Friday, 19 March 2010

Cheyenne Autumn

‘White man speak with forked tongue,’ goes the adage. The Cheyenne tribe is witness.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964) by director John Ford is a movie about the dispossessed - in this case the Cheyenne tribe in the American South West [pr. Sha-yan].

Ford's last movie depicts 'Dull Knife' (d.1883),chief of the northern Cheyenne, leading his people on a desperate trek from confinement in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to the home of their ancestors in Montana.'Even a dog can choose where he wants to go - not a Cheyenne,' he says.

The movie -apart from its spectacular scenes of the American South West - was disappointing as the Cheyenne tribe was depicted as dependent on the largesse of Washington. Reduced virtually to beggars, the tribe is forced to move out of its land and head to ‘Reservations’ marshaled by police.

The history of dispossession is long and bloody. Back home it is one of the central issues which motivates the Maoists. In Latin America it is the colonial eye of Hernan Cortes.

‘Spanish Woman’ is a woman who plays an important role in the film. Her provenance is unknown but she is married to one of the chiefs. In the tragic last scene she watches her son killed by her husband because he desires a woman pledged to the other chief. Her convulsive sobbing over the dead body is what brings the film to a close, as it were. Life for her seems meaningless. But the law of the Cheyenne must be upheld.

The film is long-drawn out (156 minutes) and at times aimless. The middle section is a riot of subtle humour but its purpose leaves one wondering.

The incredible journey of the Cheyenne as they try to make it back to their homeland in Yellowstone recalls Kundun (1997) by Martin Scorsese. In both films, the depiction of the heroism of a marginalized race is pitched against the backdrop of an unrelenting land.

The film veers on masochism. The kind of self-flagellation the Cheyenne succumb to, ill-befits a proud race. The buffaloes of the Dakota are mentioned but they do not make an appearance.

Somehow John Ford only skims the surface of this great theme. The descent into bathos in the carriage scenes with the wagon upturning and the ladies tumbling out of them is ungainly and only serves as comic relief for an epic disaster.
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