I’ve been waiting to re-watch John Ford‘s apology for the/his depiction of Native Americans on-screen. Taking the events of the Trail of Tears (1878) that saw the Southern Cheyenne exit their reservation at Fort Robinson after having lived there for a year, waiting for more food and supplies to arrival after a group of Senators who were to see the condition of the reservation, barren, lifeless, unable to really support live. We’re told that originally over a thousand arrived, now just over 200 have survived that first year. This is the premise of the film, the rest is history. Ford took on the massive task of depicting this event in the genre that usually sees the Native American, either Apache, Cheyenne or Comanche, nations who stood up for themselves in the sight of the spreading settlers over the course of the 19th century. We know that one by one the nations tired, weak and hungry gave in and moved onto reservations after a series of unique events that would becoming the next chapter in their history.
Having read Dee Brown’s take on the event in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which I surprisingly have recently read is accepted by Native Americans, all but the fact it didn’t say they survived to tell the tale to future generations. Which gives my exploration of their history something concrete to build upon. I can see my readings and then reflect them into the film adaptations. I’m taking in Cheyenne Autumn as my next film in that journey.
A few weeks ago I caught Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which was the first apologetic film that Ford made, placing the African-American soldier at the centre of the film, in a court room setting, not the strongest of films, not helped by its setting. Also feeling awkward being told in flashback which is more unusual still for him. Then followed the much heavier Two Rode Together (1961) which is lost to the conversations and the ideas it deals with. Coming to Cheyenne Autumn we have an epic on our hands, which is fair when you look at the subject matter that’s being dealt with. I have to admit it is deeply flawed in many ways which I want explore in my revisited review of his third and final apology that attempts to depict the events in a more favorable light. If another director were to take the material it would than likely be abandoned or even completely rewritten to show the Cheyenne as the antagonist not the protagonist, or even the obstacle.
So where do I begin, well the biggest and most obvious flaw is the waste of 30 minutes spent in Dodge City, where we have some comedy courtesy of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) who act as the comic relief, intended to take the edge off the heavy material at the centre of the film. A mass migration of people across open country to their homeland, I can see where Ford is coming from, the audience wouldn’t be used to seeing such content, even more so in Super Panavision 70mm which leaving the audience with nowhere to be distracted, the images plastered from the top to the bottom of the screen. The comedy is an unnerving, unnecessary and ultimately distracting really. You have real human drama playing out in Ford’s mythic West – Monument Valley lines of cavalry and Cheyenne moving across it, retelling this event from history. 50 years since release the comedy has lost its impact, if there was any to be had, it’s all played up clichés which Ford is honestly better than. It shows he was unsure about the content standing on its own, drawing in an audience for a different kind of Western. With big names such as Stewart is a sure sign you’ll get some through the doors. Here he’s just having a good time,you could say, just picking up a cheque and going on after a few days on set. I know that’s not what I want to type and you don’t want to read. Ford is or has lost his touch here which can be seen elsewhere.
The basic structure of the events are correct, a year on the reservation before packing up and wanting to live with the Northern Cheyenne who were living with the Sioux under Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation, with a few events in between that are more or less correct, others mixed around for drama, whilst others are added for pure effect. For once the nation leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife are based on the actual Cheyenne that lead the exodus North. Played here by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland both originally from Mexican, where the film starts to fall down. The main parts are played by non-natives playing native roles in a pro-native film. Also we have the lazily named Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio) who really should have had more care given in developing her character. Was she a Mexican captive, or did she marry in of her own choice. Instead we here her called upon by Deborah White (Carroll Baker) the Quaker sympathiser who travels with them.
Baker’s role is allowing the audience into this group who are traveling across the open country (or going around in circles of Monument Valley (which isn’t too bad)), the audience’s supposed to understand the Cheyenne plight through the white voice who has supported them on the reservation and now acting as nurse to one of the young injured travellers. Her name is reminiscent of the female captive Debbie (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers (1956) we are getting an internal understanding of how the other is thinking. Ford not matter how much he is loosing his touch is still putting small links to his rich filmography.
Away from the trail we have the U.S cavalry who are all other place in terms of the side they take. We mainly follow Captain Archer (Richard Widmark) who is taking on the 20th century thinker or Captain Kirby (John Wayne) from Fort Apache and Rio Grande (1948 and 1950) who wanted to talk to the other instead of going in bugles blazing. Interestingly John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne plays the Colonel Thursday role – 2nd Lt. Scott, or could he be an extension of Ethan Edwards in another life, his son wanting to avenge his father. There are other links to the Cavalry trilogy that carry on throughout the film, even further back to Stagecoach (1939). We have a director using all his familiar characters in this very unusual Western from a man who is trying his best to make the subject matter relatable to an audience who are by now used to something far more cerebral than this far darker subject.
My first experience with this film came at the comedy break, my interest was pricked up. The second time around I saw the film more for what it is, a very different kind of Western, Ford having a conscience for a body of work that has depicted a nation in a poor light. Even if he employed them in several of his films. Now I see a flawed yet rich film of a director who is no longer in his prime, his last great film – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was not yet celebrated as it is today. He’s putting his all into what could be a last ditch effort at greatness which could have been if only he was more sure of his instincts. He’s not so much hitting racism head on, more trying to say whilst we were making this great country, another was being lost. He half achieves that goal. If I could re-cut and recast the film in places maybe we would have another masterpiece on our hands.
Now I have to be honest, I never thought I’d be reviewing Captain Apache (1971), if anything I thought I’d have been ruthless and stopped watching it before the end. I even thought this was another Spaghetti Western. I am once again proven wrong, it’s a British shot and produced western that has the look of a Spaghetti Western, however maybe that’s purely on the aesthetics, it doesn’t have the richness of colours or the budget, not even the violence, sure people are shot every ten minutes or so, yet there is no blood, which Italian directors were not afraid to use and to excess sometimes. We don’t have the vocal dubbing either so we lose the out of sync dialogue in places. If anything its a low-budget entry into the genre during its period of falling out of favor with the public.
This is one of those rare British Westerns that (attempts to) follow in the footsteps of our Italian counterparts, with British restraint on the violence (maybe a budget issue), we have a star actor (Lee Van Cleef) surrounded by a practically unknown supporting cast. With exception to Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman who have starred in a few westerns themselves. Here they have larger parts in the decidedly dodgy Western, which I’ll explain below.
The very title is today very controversial, Captain Apache a captain in the U.S. Army who is sometimes called a “Red Ass”, a derogatory term in the film and even more so today. Played with Van Cleef minus is signature tash that really makes the actors red make-up stand out even more. If he hadn’t shaved off the old tash we wouldn’t be recognise him as easily. A complete reverse of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) for which he grew one especially, only to be told to shave it. Recognition was more important for the director and his audience, that is lost here, which takes a while to get used to.
I’ve never been happy, well no one is with the “redding-up” of white actors and this is no exception really, thankfully I have more to keep me occupied than the make-up. The plot is very disjointed, I wouldn’t say confusing as there’s not much of a plot. We follow Captain Apache and his soldiers who actually follow the Native American’s orders without question, they don’t even talk behind his back, they respect him to our knowledge. We are seeing the other, the enemy who has been fully assimilated into the white mans world. If that’s a good thing or not is another matter. It’s the people who are not in uniform who have a hard time accepting the Apache’s position in society. Historically they would never have put on the uniform of a Blue-coat which really takes this film into the realm of fantasy, history’s thrown aside for pure danger and drama.
Moving away from the depiction of the Apache we have a plot that really take a longtime to get going. We have the army investigating something about “April Morning” the last words by the Indian commissioner (not clearly mentioned), is this code for something, is April a person, for a while I thought it was Carroll Baker‘s character Maude who takes on the role of the prostitute and tacked on at the end, old love interest of the captains. We also have Stuart Whitman‘s Griffin whose hot on the trail also with his men that drop like flies around the captain. Its an odd murder investigation for sure as we just seem to get little bits of information.
For me it doesn’t make much sense, so why did I continue watching this bizarre unstructured western that tries to be a Spaghetti Western. I guess part of me was just curious to see what weird and wonderful things would happen. Maybe it was the final train sequence when everything comes together as people disappear and reappear in an assassination attempt, even then it doesn’t really make sense as the U.S. army come to the rescue out of nowhere. It’s an interesting mess of a British Western that tries to live up to others who have already made a distinctive mark on the genre.
For Christmas 2014 I received a book that I’ve only just finished (I’m a slow reader) Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris, the focus of the book on the journeys and events surrounding five directors who gave up their careers to document the war. Namely John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler. Who all did their bit for their country, driving the message home that there was a war going on. Men were away from home fighting for freedom. I was making connections between the directors experience and later works, especially that of William Wyler who came away practically deafened in the name of filming the conflict for audiences back home and in uniform. His last completed documentary being Thunderbolt (1947) released after the war to the public. Only able to hear via a hearing aid and only just His adjustment back to civilian life was hard, needing to find subjects that reflected his experiences. His last civilian effort – Mrs Miniver (1942) may have been a winner at the awards yet for him it lacked the reality of real warfare. I personally left that film, uplifted, experience a classic war film on the home-front, even though made across in Hollywood. Maybe it was the actors who made it, maybe it was the on-screen comradely. The general public doesn’t go in looking for accuracy, they go for escapism and that’s what Mrs Miniver was and still is.
His first film back in civilian life The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) sees a grounding in his working, looking at those soldiers who have to return to the lives they left behind. As if they are stuck in a moment in time, whilst the rest of the world carries on. I want to seek out this film to understand it more. However what I want to talk about is a film that I haven’t seen in some time – The Big Country (1958) from a director who made very few westerns in his career. This one stands out in the genre, it has a universal quality to it. The sweeping iconic score from Jerome Moross who is much forgotten himself over the vast landscape where this bold Western plays out.
So where does the rawness come into The Big Country? that’s what I wanted to know, where are his experience of life on the screen. I have to look at this film from the point of view of the director not so much the characters which act more like vessels for himself. Each different aspects of his life. The open country that is so breathtaking for us to eat up is a reflection of the land of opportunity that Wyler came too in the early 1930’s when he escaped Nazi Germany before it could have killed him. Entering into the middle of cattle country, the big-business of the 19th century, of course a mirror of 2oth centuries being film. James McKay (Gregory Peck) is the outsider who has live a life in the refined East, and on-board sailing ships, a gentlemen entering a world that is alien to him, and where the meaning of being a man is very different, bringing with him some 20th century ideas as we find out. Coming out West to marry the woman Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) he met whilst she was out in his world. He is making a massive sacrifice to literally leave his world behind him for the rugged outdoors.
His manhood’s tested not long after his arrival in the form of the Hannassey brothers, the rival cattle family. They are a what McKay is not, rough with a gun at their side, not so bothered about their appearance, these are cowboys the man of the West who knows how to handle himself, nothing scares them, at least on the surface. The test is a failure of sorts, not fighting back in front of Patricia whose gun is lost and forced to bring her carriage to a halt to be harassed. She is starting to really see the man she is about to marry. Not a complete mirror image of Wyler’s first few years, having to adapt to a different way of working. The films he was given to direct. Yet come to be-known for his multiple takes, pushing even the hardest of actors which included Bette Davis.
Of course it’s only when we meet the older men of the cast, the heads of the Terrills – Maj. Henry (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) who is the complete opposite. Both powerful men in their own ways, men to be feared if crossed. For me if you take away Peck from the film you still have Ives who stole the show, chewing the scenery, owning the landscape as if he was born there. These two men could mirror the studio moguls who kept their stars in check, decided their future and could easily make enemies. Also most of them European and Jewish which is the major. The chosen enemy of the Nazi’s and resented by Americans for their success and power in their own country, making and living the American dream, dictating what audience would ultimately watch and listen to. Of course in a Western everyone is mostly American, even the rival families who are fighting for drinking rights. When you listen to Maj. Henry you can feel the hate that he feels for the Hannasssey’s who live in the mountains, not the fields of rich grass. Who should we as an audience side with? Personally I was drawn to the Hannessey’s more so Rufus who speaks more from the heart, the down-trodden man who wont stay down. I think what got me was the first time we meet him, as he interrupts a party shaming the Maj. into getting him to pick up a gun to kill him. The Maj. doesn’t take the bait, the better man, or out of gentlemanly modesty he refuses.
Of course what stands in both the families ways is the Big Muddy, land owned by school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who holds the real power between them. Wanting to be the meadiator, wanting peace. She is the ideal even though her land is not covered with cattle, the house is in a state of dis-repair. Best friend also of Patricia who is like one of the short-sighted, her fathers daughter in short that wont easily have her mind changed. It had been so long that I forgot the romantic outcome of the film. We’re not supposed like her much, compared to the more feminine Maragon who has more Eastern qualities which 20th century America can associate with. As much as Patricia is saying what a man should be, whilst Julie is more accepting of the man in the form he comes.
This has become more of an essay (of sorts) than a review, I want to quickly look at Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) the adoptive son of the Terrill’s who has become the man that is the ideal, the one that even Wyler may have wanted to be, but only ever be Mckay in reality which is all I could ever be out in that world. They do meet head on in a sequence that I mis-took for suspense as they both show their real strengths to each other, a long fistful goodbye, that last a good five minutes, far longer than most on-screen fights which at that length today would fall into parody. They develop a mutual respect for each other. That’s after the knowledge that we have that McKay has proved himself to be a man of the West in certain ways, adapting his knowledge from the East to the West, even if he can’t prove that to those who matter, he has to keep those success’s quite until its too late.
The finale is a long drawn out battle of two warring families finally meeting in Blanco Canyon, the rugged dangerous mountains where so many other Westerns have taken place, usually home to the Native Americans who can hide out and wait for the white man to enter into their world. Here its the home of the Hannassey’s who are the underdogs, even seen as white Native American of the film, but more acceptable because they are white. Its become warfare between two men who have to prove themselves. Not before a few tests of strength between Mckay and Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), where we see love losing out to honor at times. Its as dramatic as the film gets before we get down to business.
It’s a long film even for a Western but it does hold your attention for the length of 2hours and 39 minutes, nothing is wasted with time for action, romance, violence, war and hatred. That’s a to pack in to even the standard length film, it spills out on the vast canvas. When you read it in the light of the directors eyes you see something far different than just a Western, something that speaks from an lone outsider who had long been accepted by both his peers and the country he lived in. You could say he lived the American dream, thing very idea that The Big Country is all about.