#60 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This honestly needed a page one rewrite. Apparently born of some college research Richard Widmark did and offered up to John Ford years before, the story of the Cheyenne trek from the Southwest back to the Dakotas is a movie without a center. The actual story belongs to the Cheyenne making the trek, but I would assume that studio executives balked at the idea of funding a Western epic with only Cheyenne characters as the main characters, or maybe Ford felt like he couldn’t tell the story of the Cheyenne himself. He needed a crutch in the form of a cavalry officer through which to see the story. Whatever the reason, though, the central point gets muddled to no end, eventually introducing some thematic ideas about duty to orders made from ignorance that would have also been a nice central idea. Instead, it’s a split film, never able to fully dedicate itself to a single concept, but at least Ford still knew how to make a movie.
In Oklahoma Territory, the remnants of the Cheyenne nation await a delegation from Washington DC to negotiate the terms of the treaty that was broken and left the Indians fifteen hundred miles from their home. When the DC delegation doesn’t even bother to show up, their chief, Tall Tree (Victor Jory), makes the decision to simply take his people back. Ordered to bring them back is Captain Thomas Archer (Widmark), an officer who feels sympathy for the Cheyenne and their plight. There’s also a Quaker woman, Deborah (Carroll Baker), who has been teaching the Cheyenne orphans to read and speak English who decides to go with the Cheyenne when they sneak out in the night.
Once the Cheyenne cross the river that marks the northern boundary of the reservation, Archer, encouraged by his commanding officer, Major Braden (George O’Brien), must attack the Cheyenne position. However, when Braden is killed in the fight, Archer takes command and loses the ensuing battle when his lieutenant Scott (Patrick Wayne) launches an unauthorized and ill-advised attack on the left flank that the Cheyenne easily fight off. This gives the Cheyenne the time to get away, starting a hundreds mile chase through the wilderness of the West up through Nebraska.
One of the interesting ideas that simply doesn’t get enough screentime (indicative to me of a story trying its best to include as much of the history as possible whether it fits the story dramatically or not) is that the newspapers of the day operated on rumor, conjecture, and outright lies to help either incite or encourage sympathy for people. We get little vignettes further back east with newspaper men angrily shouting that they’re changing their coverage simply to be different from everyone else to help sell more newspapers.
And then there’s what could simply be described as an extended comedic sketch set in Dodge City, Kansas where Wyatt Earp (Jimmy Stewart) plays cards with Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) and Jeff Blair (John Carradine), talks with people about the news of the Cheyenne, tries to remember if he had actually ever met the pretty Ms. Plantagenet (Elizabeth Allen), and then organizes a loosely knit band of militia when news reaches them that the Cheyenne were heading towards Dodge City with every intention of raping and pillaging. Earp takes them in the exact opposite direction to comedic effect. This was apparently designed by Ford as a sort of Intermission since the film was already kind of long (though without it, the movie would probably only be about 140 minutes which isn’t that long).
Then the film gets serious again as the Cheyenne must get through an army blockade around a railroad, and the nation splits in two in the snow as the two heirs to Tall Tree, after his death, decide on different paths. Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) wants to keep going to the Dakotas and their ancestral home while Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) wants to give up at the nearest army fort to find food and shelter from the wilderness. This conflict of visions would have been a great thing to build this whole movie on, you know?
We end up following Dull Knife to Fort Robinson, commanded by Captain Wessels (Karl Malden, complete with odd accent that seems to be Russian). Archer shows up immediately afterwards, and then we get another idea that would have been great to build the film on: the question of following orders from those with no real knowledge of the facts on the ground. Wessels has orders to put the Cheyenne under restraint, so he locks them all up in a warehouse. Archer sees this as inhumane, especially when combined with the idea that Wessels will follow his orders strictly and send them right back south in the middle of winter, all but guaranteeing their deaths. Archer takes two weeks leave to go to Washington where he meets the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson), to let him know of the situation.
The finale of the film is the set up to a battle between the Cheyenne who have escaped and met up with their other half further north and the army, stopped by the sudden arrival of Archer and Schurz. They negotiate a peace that allows the Cheyenne to stay. Oh, and then we have a finale where Little Wolf kills Dull Knife’s son because he had stolen one of Little Wolf’s wives, and then Archer and Deborah probably get married because, why not?
Really, this did need a page one rewrite. Focus on either the Cheyenne or Archer, or extend this at least another half hour (sans Wyatt Earp comedic interlude), and give it the full epic treatment while finding a way to contrast the duty of Little Wolf to his people and deceased leader with the duty of Archer to his government.
Also, recast Archer. I really dislike Richard Widmark as a leading man. He’s a charisma vacuum with a single scowl that represents the outer edges of his acting range. He has no affable charm like John Wayne. He’s just grating. The rest of the cast is largely quite good, though. Malden, for all his silly accent, really just needs more time with his character, going somewhat mad with his orders bumping up against his conscience. Baker is soulful and concerned as the good Quaker woman dedicated to the most vulnerable of a vulnerable population. Montalban plays Little Wolf with an inner strength appropriate to a character who refuses to break. It’s also nice to see some of the reliable acting troupe of Ford’s popping up like Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson as a pair of troopers. Edward G. Robinson brings gravitas to his role as the Secretary, even if his health forced the final negotiation to look fake because he couldn’t go on location.
The end result, the movie I actually have instead of the one I imagine in my head, is a mixed bag of half-formed and abandoned ideas with beautiful cinematography, largely solid acting, and a couple of exciting action sequences. Also, for how starkly the Wyatt Earp sequence clashes with the more serious film around it, it is pretty amusing.