismisses that notion with a cynical, farcical montage on how the news of the Cheyenne's escape spread and became exaggerated across the American continent. A New York newspaper editor (Charles Seel) is seen hysterically complaining about all the papers telling the same story, that it's not "news" any more, and decrees that from now on their paper will "grieve for the noble red men," as the difference would make better sales.

The narrative of the film often doesn't directly address the Cheyenne, since its main protagonists are Archer (Richard Widmark), the reluctant cavalry officer ordered to pursue the Cheyenne, and Deborah (Carroll Baker), the Quaker woman who made the humanitarian choice of accompanying them and helping them even if there isn't too much she can do; "it shows that I am on their side" says Deborah to Archer, when the later tries to convince her that her choice is misguided and useless.

But while the film shows mostly the white Americans' reactions to the Cheyenne's march, the ceremonial presence of the Cheyenne nevertheless continuously haunts the entire film. With their presence Ford makes a final salute to his beloved Monument Valley, returning it to what it really is — a mythical monumental landscape that took Mother Nature 50 million years to create, a sacred meditative land, and freeing it from what it may have become — a touristic spot made famous by the movies.

Cheyenne Autumn

Monument Valley gives Cheyenne Autumn mystical and mythical, even apocalyptic vistas, but is certainly not there to give the film "realism." Standing in the landscape punctuated with the vertical and horizontal lines of the impressive rocks are the actors Ford chose to play the Cheyenne main roles, standing and walking straight with ceremonial gravity, not because they are wooden, but because they are part of the mystical landscape, as opposed to the uncomfortable out-of-place presence of the Caucasian Americans. The priest-like Cheyenne and their mythical landscape, framed within the horizontal aspect ratio, remind us of murals seen in ruins of ancient Egyptians or Greco-Roman temples, providing a stylized ceremonial background. They indeed function as what Ford allegedly intended: a chorus.

What does Cheyenne Autumn really tell us, by exposing against this poetic, ritualistic background the bureaucratic, self-preserving Major Braden (Walter Baldwin), the congressmen and senators who don't even show up to meet the Cheyenne "in order to rest up for the officer's ball tonight," the Washington politicians and army generals ("dollar patriots") crowding the office of Carl Schurz, pressuring the Department of Interior to make decisions in their economic favor, the thoughtless, revenge-obsessed Lieutenant Scott (Patrick Wayne), and Captain Wessels (Karl Malden), in whom respect for orders and authority have run insane? It is a harsh moral parable about an ethically decaying civilization, a corrupted society in which decency and ideals, the sense of community, of people helping each other, or even being able to think for themselves, are disappearing quickly, as people turn, not necessary "evil," but simply blind, vulgarly selfish, either stupidly greedy or forced to make self-preservation their first priority.

Cheyenne Autumn

Against the mythical background formed by Monument Valley and the ritualistic presence of the Cheyenne, Ford sees a tapestry of America which has lost almost all the ideals upon which it was supposed to be built, never realizing what it was supposed to achieve — what Ford himself once had believed in and expressed his love for through his earlier masterpieces such as the Will Rogers trilogy, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948), Wagon Master (1950), The Sun Shines Bright (1953), or even through his adaptation of Steinbeck's severely critical novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and his less euphoric, bitterer films like Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956).

The warmth and poetry of the community, which Ford used to depict so attractively, are now completely absent in the white American society, replaced by his bitter reflections on the corruption of America as it has become in reality. The bitter nostalgia of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is revisited here and crystallized through a conversation between Deborah and the two Cheyenne chiefs: they argue about whether the kids should continue her school or not. The two chiefs refuse, telling her that their children should not learn the language of lies. Deborah protests that they too speak English. In reply, the two noble Cheyenne say their English was learned when some white men still told the truth — a past that has disappeared, taken over by selfishness, blindness and dishonesty. The Cheyenne leave, in search of their truth, destroyed by the white men's lies.

The film criticizes the decadence of the American West, and, through that, the decadence of civilization, of which the few remaining decent members find themselves out of place. So they too have to start their journey. Deborah leaves to be on the side of the Cheyenne. The reluctant Archer commands the troops to follow their long flight, while Ford adds a sign of his out-of-placeness with his costuming; Archer wears an earth-colored Indian leather jacket over his blue uniform, and soon he changes his shirt to an orange one. The inhumanity and indecency to which America in general has degenerated are underlined in contrast by the small minority of people who still maintain their last grain of human decency — Archer, Deborah, the Polish immigrant Sergeant Wichowski (Mike Mazurki), who exclaims in his bitter drunkenness, "I was proud to be an American soldier, but I ain't proud to be a Cossack," and the Irish-born alcoholic Army surgeon Dr. O'Carberry (Sean McClory).

Cheyenne Autumn: Wichowski and Archer

Except for Archer, an officer with an Anglo-Saxon name, they are not only minorities in their opinions, they are ethnic or religious minorities — very typical for Ford, who always included minority people as positive figures in his films, himself being very consciously and openly Irish — the America Ford believed in was always true to its original project: a new home for various immigrants sharing the same community. But later in his career, his films become more and more conscious that this original project was never fulfilled — as Ford has described with profound sadness in Two Rode Together (1961). With a bitter nostalgia he analyzed why the idea failed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and especially in Cheyenne Autumn, he continues to explore that theme. In this regard, a sequence which is so often criticized for being out of place, so unpopular it was trimmed down then cut out eventually, "The Battle of Dodge City" becomes indeed crucial in Ford's structuring of Cheyenne Autumn.

Notoriously difficult for critics and interviewers, Ford rarely spoke of his intentions and always disguised his sensitivity behind pragmatic jokes and hard-nosed nonsense. For "The Battle of Dodge City" he pretended as if it were some sort of an intermission, a comic interlude. Nevertheless, what this seemingly odd sequence really represents in this film is indeed quite obvious — the citizens of Dodge City are the majority of the majority, the plain American citizens. And the sequence's functions become even more significant when we consider the progression of Ford's collaboration with James Stewart, who in a sense is replacing not only Henry Fonda but also John Wayne in the last phase of his career.

Cheyenne Autumn: Earp and Holliday

In the Ford-Stewart collaboration, "The Battle of Dodge City" is preceded by Two Rode Together and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — both dealing with the critical decomposition of the mythical yet realistic western hero, an archetype that Ford himself was partially responsible for creating, starting as early as Straight Shooting (1917). Although it is usually overlooked even by the most passionate of Ford fans, Ford himself dismissing it with "I didn't like the story, but I did it as a favor for Harry Cohn who was stuck with the project,"[1] special attention should be paid to Two Rode Together — for one thing, the mannerisms and costuming of James Stewart as Wyatt Earp very much resemble those of Stewart as Guthrie McCabe, with Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holliday replacing Widmark's cavalry lieutenant (and Widmark would be a captain in Cheyenne Autumn, wearing the same leather jacket) as his partner. The opulently decorated set of the saloon in Dodge City bears many similarities to that in the Tascosa of Two Rode Together, including a huge mirror behind the bar counter which serves to underline the meaning of both films — that his westerns are becoming deep and critical reflections on America's present status quo. Then there is Liberty Valance, the bitterest analytical and critical study of Ford's own heroic figures. In that context, Wyatt Earp in Cheyenne Autumn is not just representing the near mythical historical hero, or a self-referential presence (or parody) of the typical Fordian moral hero from My Darling Clementine, but the last "western hero" in the Ford canon, now doomed to become only a caricature of himself, a sinister reflection of what "heroes" used to be in the Fordian universe.

Triggered by the exaggerated tale told by a group of Texas cowhands, the whole town goes berserk, and even they cannot tell whether they are going to fight to protect themselves or just having a lunatic party. Food and alcoholic beverages are carelessly wasted, which reminds us of what we saw just before this farcical sequence — an apocalyptic long shot of the Cheyenne standing rigidly, nobly hiding their hunger, facing a plain covered with countless bones of buffalos, massacred by white hunters seeking not their meat but merely their hides.

This farcical sequence — which deliciously represents Ford's sensibility for outrageous slapstick humor and his perfect comedy timing — is out of place, because the people of Dodge City are definitely out of place. They don't belong to this West, nor to the tragic journey of the Cheyenne in search of their dignity, since they lack even the very concept of human decency and dignity. These corrupted Americans don't deserve to be there, therefore they must be presented as ridiculous, silly, and vulgarly aggressive as they must have been in reality, or as the American majority had become at the time Ford was making Cheyenne Autumn. And their becoming part of the film makes total sense: after all, why did the Cheyenne have to suffer so much? Whose interests were the inhuman bureaucratic government agents, politicians and generals representing?

Among all this, Earp the hero can only survive as a caricature of himself, hiding his cynical bitterness behind his nonchalant comical behaviors, just like Ford then: "As Ford sank into old age his public persona became more quarrelsome and obviously irresponsible",[2] writes Tag Gallagher, a description totally befitting how Earp seems to be in this sequence.

Earp is first seen as a reflection in the huge mirror behind the bar counter; The Battle of Dodge City sequence is a film within a film, a mirror reflecting the thematic structure of the drama Cheyenne Autumn, shown as a burlesque reverse angle. Its out-of-placeness is definitely intentional, its seeming shallowness critical, while the mirror-reflections are smuggled in to create both a depth in the frame and the genuine thematic reasons why this scene must be here; a reflection, a dark mirror image of the Cheyenne tragedy that the rest of the film depicts. And in Earp, Ford sees himself, as if he himself were looking in a mirror, seeing the way he pretends to be at this point of his life and of American history and of the historical changes of Hollywood. Stewart as Earp is secluding himself in the corner of the saloon, hiding himself in his routine gags, as Ford himself must have behaved at that point of his life — "I am John Ford, I make westerns," was for instance the only defense, a quite tormented one, that he could make against the HUAC pressures destroying the film-making community, pretending as if he were a hard-nose stubborn conservative old craftsman, when the themes his films treated since Fort Apache and especially since the late 1950s were becoming increasingly subversive, critical and bitter about American values, while in their styles boldly aiming at simplicity and abstraction, questioning the function of Hollywood genre cinema as a popular entertainment, like the long fixed shots on Stewart and Widmark obviously ad-libbing in Two Rode Together, as if they were not structured fictions but documentaristic observations on how two actors, or just two people, interact with each other. With Cheyenne Autumn he reaches the culmination of his challenges.

Even before this matured and most challenging period of his cinema, Ford's works have been split between the communal ideals of home and the righteousness of the individuals who either are standing against, or are leaving. Even with his most idyllic film about community, Young Mr. Lincoln, the community nevertheless turns aggressive against outsiders, trying to lynch the two brothers who are falsely accused of murder. It is only the individual, Abe (Henry Fonda), who can stand against the community's hysteria, thus preventing the community from killing the misunderstood innocents. At the end of the film, Ford refuses to show the crowd hailing Lincoln as would have been done in a normal conventional biography, and ends his film with the young hero leaving alone, walking away beyond the hills. Or in The Sun Shines Bright, while poetically embracing the warm values of the community, Ford didn't ignore the cruelty a community can assume, with the individual Judge Priest (Charles Winninger) being the only citizen to attend the funeral of a dead prostitute. In that film too, the judge walks with ceremonial dignity, alone, following the funeral coach.

Ford's films have been particularly skeptical about the so-called "civilized communities." Already in Stagecoach (1939), the marshal (George Bancroft) and the alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell) send off the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) and Dallas (Claire Trevor), saying, "They're saved from the blessings of civilization." It is the failure of the "progress" that destroyed the agricultural community and chased away the Joad family from their home in The Grapes of Wrath, or forced the elder brothers in How Green Was My Valley (1941) to leave their Welsh hometown — another film that embraces the values of the community, while observing its gradual decomposition. In both of these most popularly acclaimed classics of Ford's, the spiritual ties and ideals of the family and of the community are indeed enhanced precisely because of exile experiences. How Green Was My Valley begins with the adult Huw leaving his home town, with the memories of that home crystallized as immortal as he walks away. While the direct necessity of Tom leaving his mother in The Grapes of Wrath is that he is wanted for assault and chased by the police, he leaves not really because he is afraid of arrest, but far more because he finally has found his mission, overcoming his ex-con past, spiritually ready to work for the people. Ford decided to end his film there, at two thirds of Steinbeck's novel, thus immortalizing Tom's decision, crystallized in the image of him, again, walking away.

The cinema of John Ford is at the same time about the ideals of the home, and also about being out of place, about the necessity to leave, walking away, for a place where one can genuinely exist — or maybe it is solely in the act of leaving itself, in the action of the endless walking away, that Ford's heroes can be themselves. And in Cheyenne Autumn, the main action of the film is indeed the very act of the Cheyenne walking endlessly in the mythical wilderness of the Monument Valley.

Cheyenne Autumn: the march
Cheyenne Autumn: walking away

After the Dodge City interlude and an actual intermission following the sequence, the second half of Cheyenne Autumn turns increasingly minimalist. There are no more spectacular battle sequences like the two that were the highlight of the first part, featuring heavy artillery and plains covered with fire. The charmingly awkward romance between Archer and Deborah, so romanticized by splendid shafts of light illuminating the school house, is now reduced to a convenient plot device, while the plot itself, a bare-bones one to start with, is just the minimum possible to expose the situations and the issues involved.

Ford pushes his abstraction to the limits, throwing away any conventions of "realism," but not to create a "style." On the contrary, he avoids having a "style" and concentrates on the essence — visualizing the moral questions the situations impose on the protagonists. Cheyenne Autumn completely breaks conventional genre expectations for westerns; the great outdoors disappear, thrilling actions are reduced to a minimum. Instead of the glories of the frontier, or even the romanticism of "glory in defeat," the American audience of the time was forced to face a series of unpleasant, complex moral questions directly concerning themselves.

The spectacular vistas of the Monument Valley and the ritualistic noble walking of the Cheyenne give place to a series of discussions about morality, ethics, and responsibility, developing on simple and plainly decorated sets, often obviously shot on soundstages, as if "realism" or superficial authenticity simply didn't matter. When Wichowski makes his drunken speech, he is in his tent, Archer sits facing him on the other side of the table, the scene covered with only three eye-level camera positions.

There was a similar scene in the first half of the film, but on the Indian side and staged within a startling landscape with photogenic clouds, horses moving in the background; Little Wolf and Dull Knife discussing the problems regarding the latter's son, Red Shirt (Sal Mineo). They sit ceremonially behind a fire, exchanging their ceremonial pipe. While the direct issue is a mundane one, their conversation quickly becomes about the responsibilities of chiefs to their people, about ethics, about the dignity they must keep, and about their responsibility to each other as friends, whose relation is shaken not only because of Red Shirt, but also because Big Tree at his death left the sacred white bundle, sign of the chief of chiefs, to Little Wolf. They choose to speak in English so that the others won't hear, and while there is a certain personal grudge between the two, they do not to allow it to come on the surface — or maybe it's the English tongue foreign to them that prevent them from fully exposing their emotions. Whatever would be the reason (and suspecting and guessing "intentions" or "reasons" are meaningless when a Ford film is concerned — things are just there in front of the camera), Ford concentrates on their sense of responsibility, not on their personal anger or jealousy or feelings as most directors would at that period, when "emotional" and "realistic" method acting became a norm, Ford here is doing the complete reverse, making his characters converse as if reciting orally transmitted texts on moral codes.

The second half of Cheyenne Autumn seems to be fragmented at first glance. Each episode appears successively without the flow of a running plot, or a hero to carry the narrative, and seems to be disconnected from the others. But these fragments are meticulously connected by the point made clear with each debate, forming a complex web of thoughts and questions on morality and responsibility. That web as a whole doesn't ask us to be "heroes," as there are no such characters in Cheyenne Autumn. Instead it just asks "what are you gonna do about it?" (as Archer and O'Carberry ask each other when Wessels orders the Cheyenne placed in a freezing warehouse) and shows that some people, for whatever reason, can redefine themselves and become better, in face of hardships and overwhelming challenges. By destroying the logical chronology, the film has already shown that Archer, O'Carberry, and Schurz have taken these personal initiatives, and they should matter.

Cheyenne Autumn: Archer and Schurz

In the progression of the minimalist abstraction and of the moral debates that the second half of Cheyenne Autumn really is, a screen-processed shot can be, not a flaw, but a culmination. True, the Victory Cave scene, with the body of Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson) matted in, looks so artificially cooked up to the point of looking phony. (Spencer Tracy was originally signed to play Schurz but had a heart attack and couldn't do his scene on location in Monument Valley, originally scheduled in November 1963. The scene was done in January 1964 with Robinson replacing Tracy, when the production could not afford to go back on location in deep winter - hence, the compromise of doing it on a screen-process stage at Paramount Studios, on Gower Street in Hollywood.) The problem here is not only that the processed shots make the sequence look distinctly odd even in comparison to the barren artificiality of Fort Robinson, or the opulent colorfulness of the Washington scenes — here, all of a sudden, the perspective is destroyed, as the processed background simply doesn't match the live-action foreground. Instead of conversing in front of a regiment of soldiers, Schurz and Archer look as if they were talking to the Cheyenne in front of an image of soldiers — an abstract representation of an idea of soldiers. The editing also feels quite odd: we see the backs of a lined-up cavalry troupe for a while, hearing the sound of Schurz and Archer dismounting. Though Scott and his cavalry are also present in the scene, with their shot done on location, we simply cannot figure out where these cavalrymen are lined up. The whole thing looks as if the film entered into another level of abstraction. Schurz suddenly taking such an important part also feels quite odd. Originally, Schurz was to have a larger function in the script; with Archer he was going to share the voice-overs explaining the situations. But in the final film his role is minimized into a few inserted scenes, like the one in which he nails down the hypocrisy of the "nothing personal in our proposed legislature" of the senators, and then suddenly this one.

Cheyenne Autumn: Schurz and Lincoln

Who is this Carl Schurz whom we see in the film? Who has Archer become, at his crucial intervention to save the Cheyenne? Indeed, what is this sequence, really? The easiest interpretation is that Schurz is a deus ex machina, a gimmick to give the film a positive end. The historical Carl Schurz (1829-1906) was a general in the Civil War, then became a statesman advocating for freedom, human rights and peace. But he had never gone west to meet the Cheyenne chiefs; he was scarcely involved in this whole affair. Nevertheless he was a German immigrant, thus can make a good balance with the negative portrayal of Wessels as a German archetype, and also a minority in WASP America, called in his time "America's most celebrated citizen of foreign birth," and was indeed a friend of Lincoln. All these make him ideal for the role of bringing peace and save the Cheyenne. Schurz is a deus ex machina, but not in a conventional sense, a convenient device to introduce a conveniently desirable ending to the public, thus hiding the problem. The Victory Cave sequence functions in the contrary way; it is there to point out that what should have happened, what could have happened (since, as Hannah Arendt wrote, the Final Solution "did not happen everywhere"), never happened and could not happen in America, hence illuminating the problem.

Earlier in the film, when Archer meets Schurz, he describes what happened to the Cheyenne at Fort Robinson, saying, "'Murdered' is the right word."

Schurz: And you'd like me to do something about it.

Archer: Sir, I only know what those Cheyenne have gone through. If the people had seen it, they wouldn't have liked it.

Schurz: The people.? 

Now, in this meeting of the representatives of their respective peoples, Dull Knife presents Schurz with one condition, in the form of a question. 

Schurz: I am sure the people of this country will understand and will agree, when they hear the facts.

Dull Knife: The people. Who will tell them? Who will tell the people. about Fort Robinson?  

Schurz responds, "I will. I promise you." Of course, that promise was never fulfilled by any governmental officials, as this conversation never happened in reality. But in a very strange way it was fulfilled, some 85 years later in 1964, or right now — and not by Carl Schurz but by John Ford, the filmmaker whose heartfelt obligation, as his professional ethics told him, was to tell this to his people.

While "The Battle of Dodge City" was a film within a film, here we are witnessing a film outside of the film, certainly not a realistic one, but a metaphysical film — hence the oddness of its fragmented, disconnected look. It is not only an abstract fiction illuminating the lessons of the story, it is also here to show what the film is; Cheyenne Autumn tells the people "about Fort Robinson" (Dull Knife), something that "if the people have seen, they wouldn't have liked" (Archer). Cheyenne Autumn is both a classical, pre-romantic narrative, and a profoundly modernist and even post-modernist narrative. Wyatt Earp seen first in the mirror in Dodge City was in a sense Ford himself, a reflection of his public persona. Carl Schurz seen reflected in a portrait of Lincoln is John Ford the artist, asking his "old friend" what he should do to fulfill his social and moral responsibility as an artist — to tell his people.

The perhaps most ambiguous scene of this already mysterious film appears at its very end — the killing of Red Shirt by Little Wolf. The execution nails down that we don't yet understand the Cheyenne culture, that we don't have access to their "insides," that we should keep our respectful distance, and not judge them from our own values.

Obviously, something must be done to Red Shirt, who stole one of Little Wolf's wives, has created many problems because of his thoughtless aggressiveness, firing the first shot when confronting the cavalry, etc. From the narrative point of view, it would have looked odd if we didn't see what happens to him and his lover. Also, the whole episode was taken from historical facts; that conflict really happened among the historical Northern Cheyenne. But then, it is also quite distorted and fictionalized. That murder actually took place in a trading post, the murderer being drunk, while the woman in question was his daughter, not his wife.

Ford stages it as a ritual of sacrifice to restore the morality of the community, to restore harmony and avoid further conflicts; the law of the Cheyenne prescribes that who has shed the blood of another Cheyenne cannot hold the sacred white bundle, symbol of the chief of chiefs. Little Wolf passes that to Dull Knife, and leaves. He was a war chief, which was why Big Tree entrusted his people to him during the journey. Now that they have returned, the journey ended, the time to kill and the time to cast stones, the time for war is over. Little Wolf has fulfilled his duty. It is now the time to live, to restore peace — the responsibility of Dull Knife.

Still, it's an odd choice for Ford to place such a disturbingly ambiguous scene at the end of a film about the heroic journey to attain the rich, peaceful homeland, to intercept the harmony with such a shocking scene of violence, ending with the image of a mother mourning over the body of her son.[3] This is, honestly, too mysterious to figure out. Maybe Ford didn't want to give the film a fully happy ending, showing that they returned home and lived happily ever after. Dull Knife and Spanish Woman stay, mourning the death of their sons and the many deaths that happened during their forced exile in the reservation and the journey. One thing for sure; the wounds caused by the careless selfish government policies and by "progress" are not so easily healed.

Cheyenne Autumn: H-O-M-E

Ford ends his farewell to the West with two appropriate and symbolic shots. First: Deborah and Archer bring the wounded little girl to the home of the Cheyenne. The two women repeat to each other "H-O-M-E, home" in English, as if Ford still dared to express a grain of hope or were suggesting an alternative way of how a relation between his America and the Indians could be established (something America in reality has failed at). The little girl runs out of frame, comes back, they hug each other, then she leaves. Deborah stands up; Archer, who has been watching over them, gently holds her shoulder. She is now dressed in a simple and elegant pale-green dress, much more sensual than the gray or beige Quaker clothing she used to wear, suggesting that the journey made her richer as a woman, now wholly sure of herself, not as the holder of a religious obligation, but as an individual.

Second: Little Wolf leaves beyond the horizon. He, like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, is not the man to stay, but a warrior to wander. The warrior leaves, as warriors did in many of Ford's westerns. But here there is a difference. At the end of My Darling Clementine, Wyatt says goodbye to Clementine. Ethan Edwards, alone, disappears behind the closing door. At the end of Cheyenne Autumn, we see two silhouettes leaving together — Little Wolf and his wife. They, together, will continue their journey, not a journey to find just a place to live, which for them has never been the meaning of this long voyage home. They are leaving to continue the journey in search of themselves, to define themselves, their silhouettes crystallized in the stunning beauty of a sunset. We are reminded here: the first shot was the dawn.

Cheyenne Autumn: The End

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Warner Brothers Special Collection at the University of Southern California-Cinema/TV Library and its chief curator, Stuart Ng, for letting me view the scripts and production documents of Cheyenne Autumn. Also Chris Fujiwara for discussing and sharing ideas about Ford. These reflections on Cheyenne Autumn started as part of the making of my documentary film Fence, on which Cheyenne Autumn is among the key influences.

Toshi Fujiwara




bullet. # 7 (1.2011)
bullet. # 6 (4.2010)
bullet. # 5 (5.2009)
bullet. # 4 (10.2008)
bullet. # 3 (11.2006)
bullet. # 2 (7.2006)
bullet. # 1 (4.2006)


issue #5 (5.2009)

bullet. John Ford
bullet. Gerald Peary
bullet. Jem Cohen
bullet. Jeonju
bullet. Mona
bullet. Edition Filmmuseum
bullet. Frankly My Dear