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.
With the arrival of sound in film, the death of the silent film wasn’t as quick as we believe, after Al Johnson uttered a few words in The Jazz Singer (1927) there were still a few classic silent’s still ready to be released, the power of overacting and subtlety and gestures. Coming from Denmark in 1928 we have Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s The Passion of Joan of Arc/La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) which I only became aware of whilst watching Mark Cousins documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey which itself was fascinating. I have finally found the time to take in this rarity that places acting above all else, even the plot which takes us back to the roots of the Joan of Arc, as the prologue tells us focusing on the transcript of her fateful trial of the daughter of God. A French Inquisition you could say by the church. After Leading France to victory against the English to drive us out of their country. There became more pressing matters, Joan herself who thought God to be more important than the King.
My only other references to the events are through popular culture and a rather pleasant and feeble film Saint Joan (1957) starring Richard Widmark as King Charles VII and Jean Seberg in the title role. It wasn’t what I expected when considering the subject matter. Depicted as a reflective tale of what happens after her execution and life as a saint. We see the events played in retrospect from the first time we see her humble beginnings to trial.
Whereas this film focuses entirely on her trial and execution, we see the real pain and suffering of Joan’s (Maria Falconetti) being tested under the close scrutiny of a large number of priests who want to save her, yet only at the expense of her relinquishing of her declarations and closeness to God. Something that fears them, to have a person in their presence who feels so connected to the all mighty upstairs. Someone who is a threat to their own authority, in a time when religion was still the iron rule over Europe, whatever denomination that maybe.
Of course the film is most notable for the extreme close-ups which I thought would pull away in time to allow us to see more of this world. Instead we see very little of the minimal set. Rightly focusing on the suffering of Jeanne of Arc a now persecuted woman who cries single tears in every other shot. It’s not just for the audience, its as if she really feels the torment of these men who hold her life in their hands. This is real acting of the silent era that cannot be put in the same league as Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford who were more expressive and powerful in a theatrical sense. Falconetti has only her face to work with in this film, and to great effect, as if the hot sun is beating down in her in the hot desert, theres no escaping its power over her. Not many can lay claim to such acting abilities. Whilst men are hovering over her in these extreme close-ups as they decide her future. It seems so futile really but we watch on.
The version of The Passion of Joan of Arc I viewed was accompanied by a soundtrack by Lo Duca which added to the sense of emptiness and despair felt by Joan of Arc. The moments of chunkiness added to the aesthetic of a medium still finding its feet and experiment. Adding a contemporary presence which I also found with a screening of Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) by the Leicester/Yorkshire/Manchester/Londoners Her Name is Calla at the Handmade Festival (2014), Leicester which added extra dread and fear to the subject matter. A live soundtrack is something that cannot be beaten.
I really should catch more silent films, if not only to see film in its infancy, but to see the mostly forgotten classics that are foreshadowed by the era of sound. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is one of them without a doubt that is unrelentingly powerful. It’s minimal sets making way for the acting captured in horrifying and sensitive close ups which make this film something to be treasured for new generations.
- #62: The Passion of Joan of Arc (criterioncollection.blogspot.co.uk)
- Shattering Dreyer Masterpiece ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ is Named Greatest Film of the Silent Era in WitD Polling (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) (silent-volume.blogspot.co.uk)
- #9 – The Passion of Joan of Arc(1928), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer (fanwithamovieyammer.wordpress.com)
- Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (chrislejarzar.wordpress.com)
An overlooked gem of an atmospheric western that sees a gang of outlaws leave a town after a brief bank-robbery, heading over the vast open salt desert hoping for safety. Lead by James Dawson (Gregory Peck) who’s leadership is called into question numerous times through the course of Yellow Sky (1948). Unusually playing opposite Richard Widmark as Dude who is a man not to be trusted as they reach a ghost town, after almost dying on the open desert. Where they meet a feisty young woman (Anne Baxter) who appears out of nowhere. Wanting them all to clear out of this ghost town that could hold more secrets than the film reveals. However out on the hills in iconic Death Valley we find Constance Mae ‘Mikes’ grandad (James Barton) who is just as fierce. The tables are soon turned when the group smell the sweet smell of gold in the hills, why else would this couple stay in the town, any sensible pair would have moved out years ago. They all come together to form an uneasy agreement to share the gold that is hidden in the hills. That’s when the fun really begins, full of great set pieces and moments that make you think the men are fighting over another kind of gold, that of the female variety who herself wants nothing to do with the uninvited guests that have forced their hand. A quiet unassuming western that has all the ingredients to make a very healthy and entertain film to view countless times.
- Many Riches for Those Seeking The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (prettycleverfilms.com)