Few directors killed off more Native Americans in his films than John Ford. Near the end of his career in 1964, Ford made what many have called an apology to the American Indian, an attempt to right 50 years of prejudicial film making. The truth is, Ford’s film were not so much racially stereotyped toward Indians, as that they simply told the story from the settlers/cavalry point of view. The Indians in his classic films such as The Searchers and Fort Apache were always brave, ferocious warriors, a worthy adversary to John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
In Cheyenne Autumn, Ford told the story from the other side. It was well intentioned, but unfortunately suffered from spotty storytelling. The films is great in parts, those dealing with white characters studies such as Karl Malden as the psychotic fort commander and Jimmy Stewart with a nice turn as Wyatt Earp. But what really killed the film was bad casting. In the first major motion picture to give a sympathetic portrayal of the First Americans, Ford loaded up the leads with Hispanics and Italians. Take a look at the trailer and prepare to be appalled. The worst maybe Sal Mineo, a fine actor, but every time you see him, you wonder when James Dean and Natalie Wood are going to show up. Look for Richardo “Khan” Montalban as well. The movie bombed at the box office.
Though I found the movie above average years ago and am a huge fan of Ford, I find the scenes with the Native characters exceptionally difficult to watch these days. The film was gorgeously made, with wonderful Western vistas. It’s just too bad they couldn’t have filled it with the people who lived there. On the plus side, Cheyenne Autumn laid the groundwork for later films like Little Big Man and a host of others that did it better.