A place of tarnished honor in this segment of MovieJourneys goes to the collaborations of director John Ford and American icon, John Wayne. Both men hit early career milestones in the signal year of 1939 with their black-and-white film, Stagecoach, and neither of them won an Academy Award for what is today a classic Western. The picture was nominated and so was Ford as director, but no statue found its way too his mantelpiece. Admittedly the competition was fierce in that year and Gone with the Wind walked away with most of the major prizes. In the same year that he made his talking picture debut with Stagecoach, Ford made Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln, both with Henry Fonda. John Wayne would have to wait for his first Oscar until 1969, when he played a parody of himself in True Grit. These anomalies can be partly explained by the fact that the best collaborations of Ford and Wayne achieved greatness not so much for their foreground performances, as for their spectacular backgrounds. Filmed against the awe-inspiring Southwestern vistas of Monument Valley in Utah, these movies contrasted the white melodrama with the fragmented images of the embattled Indians, as if in a broken mirror.

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Stagecoach set the scene for Ford’s mythical construct of the American West. Monument Valley played a role far more important than any of the actors, while the last decades of Indian resistance to the taking of their lands (late 1800s) provided the undercurrent of intensity. Among the best-known of the Indian leaders in this time, on the Plains are in the Southwest, were Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise, Red Cloud, and Geronimo. Rarely if ever were these great chiefs even featured as characters in the Ford films. It was only after watching the documentary, Reel Injun, that I began to understand the extent to which the Native American community perceived the Ford films as ongoing assaults on their culture and misrepresentations of the desperate efforts of warrior tribes to protect their families and territories. See also Cheyenne Autumn below.

Stagecoach  (1939)

Using landscapes to establish mood, and introducing character complexity, this black and white picture was a career-maker for John Wayne and director John Ford.  It opens in a telegraph office with dire warnings about the Apache chief Geronimo in Arizona/New Mexico.  The coach loads up with a drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell) and a woman of ill-repute (Claire Trevor) who are both being driven out of town; also, a young army wife, a gambling man (John Carradine), and a prosperous banker. Later, they pick up John Wayne who is handcuffed and on his way to jail.  They have a cavalry escort, but only for the first part of the journey. Despite the danger, they elect to go on. Scenes of the stagecoach forging bravely across Monument Valley are unforgettable.  The army wife has a baby along the way.  Wayne is falling for the other woman, the one who suffers from ill-repute.  Moving on, they struggle to stay ahead of the Apache threat.  Just when it looks like they are going to arrive safely, the Apaches attack the coach.

There is a galloping battle of high drama (Ben-Hur-style stunts by Yakima Canutt).  Just when they are about to run out of ammunition, the Cavalry arrives in a moment designed to elicit cheers from the movie theater crowd.  Surprisingly, the film gives short attention to the conclusion of the battle.  When they get to town, Wayne must face a man who is gunning for him and cope at the same time with the misgivings of his new girl.  There is a final shoot-out in the OK-Corral-or-High-Noon-style – slow stalking on fearful streets.  Wayne is the victor and is sent off with his girl by the man who meant to turn him in for the reward.  The doc observes, “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization.” Robert Osborne says this is the prototype modern Western.

 To whatever extent Ford made his movies to exorcise his personal demons, he provided at the same time a similar service to the country and the world. I had not intended to dwell on the dark side of the West when I began writing this segment, but the double-edged saber in Ford’s creation of John Wayne as culture hero and his denigration of the Indians could not be pushed aside. Not every American citizen feels a gnawing guilt about what happened to the Indians, but it is an undeniable factor in the national psyche. Perhaps ironically, it gets a full airing in John Ford’s films and others of the same genre (see Final Battles on the American Plains).

The Cavalry Trilogy – John Ford

 1. Fort Apache  (1948)

This first installment of the trilogy is a vessel for Ford’s deep ambivalence about the confrontations of Native Americans and white soldiers. It is inspired by a story called “Massacre,” which in turn was partly rooted in the legend of Custer’s Last Stand. Henry Fonda plays the unsympathetic role of the arrogant general who has no empathy for his Indian enemy. In this conflation of the Plains and Southwest theaters of war, John Wayne plays a seasoned officer and friend of the Indians. The large Apache force is led by Cochise. Fonda makes bad choices and is killed in battle with the Apaches. Wayne emerges as commander of the fort and champion of the men who survived the deadly battle. The victorious Indians fade from view. Cochise led the Apache resistance to United States conquest in the years 1861-72. General Custer died in 1876. See Southwest.

2. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon  (1949)

 I have strong memories of this movie from my childhood. Though I have no recollection of the plot line or message of the movie, I can vividly recall the thundering cavalry charge that is the centerpiece of the movie, and the marvelous scene where the horse soldiers ride off to work singing the title song. John Wayne plays Captain Brittles, a retiring cavalry officer who craves one last opportunity to neutralize the Indians.  A narration says Custer is dead but the Indian wars continue.  Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are leading the desperate tribes in opposition to the U.S. Cavalry.  The land must be made safe for the migrations of the wagon trains.  There is a costly Indian battle. Wayne is an old soldier now and weary of war but he will carry on because his country needs men who see both sides of the picture.

3. Rio Grande (1950)

This film was difficult to find. Netflix had it on a wait list and YouTube did not have it at all, except for the trailer. Most of the sources I consulted dismissed it quickly. John Wayne plays an older version of his character from Fort Apache. It is now 1879 and he is in Texas charged with pursuing the Apaches across the border into Mexico. It may be said that the weakness in this film comes from Ford’s indulgence of the flip side of his character. He has introduced a domestic drama featuring Maureen O’Hara playing Wayne’s feisty wife. She has come to Texas to protect her son who is taking undue abuse as a private under Wayne’s command. The mother and father have been estranged but they find love once again under the Texas stars. It gets a little sappy. Attempts at folksy Irish humor with Victor McLaglen are somewhat out of place and so is the overuse of the Sons of the Pioneers, turning that movie into a virtual musical. The film ends when Wayne must lead a charge to save a group of schoolchildren that have been captured by Apaches. The Indians are pretty much wallpaper.

Ford’s Valedictory Westerns


The Searchers  (1956)

Perhaps significantly, this movie took no major Academy Award.  Set in Texas but filmed in Monument Valley, Utah, it has a classic structure, beginning with the killing of a pioneer family by a band of murderous Comanches.  The father of the family was Wayne’s brother.  Two young sisters are the only survivors and they have been taken away by the Indians.  Immediately, Wayne and others set off to find the abductees.  They come across the body of an Indian warrior buried under a flat rock.  One man hurls a heavy stone at the dead man, but Wayne does him one better by shooting the eyes out of the corpse so he will not find his way to the afterlife.  Wayne’s hatred of the Indians takes on a pathological tone.

Later, Wayne has found the body of the older sister but refuses to divulge the outrages she has endured.  Eventually, they learn that the younger girl is still in the possession of a renegade group led by a bitter man named Scar.  This man explains to Wayne that two of his sons have been killed by whites and he has taken many scalps in retribution.  There is now a theme of double vengeance.  Six years have passed and the girl is now about fourteen (Natalie Wood).  When Wayne learns that she has been living in Scar’s tepee as one of his wives, he tries to kill her.  His young companion intervenes.  Shortly afterward, the young man helps Natalie escape and Wayne does not welcome her.  Suddenly, he has an unexplained change of heart and carries her back to her extended family.  Scar was killed in the escape and Wayne has taken his scalp.  After various subplots are wrapped up (or not), Wayne walks out the door in a shot that has achieved classic status in movie history.  The storyline is often hackneyed and clumsy, the hero is not at all admirable, and the secondary characters border on caricature.  In the end, the film is redeemed by the spectacle of Monument Valley.  It was only a modest success at first but it went on to be called the “Greatest American Western of all time” (Wiki).  This, I think is an overstatement.  It would get my vote, however, as one of the greatest-looking American Westerns ever made.

Toward the end of his career, Ford directed a movie that attempted to make amends with American Indians for his unsympathetic and one-dimensional treatment of their role in the saga of the West. Called Cheyenne Autumn (1964), it became a laughing stock on a number of levels, and only made matters worse. I know this seems like harsh judgment, but consider the ludicrous casting of the Indian roles; the absence of John Wayne as moral fulcrum; the pathetic introduction of Jimmy Stewart as comic relief; the huge gap between the expressed intention and the end result of this movie; and finally, the absence of Monument Valley as a backdrop to this sad valedictory to the American West.

Cheyenne Autumn  (1964)

Jimmy Stewart heads the cast of well-known white actors. It opens with beautiful scenes of the reservation in Oklahoma where the Cheyenne have been sent from their homeland in Montana 1500 miles to the north.  They are watched over by an American Army fort.  Richard Widmark is commanding officer.  The Indians are gathering in large numbers at the fort to meet with a senator from Washington.  When the delegation fails to arrive, the starving and demoralized Indians trudge back to their reservation.  A Quaker minister and his pretty daughter (Carol Baker) are advocates for the Indians.  Fed up with broken promises, the Indians steal way at night to return to their homeland in the north.  The Quaker girl goes with them.  Sal Mineo is a swaggering young brave with his eye on a chief’s wife.  He looks fit but out of place.  Scenes of the trek across the desolate land are strong and stirring.  Widmark leads a troop in pursuit of the escapees.  There are hotheads on both sides.  After they cross a boundary line, the Indians dig in to do battle with the cavalry.  The fighting is fierce and there are white casualties.  Rumors of an Indian massacre fly from town to town.  The pursuit continues and there are more deadly skirmishes.  A small group of desperadoes meet two hungry Indians and manage to kill one of them in cold blood.  “I always wanted to kill me an Injun.”  The starving Indians come upon a field of buffalo killed for their skins.

Meanwhile back in Dodge City, Marshall Earp (Jimmy Stewart) is playing poker and exerting quiet authority.  The protracted barroom scene and panic around a feared Cheyenne raid degenerate to shockingly inept attempts at raucous comedy.  These episodes, later cut from some theatrical releases, lead up to an intermission.  They were restored in the VHS and DVD editions.

 The trek and the pursuit continue but the film’s integrity, what there is of it, has been seriously compromised.  A drunken soldier complains to Widmark that the army is behaving like Cossacks, slaughtering innocent people who are just trying to get home.  It begins to snow.  There is dissension among the Indians.  Some turn themselves in to a fort; others keep marching north with 700 miles to go.  The commander at the fort (Karl Malden) receives orders that the Cheyenne are to be detained until they can be returned to the south.  He has an attack of conscience but orders must be obeyed.  Widmark rebels and absconds to Washington to report to the Interior Secretary (Edward G. Robinson).  Back at the fort, Malden soothes his guilt with drink and his men relieve him of command.  The Indians break out a secret stash of arms and shoot their way out of their prison.  They make it to a sacred cave where they are surrounded by soldiers.  Widmark and Robinson arrive to negotiate with them.  Now the movie becomes confused and truncated. Widmark prevails on the Indians to trust him and oddly, they are persuaded.  They offer a peace pipe but have no tobacco.  Robinson produces cigars all around and then drops abruptly out of the film.  Next we see the surviving Cheyennes camped by an idyllic Montana lake.  There is a tribal gathering where one of the two chiefs (Ricardo Montalbán and Gilbert Roland) shoots Mineo in a jealous rage.

For deeper insight into the dynamics of this movie, pause and reflect on the actors playing the key Indian roles. Go deeper if you have the fortitude and consider the “tribute” Ford pays to the Indians in his film.

This serves as an imperfect document of U.S. efforts to exterminate Indians through the middle of the country.  Based on the historic Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-9, it was John Ford’s last Western movie and his best effort to atone for his distorted treatment of Native Americans.  It was not a major box office success. In the Special Features on the DVD of Cheyenne Autumn, there is a documentary narrated by Jimmy Stewart.  It traces the road trip of a modern Cheyenne family from Montana along the Cheyenne Autumn Trail to its place of origin in Oklahoma of 1878.


My respect and admiration for John Ford did not flourish as I followed the trail of his Western movies. The best that can be said in a nutshell is that he was a master craftsman who reflected the two-fisted, “kill me an injun” attitudes received from earlier generations: a document of its times.

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