A band of the Cheyenne Nation has been relocated from their homeland in Wyoming to a Cavalry-run camp in Oklahoma. After experiencing disease, humiliation and indifference, they decide to leave the camp and make the 1,500-mile trek back home. The Cavalry pursues them, but their commander, Capt. Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark), has some sympathy for the Cheyenne and their cause. Also, Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker), a Quaker schoolteacher who Archer has fallen in love with, is part of the trek, joining after she decides that her young students need protection on the trail.
Meanwhile, among the Cheyenne themselves there's a power struggle between their two strong leaders, bold Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalbán) and pragmatic Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland). As their trek arouses curiosity and fear—shown in part with a long, largely non-plot-related segment where Dodge City residents start panicking while Wyatt Earp (Jimmy Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) are immersed in a card game—the tribe splits up, and Dull Knife's group (including Deborah) petitions for help at Fort Robinson in Nebraska. But the fort's commander, Capt. Oskar Wessels (Karl Malden), a German immigrant eager for a promotion, imprisons them in a warehouse in the dead of winter, leading to a shocking turn of events. It's up to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson) to straighten everything out.
The final Western directed by Ford, he decided the "Indians vs. Cavalry" genre needed to finally tell the native side of the story. Already aware at that point that his films tended to portray Native Americans negatively (though films like The Searchers were more nuanced than many people would give them credit for), it's usually acknowledged that Ford had his heart in the right place with this film, showing the Cheyenne to be proud, intelligent and determined. But having two blonde-haired, blue eyed leads representing two sides of the White Man's Burden (a military officer and a teacher), then having the lead Cheyenne characters played by either Mexican actors or dark-skinned White Americans, with the extras recruited from the wholly-unrelated Navajo Nation, is seen as unintentionally undermining Ford's goals for the film. Still, any 1964 Western portraying Indians positively is quite remarkable. And for the last time, Ford showed his beloved Monument Valley in all its glory (standing in for the plains of Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska).
This film contains examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Sgt. Wachowski (happy drunk) and Capt. Wessels (mean drunk).
- Bilingual Bonus: The film features cast members from the Navajo Nation. While the lines are subtitled for a serious conversation, they're actually making various ribald and obscene jokes about the director, crew, and various non-Navajo cast members. Navajo theater patrons cracked up.
- Blind Obedience: Capt. Wessels, and his credo "An order is an order!"
- Cavalry Officer: An entire Cavalry division, led by Capt. Archer.
- The Determinator: The Cheyenne, who go on a long trek through inhospitable territory and never give up, even though the Army's on their tail and they've been portrayed as bloodthirsty savages by the press.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?:
- A persecuted, vilified minority group is locked up in a camp under inhumane conditions by a German military officer who insists that he can't be held responsible for their suffering because he's Just Following Orders. Ford using Capt. Wessels and the Fort Robinson scene to compare Army treatment of Native Americans to The Holocaust is not very subtle at all.
- Actually invoked in the story as well, with Wachowski comparing the Army's treatment of the Cheyenne to Cossacks persecuting Poles.
- Epic Movie: John Ford's major attempt at this genre, running two-and-a-half hours and boasting Loads and Loads of Characters.
- Historical Domain Character: Among the Cheyenne, Little Wolf and Dull Knife were the real leaders of the Exodus. Carl Schurz was the actual Secretary of the Interior involved in the story. Also, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in the Dodge City scene.
- Hyperlink Story: Capt. Archer is more-or-less the protagonist, but the story constantly switches between the Army and the Cheyenne, plus the Dodge City interlude, with a bunch of characters coming and going.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: As mentioned in Does This Remind You Of Anything?, Wessels is clearly intended as a Nazi stand-in.
- Re-Cut: After the initial premiere, the criticism over the disconnected Dodge City sequence led Warner Bros. to cut it from future prints of the film, reducing its run time by 13 minutes. It was eventually restored in home video releases.
- Scenery Porn: Monument Valley, yet again, used impressively even by Ford standards. William Clothier earned the film's only Oscar nomination for his cinematography. It almost feels bad to point out that the real-life locations of the story look nothing like it.
- Schoolmarm: Deborah Wright, who was sent to the reservation as part of a government plan to have Quakers educate Indian children, presides over a one-room school.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: The last straw for the Cheyenne is being forced to wait all day for a promised visit from Congressmen that gets canceled. The next day they start the journey back to Wyoming.
- Suggested by...: It was officially "suggested by" the 1953 novel Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz, but it's really a loose adaptation of both the Sandoz book and an earlier attempt at Historical Fiction about the Exodus, the 1941 novel The Last Frontier by Howard Fast (of Spartacus fame). In particular, Capt. Archer is an Expy of Capt. Murray in the The Last Frontier and the Dodge City interlude is taken from Fast's book.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The very rough outline of events as depicted in the movie are basically true, but otherwise there's lots of dramatic license, with some characters invented from whole cloth. One bit of Historical Villain Upgrade is Cavalry Capt. Henry Wessells Jr., a New York-born son of a brigadier general, getting turned into German-American Jerkass Oskar Wessels (whereas the German-born Carl Schurz, a much more sympathetic character, is portrayed sans accent).
- What the Hell Is That Accent?: Karl Malden's accent as Capt. Wessels wavers practically from line to line, only occasionally sounding like something close to German. About the strongest it gets is a V/W substitution in some words. Perhaps justified in showing how Americanized he'd become.