SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949) C 104m dir: John Ford
w/John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, George O'Brien, Arthur Shields, Michael Dugan, Chief John Big tree, Fred Graham, George Sky Eagle, Tom Tyler, Noble Johnson, Francis Ford, Irving Pichel
Most elegiac of all westerns, beautiful and subtle in detailing an aging officer's reluctance to quit when the Indians threaten. Like its retiring cavalry officer, the film ages well. This is one of Ford's most powerful films.
From The Movie Guide: "The second film in John Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy' [along with FORT APACHE and RIO GRANDE] features John Wayne at his best and boasts some incredible Oscar-winning Technicolor photography of Monument Valley. ... Wayne gives one of the finest performances of his career here, in the first serious role Ford gave him. (Wayne himself later said that Ford never respected him as an actor until he made RED RIVER [for director Howard Hawks].) As Capt. Brittles --- the character a full generation older than the actor --- Wayne is at his most human, a man who has made the Army his whole life, even sacrificing the lives of his family to its service, and now having to watch his Army career end on a note of failure. The passing of time is the film's recurring theme, suggested as Brittles arrives late with his troops, is forced to retire because of his age, leaves a dance to speak to his late wife; even the inscription on the watch the troopers give him, 'Lest we forget,' plays on this theme of time lost and recalled. Ford's main inspiration for the film's scenic look was the western paintings of Frederic Remington. On the set, the director clashed with cinematographer Winton Hoch, a technical perfectionist who would endlessly fiddle with his camera while the cast baked in the sun. One day in the desert, when a line of threatening clouds darkened the horizon, indicating a thunderstorm, Hoch started to pack up his equipment. Ford ordered him to continue shooting, and Hoch did so, but filed an official protest with his union. The shot that emerged, of a fantastic yellow sky with jagged streaks of lightning reaching toward earth in the distance, was breathtaking and helped Hoch win an Oscar for his work on the film. After decades of terribly washed-out color prints of SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, the film has recently been restored to its original glory and may soon be available on home video in pristine condition."
This review from The Movie Guide was written in 1998. Now, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is available on DVD; and on Blu-Ray it looks especially beautiful, a crisp and clear print with the Technicolor shown to great advantage.
From the Alternate Ending website (www.alternateending.com), this 2011 review of the film by Tim Brayton:
"John Ford --- renowned cinema icon, director's director, master American mythologist, and prime destroyer of those selfsame myths. The man who created and cemented the image of John Wayne as all-around conservative hero, and who then spent most of their best-loved and best-known collaborations tweaking and twitting that image. A sentimentalist with a pronounced dislike for sentimentality.
"Perhaps it's just that Ford was first and above all a crowd-pleaser: knowing that there were people who wanted to see easy tales of black-and-white morality and people who equally wanted to see every situation saturated in shades of grey, he did his best to make certain that all of his films could be read from just about every angle possible. Maybe he just didn't believe in anything. At any rate, most of his greatest films have that same feeling of saying two things at once, at least until the last period of his career kicked in, somewhere in the 1950s, and he pretty much dedicated himself to making frivolous larks or burning critiques of his own legend.
"I have always personally found the most consistently rewarding period of Ford's career to be the half-decade immediately following his return from active duty in World War II: eight pictures, six of them Westerns, a roaring return to the genre in which young Jack Ford had made his fame in the silent era, after making only a single picture in that form during the whole of the 1930s. It was during this period that Ford became self-conscious about what he was doing, with films rather baldly eulogising (and much more subtly critiquing) the romantic old frontier days of military men and settlers and the Indian Wars. His most prominent work along these lines was a trilogy of thematically interconnected films about the US Cavalry, of which the second, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, is the standout for at least one important reason: it was the first of Ford's films shot in Arizona's Monument Valley --- a desert he turned into the all-time cinematic representation of The West --- made in Technicolor, a new toy that oh so significantly changed the filmmaker's approach to his subject matter.
"The story (noticeably similar to the previous year's Fort Apache) is pretty much hokum: in 1876, shortly after Sitting Bull's victory at Little Bighorn, 60-year-old Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is preparing for his imminent retirement from the cavalry and his post at Fort Starke, when signs are found pointing to a major confederacy of Native American tribes, aiming to drive the whites back east. Brittles's last command is to quell this force while also escorting two women from the fort to a stagecoach; this mission fails when it turns out the tribes are much further in their preparations than expected. In a last ditch attempt to prevent bloodshed, Brittles hatches a plan on his very last day in the army's employ, hoping to do good in the end and redeem his late failure.
"There's a hell of a lot around that, but the gist is clear: soldiers vs. Indians, salty old hero, last triumph of a storied career. On paper, it's surprisingly reductive compared to what Ford was doing in those days: Fort Apache is a far more nuanced and probing and chilly story on much the same topics. This isn't altogether as bad as it seems, for the thrust of Yellow Ribbon is something much different: having done dark already with the previous year's film, Ford's new picture was much more about the community of the cavalry than about their actions, and the script by Frank S. Nugent (who worked on Fort Apache) and Laurence Stallings is much concerned with the simple details of life within Fort Starke: the camaraderie of the soldiers, the friendly romantic triangle between Lt. Cohill (John Agar) and 2nd Lt. Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.) over the hand of the commander's niece, Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), and so on. This material is mostly above reproach; only 'mostly' thanks to the appearance of Ford's most long-lived Achilles' heel, the Comic Ethnic, though thankfully this is only present in the form of a cheerful alcoholic Irish soldier, Sgt. Quincannon, played naturally enough by Victor McLaglen, Ford's all-time favorite pudgy drunkard (and even then, it only becomes outright tedious during a single bar fight late in the film that lasts about 18 hours out of a 104-minute running time).
"The spirit of family among military types was a beloved Ford theme, and the director treats upon it with all due sincerity throughout the picture, filming the ranks of cavalrymen with proud awe, and guiding his cast through a clutch of lovingly lived-in turns; in particular, a young Ben Johnson, in one of the key roles of his early career, gives the film's tightest performance as a smart sergeant who knows not to show off how much he knows, and has a chemistry with Wayne that ranks among the most edifying in any of the older icon's career.
"So much for the happy, simple part of the film; then there's the other part, where the filmmakers challenge and question, and since the script (with its gung-ho Indian fighting) doesn't allow them to do so directly, it has to happen the old-fashioned way: through the judicious use of visuals. And since this is a John Ford film --- and since John Ford is perhaps the most accomplished director of the camera in the entire history of Hollywood filmmaking --- it's little surprise that those visuals are immaculate and cutting.
"Ultimately, it all comes down to the Technicolor: shot by Winton C. Hoch, who won an epically deserved Oscar for his troubles, Yellow Ribbon is first and most obviously one of the most flat-out gorgeous movies ever filmed. But let's not be shallow.
"The American Southwest films like no other place on this fine Earth. The landscape and light combine in ways that can never be described to someone who hasn't seen it --- firsthand, preferably, but if not, films like this one are a good place to start --- and in black-and-white, it's absolutely breathtaking to see the jarring contrast of lights and darks, the vistas that look for all the world like matte paintings. But in color, it's a whole different story, one that Ford and Hoch exploited mercilessly. In color, those gorgeous abstract landscapes acquire an unmistakable and imposing physical presence; the sense of light playing on a surface of a butte turns into a slab of unfathomable sandstone, and when this is combined with Ford's noted mastery of the extreme long shot, the result is a film full of stentorian vistas, great expanses of landscape photography against which the human actors seem trivial and even foolish, not least because their dusky blue costumes are so firmly at odds with the bright, clear blue of the sky, and the expansive golds, yellows, and browns of the rock --- the blue and yellow of the landscape commenting ironically on the blue and yellow of the cavalry outfit, which really can't help but look drab in the face of the Nature's most impressive grandeur.
"And so it is, that the very same shots ostensibly showcasing the pomp and circumstance of the military column have an almost sarcastic feeling: to look at the film, even with the triumphal soundtrack trying to enforce its views, is to be confronted with the awareness that this, the land, is solid and real in a way that the little cavalry ants scrambling over it aren't; they are passing through briefly, but the stone and the sky belong. Never before and never again in all of Ford's career --- only rarely in Westerns generally --- does a film communicate so implacably and so repetitively this idea, that none of the wars and deaths add up to much of anything but a blip. Just in case we missed it, the film's narrator (Irving Pichel) ends with a short blurb to the effect of 'where these men went, America followed,' seeming all rah-rah and patriotic, except that the narrator reads these lines in a willfully unimpressed tone, as though even he doesn't buy for a second the notion that the landscape gives a shit about the United States, the cavalry, or the men who died there.
"Meanwhile, the savage Injuns, those stock villains for generation of Westerns, are generally treated okay, so that's hard to say one way or the other. Certainly, Yellow Ribbon is blandly racist in a way that the most progressive Westerns of the era are not; yet there are still tells that the progressive Ford, a man who rather famously disliked the anti-native slant of so many of his classics, was in charge. Not least of these is the manner in which the native warriors, on horseback, riding through their camp, are shot from almost exactly the same angles as their US counterparts; nor does it do to forget the bloodless climax, in which Ford and Hoch stage the action with such painterly elegance that it starts to lose its meaning, and becomes less a celebration of White over Native, but a tribute of activity over stasis, of attempting to prevent war in place of war itself.
"In the end, all of this --- warm glowy tribute to the cavalry vs. portrait of uninterested nature --- is reduced to the central figure, Brittles himself. The film is at heart a character study, and it gave the 41-year-old Wayne (aged to look rather less worn-out than he'd actually appear 20 years on) his first crack at the archetype from which all of his best performances would spring: the Old West man of action and violence, aware that his day is ending. Accordingly Brittles was the first great performance of the star's career: not that Wayne was the most supple of actors, but even in his limited range he did not always operate the same level, and this role found him exploring nuances and depths never given to him before. Brittles is an irritable man, aware that his life is mostly behind him --- and it's not meant to be subtle, look at his name! --- and like most aging pricks, he has a deep desire to be tender and happy, though this desire must never be shown. The scenes where Wayne is alone are the most beautiful in his career to that point: the tired look on his face as he addresses his wife's grave, the red rings around his eyes as he realises that he has just said goodbye to his troop for the last time, his gentle words to Olivia when nobody is watching. The absolute steel-edge certitude he displays for the troops, playful in the moment, is revealed as a shell: 'Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness,' he states several times, and yet in his unguarded moments, it appears that Brittles would like to apologize to someone, for something, very badly.
"It is an obvious sort of character, I guess, but Westerns are an obvious sort of genre, and as the vehicle for this consideration of military prowess, he is perfect. Looking over his career, Brittles is proud of his accomplishments, and sure that he was right; and yet there is a doubt peering around the edges, whether he's actually done anything. And this is the same theme of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and its treatment of the White Man in the West: intoxicated with the romance of it, adoring the humanity of the fort, and still the wilderness stands outside the fence, something far beyond human ken. It is in the main not as ambiguous as so many other Westerns, but somehow the more touching because of its shifting certainty."