December 19

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 19, 1964:

John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn released

Offered in the guise of a Western film, John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn, one of the best post-war critiques of American society, is released by Warner Brothers.

John Ford was born Sean O'Feeny in 1894. He moved to Hollywood from Maine in 1913 and soon began picking up bit parts in several films, including D.W. Griffith's influential Birth of a Nation. He learned the movie-making trade and directed his first film in 1917--a silent Western starring Harry Carey. He followed that effort by directing at least 30 others during the next four years. By the 1930s, he had earned a reputation as a talented director and began to produce a number of more "serious" films, including the The Grapes of Wrath and The Informer.

Despite his success with other themes, Ford always returned to Western movies, continually pushing the boundaries of the genre so that it could be a vehicle for studying larger social and political issues. His 1939 film, Stagecoach, set the standard for other western films to follow, raising the genre above its usual B-grade status with first-rate directing and acting (John Wayne played the lead) and Ford's masterful use of the haunting western landscape of Monument Valley, Arizona. The director-actor Orson Welles claimed to have watched Stagecoach more than 40 times before he made Citizen Kane, and when asked to name three directors he considered his superior, Welles replied, "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."

In the post-World War II period, Ford's Westerns became noticeably darker and more pessimistic. Having spent the first half of his career creating movies that celebrated a mythic West of brave heroes and grand adventure, Ford began undermining this perspective by creating the first "anti-Westerns," films that emphasized the negative side of America's frontier experience. Rejecting the formulaic plots in which the "good guys" always won out over the outlaws and Indians, films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon(1949) offered a brutal vision of the West in which warfare between settlers and Indians produced much tragedy but no clear victors. In his 1956 film, The Searchers, Ford created one of the first western anti-heroes, a fanatical racist played by John Wayne who believes a white woman kidnapped by Indians deserves to die simply because she would rather stay with the tribe than return to "civilization."

Deeply moved by the Civil Rights movement and troubled by the racism of his own earlier films, Ford's 1964 Cheyenne Autumn emphasized the tragic fate of the American Indian and tried to rectify the racist stereotypes he had once propagated. The last of Ford's great Westerns, it strongly condemned the U.S. treatment of the Cheyenne that forced them into intolerable living conditions and then violently suppressed any rebellion. Foreshadowing the even more pointed critiques of later films like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, Cheyenne Autumn featured the Indians as the heroes of the film and the army as the force for evil, completely reversing the roles his earlier films had developed.

John Ford died on August 31, 1973.

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