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Cheyenne Autumn

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Cheyenne Autumn
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Screenplay byJames R. Webb
Based onSuggested by Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz
Produced byBernard Smith
StarringRichard Widmark
Carroll Baker
Karl Malden
Sal Mineo
Dolores del Río
Ricardo Montalbán
Gilbert Roland
Arthur Kennedy
James Stewart
Edward G. Robinson
CinematographyWilliam Clothier
Edited byOtho Lovering
Music byAlex North
A John Ford - Bernard Smith Production
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • October 3, 1964 (1964-10-03)
Running time
154 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3,500,000 (US/ Canada rentals)[1]

Cheyenne Autumn is a 1964 American epic Western film starring Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, James Stewart, and Edward G. Robinson. It tells the story of a factual event, the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878–79, told in "Hollywood style" using a great deal of artistic license. The film was the last western directed by John Ford, who proclaimed it an elegy for the Native Americans who had been abused by the U.S. government and misrepresented by many of the director's own films. With a budget of more than $4 million, the film was relatively unsuccessful at the box office and failed to earn a profit for its distributor Warner Bros.[2]


In 1878, Chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife lead over three hundred starved and weary Cheyenne Indians from their reservation in the Oklahoma Territory to their former traditional home in Wyoming. The U.S. government sees this as an act of rebellion, and the sympathetic Captain Thomas Archer of the U.S. Army is forced to lead his troops in an attempt to stop the tribe. As the press misrepresents the natives' motives and goals for their trek as malicious, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz, tries to prevent violence from erupting between the Army and the natives.

Opening scene narrated by Richard Widmark[edit]

"The beginning of a day. September 7th, 1878. It dawned like any other day on the Cheyenne reservation... in that vast barren land in the American Southwest... which was then called Indian Territory.

But this wasn't just another day to the Cheyenne. Far from their homeland... as out of place in this desert as eagles in a cage... their three great chiefs prayed over the sacred bundle... that at last, the promises made to them... when the white man sent them here more than a year ago... would today be honored. The promises that had led them to give up their own way of life... in their own green and fertile country, 1500 miles to the north."



Uncredited (in order of appearance)
Walter Baldwin Quaker elder Jeremy Wright, Deborah Wright's uncle
Bing Russell Telegraph operator sharing coffee with Captain Archer
Ben Johnson Trooper Plumtree who is told by Archer to check for visiting congressmen
Harry Carey Jr. Trooper Smith, whom Archer calls "Jones" and then "Brown"
Chuck Hayward Trooper
David Humphreys Miller Trooper
Bill Williams Trooper
Carleton Young Aide to Carl Schurz
Charles Seel New York Globe publisher
Denver Pyle One-armed senator whom Carl Schurz addresses as "Henry"
William Forrest Senator visiting Carl Schurz
Shug Fisher Skinny, cattle drive trail boss; also in Dodge City
Chuck Roberson Cattle drover; also in Dodge City
Jeannie Epper Entertainer in Dodge City with Miss Plantagenet
Harry Strang Bartender in Dodge City
Charles Morton Bartender in Dodge City
Joe Brooks Bartender in Dodge City
Harry Hickox Bartender in Dodge City
John Qualen Svenson, townsman in Dodge City
Philo McCullough Townsman in Dodge City
Rudy Bowman Townsman in Dodge City
Mae Marsh Townswoman in Dodge City
William Henry Infantry captain in the fort before Fort Robinson
James Flavin Sergeant of the Guard in Fort Robinson
Walter Reed Lieutenant Peterson in Fort Robinson
Montie Montana Trooper in Fort Robinson
Jack Williams Trooper in Fort Robinson
Ted Mapes Trooper in Fort Robinson
Willis Bouchey Colonel at Victory Cave whose orders are challenged by Carl Schurz



John Ford long wanted to make a movie about the Cheyenne exodus. As early as 1957, he wrote a treatment with his son Patrick Ford, envisioning a small-scale drama with non-professional Indian actors. Early drafts of the script drew on Howard Fast's novel The Last Frontier. However, the film ultimately took its plot and title from Mari Sandoz's Cheyenne Autumn, which Ford preferred due to its focus on the Cheyenne. Elements of Fast's novel remain in the finished film, namely the character of Captain Archer (called Murray in the book), the depiction of Secretary Carl Schurz and the Dodge City, Kansas scenes.[3]

Reluctantly abandoning the docudrama idea, Ford wanted Anthony Quinn and Richard Boone to play Dull Knife and Little Wolf as well-known actors with some Indian ancestry. He also suggested Afro-Indigenous actor Woody Strode for a role. The studio insisted on Ford's casting Ricardo Montalbán and Gilbert Roland.[4]


The film was photographed in Super Panavision 70 by William Clothier, whose work was nominated for an Academy Award. Gilbert Roland earned a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.


The original version was 158 minutes, Ford's longest work. Warner Bros. later decided to edit the "Dodge City" sequence out of the film, reducing the running time to 145 minutes, although it was shown in theaters during the film's initial release. This sequence features James Stewart as Wyatt Earp and Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holliday. Some critics have argued that this comic episode, mostly unrelated to the rest of an otherwise serious movie, breaks the flow of the story.[5][6] It was later restored for the VHS and subsequent DVD releases.

Shooting locations[edit]

Much of the film was shot in Monument Valley Tribal Park on the Arizona-Utah border, where Ford had filmed scenes for many of his earlier films, especially Stagecoach and The Searchers. Parts of the film also were shot at the San Juan River at Mexican Hat, Professor Valley, Castle Valley, the Colorado River, Fisher Canyon, and Arches in Utah.[7] Although the principal tribal leaders were played by Ricardo Montalbán and Gilbert Roland (as well as Dolores del Río and Sal Mineo in major roles), Ford again used numerous members of the Navajo tribe in this production.

Native language issue[edit]

Ford used Navajo people to portray the Cheyenne. Dialogue that is supposed to be in the "Cheyenne language" is actually Navajo. This made little difference to white audiences, but for Navajo communities the film became very popular because the Navajo actors were openly using ribald and crude language that had nothing to do with the film. For example, during the scene where the treaty is signed, the chief's solemn speech just pokes fun at the size of the colonel's penis. Some academics now consider this an important moment in the development of Native Americans' identity because they are able to mock Hollywood's historical interpretation of the American West.[8]


The reviews were mixed. Bosley Crowther, critic for The New York Times, praised it highly, calling it "a beautiful and powerful motion picture that stunningly combines a profound and passionate story of mistreatment of American Indians with some of the most magnificent and energetic cavalry-and-Indian lore ever put upon the screen."[5] He was disappointed, however, that after the humorous (if "superfluous") Dodge City sequence, "the picture does not rise again to its early integrity and authenticity", and the climax is "neither effective and convincing drama nor is it faithful to the novel".[5] The New Yorker's Richard Brody cited the "rueful, elegiac grandeur of John Ford's final Western".[9]

Variety disagreed, however, calling it "a rambling, episodic account" in which "the original premise of the Mari Sandoz novel is lost sight of in a wholesale insertion of extraneous incidents which bear little or no relation to the subject."[10] The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann wrote "the acting is bad, the dialogue trite and predictable, the pace funereal, the structure fragmented, the climaxes puny".[11]

The September 1965 issue of MAD satirized it as "Cheyenne Awful."[12]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Award nominations[edit]

Documentary short[edit]

Before the release of Cheyenne Autumn, a 19-minute documentary, Cheyenne Autumn Trail, was put into production. Narrated by James Stewart, the short featured clips from the feature, recounting the historical events depicted in the film, depicting memorials to Little Wolf and Dull Knife and presenting life on the reservation in 1964 for descendants of the Cheyenne who participated in the Northern Cheyenne Exodus. Cheyenne Autumn Trail is included as an extra feature on the Cheyenne Autumn DVD issued in 2006.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This figure consists of anticipated rentals accruing distributors in North America. See "Big Rental Pictures of 1965", Variety, 5 January 1966 p 6
  2. ^ Wilson, Joshua (August 5, 2016). "CHEYENNE AUTUMN: A SAD STORY OF GOOD INTENTIONS". F for Films / essays on the movies by Joshua Wilson. Retrieved September 1, 2019.
  3. ^ McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. pp. 644–646.
  4. ^ McBride 652
  5. ^ a b c Crowther, Bosley (December 24, 1964). "Cheyenne Autumn (1964)". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Schwartz, Dennis (January 2, 2006). "A big mess". Ozus' World Movie Reviews. Archived from the original on July 30, 2012. Retrieved September 9, 2013.
  7. ^ D'Arc, James V. (2010). When Hollywood came to town: a history of moviemaking in Utah (1st ed.). Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. ISBN 9781423605874.
  8. ^ Real, Michael R. (1996). Exploring Media Culture: A Guide. SAGE. p. 271. ISBN 0803958773.
  9. ^ Brody, Richard (December 17, 2012). "Cheyenne Autumn". The New Yorker.
  10. ^ "Review: "Cheyenne Autumn"". Variety. December 31, 1964.
  11. ^ Kaufmann, Stanley (1968). A world on Film. Delta Books. p. 169.
  12. ^ "Doug Gilford's Mad Cover Site - Mad #97".
  13. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on July 16, 2011. Retrieved August 19, 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)

External links[edit]