In 1878, Chiefs Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) led over three hundred starved and weary Cheyenne from their reservation in the Oklahoma territory to their traditional home in Wyoming. The US government sees this as an act of rebellion, and the sympathetic Captain Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark) is forced to lead his troops in an attempt to stop the tribe. As the press misrepresents the natives' motives and goals for their trek as malicious, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson) tries to prevent violence from erupting between the army and the natives. Also featured are James Stewart as Wyatt Earp, Dolores del Río as "Spanish Woman" and Carroll Baker as a pacifist Quaker school teacher and Archer's love interest.
Silent film star Mae Marsh appears uncredited in her last film role.
John Ford long wanted to make a movie about the Cheyenne exodus. As early as 1957 he wrote a treatment with his son Patrick Ford, envisioning a small-scale drama with non-professional Indian actors. Early drafts of the script drew on Howard Fast's novel The Last Frontier. However, the film ultimately took its plot and title from Mari Sandoz's Cheyenne Autumn, which Ford preferred due to its focus on the Cheyenne. Elements of Fast's novel remain in the finished film however, namely the character of Captain Archer (Murray in the book), the depiction of Carl Schurz and the Dodge City scenes.
Reluctantly abandoning the docudrama idea, Ford wanted Anthony Quinn and Richard Boone to play Dull Knife and Little Wolf, as well-known actors with some Indian ancestry. He also suggested Woody Strode for a role. The studio insisted on Ford's casting Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland.
The film was photographed in Super Panavision 70 by William H. Clothier, whose work was nominated for an Academy Award. Gilbert Roland earned a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The original version was 158 minutes, Ford's longest work. Warner Bros. later decided to edit the "Dodge City" sequence out of the film, reducing the running time to 145 minutes, although it was shown in theaters during the film's initial release. This sequence features James Stewart as Wyatt Earp, and Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holliday. Some critics have argued that this comic episode, mostly unrelated to the rest of an otherwise serious movie, breaks the flow of the story. It was later restored for the VHS and subsequent DVD releases.
Much of the film was shot in Monument Valley Tribal Park on the Arizona-Utah border, where Ford had filmed scenes for many of his earlier films, especially Stagecoach and The Searchers. Although the principal tribal leaders were played by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland (as well as Dolores del Río and Sal Mineo in major roles), Ford again utilized numerous members of the Navajo tribe in this production.
Ford used Navajo people to portray the Cheyenne. That meant the dialogue that is supposed to be the "Cheyenne language" is actually Navajo. That made little differences to white audiences, but for Navajo communities, the film became very popular because the Navajo actors were openly using ribald and crude language that had nothing to do with the film. For example, during the scene where the treaty is signed, the chief's solemn speech just pokes fun at the size of the colonel's penis. Academics now consider this an important moment in the development of Native Americans identity because they are able to mock Hollywood's historical interpretation of the American West.
The reviews were mixed. Bosley Crowther, critic for The New York Times, praised it highly, calling it "a beautiful and powerful motion picture that stunningly combines a profound and passionate story of mistreatment of American Indians with some of the most magnificent and energetic cavalry-and-Indian lore ever put upon the screen." He was disappointed, however, that after the humorous (if "superfluous") Dodge City sequence, "the picture does not rise again to its early integrity and authenticity", and the climax is "neither effective and convincing drama nor is it faithful to the novel". The New Yorker's Richard Brody cited the "rueful, elegiac grandeur of John Ford’s final Western".
Variety disagreed, however, calling it "a rambling, episodic account" in which "the original premise of the Mari Sandoz novel is lost sight of in a wholesale insertion of extraneous incidents which bear little or no relation to the subject."
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Western Film
Nominated: Academy Award for Best Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Nominated: Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture: Gilbert Roland
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: