“As a director and a spectator, I like simple, direct, frank films. Nothing disgusts me more than snobbism, mannerism, technical gratuity... and, most of all, intellectualism.”
- John Ford
John Ford’s eulogizing of the great American frontier arguably reached its bittersweet epoch in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), the second movie in his so-called ‘cavalry trilogy’. While a good many westerns of its ilk and generation are prone to a chronic sort of rustic romanticism; the glint of early morning dawn endlessly preserved for posterity as it creeps along the mesas and towering buttresses of Monument Valley, these sparse landscapes, dirt-road towns and military outposts, populated by hearty rustlers, ill-mannered desperadoes, stoic, heroic and manly figures, exemplifying various notions of the law; and women – either plainly virtuous or rhapsodized as flashy prostitutes with their proverbial hearts of gold worn on the spangled sleeves of their favorite party dress – Ford’s western milieu generally forwent such obvious trappings to tell more heartfelt stories matted against an introspective, though no less epic backdrop. Unequivocally, Ford’s passion for the American west is singularly responsible for giving us its legends and folklore. In his own time the world knew of no finer advocate than John Ford, devoted to this mythologized frontier experience. In some ways, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon typifies Ford’s own impassioned disconnect with that ‘ancient’ flower (barely forty years separates the actual frontier from Ford’s iconographic vision of it). And Ford, ever a renaissance man, cannot help but view the west through rose-colored spectacles for that time when it was largely untouched by the hand of man – decidedly open to the promise of better things to come. Were that Ford could have lived it for himself as a young man he might have become as indelible a touchstone as Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp. Even as he came to the west ‘second best’, Ford has long since proven irreplaceable among these legendary figures, unabashedly the sentimentalist, though with a manifest loathing for rank sentimentality.
“You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart,” Ford once fondly intimated, a rather interesting reflection, considering how well-guarded Ford kept his own. Few, even of his stock company costars, ever saw that softer side Ford fought like hell to keep secret from the rest of the world. As such, it is one of Hollywood’s ironies the reality of John Ford does not perfectly align with his reputation as a film-maker. Indeed, while his movies tend to be innermost snapshots devoted to the emotional content of his characters, the content of his own veered wildly between exacting precision and a sort of maniacal gruffness, teetering on the brink of abject cruelty. Ford’s favorite punching bag was John Wayne. And it is saying a great deal of both men that despite Ford’s envy for Wayne, these two titans – mythologized in their own right – came to regard each other with mutual respect as equals. To be sure, Ford could appreciate no star quite so much as ‘Duke’ Wayne; and Wayne scarcely admired another director as accomplished as Ford. If, as Wayne once suggested, “all battles are fought by scared men who’d rather be someplace else,” then in their own symbiotic union, neither Wayne nor Ford could believe in an alternative that would be more mutually beneficial. Perhaps the perversity in Ford’s outward belligerence towards Wayne was the sparkplug in their artistic synergy. Who can say for certain why any relationship works or is doomed to fail. But there is little doubt Wayne and Ford were a match made, if not in heaven, then some such place where the green lilacs plentifully grow; of the land and imbued with that intangibly genuine and stout-hearted masculine verve.
Loosely based on a pair of short stories – The Big Hunt and War Party – both by James Warner Bellah, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is undeniably John Ford’s most clear-eyed and understated stirring tribute to the United States Cavalry; and yet, equally a sort of forlorn farewell to its pride and passion. John Wayne, herein cast as a withering representation of his former manhood, as Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, is greatly esteemed by his men, particularly Top Sgt. Quincannon (the unimpeachably lovable Victor McLaglen); Wayne, convincingly aged from his relatively youthful 42 years to a weather-beaten 65; proving his considerable acting chops with an acquired forthright, gentle-manly grace, wisdom, sincerity and the strength of his stubborn convictions. From the late 1970’s on, there came a tradition to discredit John Wayne’s screen popularity as something of a bad cliché of the butch and decidedly out-of-touch dinosaur. Loosely, his acting was regarded by his pundits as merely a variation of his playing himself; Wayne, when famously asked by one such critic to comment on his ‘motivation’ in a scene, somewhat tersely replying, “….to say my lines and not bump into any furniture on the way out.”
Yet, throughout his enviable career as Hollywood’s reining he-man, the Duke could be counted upon to offer up subtle nuances, oft overlooked by the critics, but palpable to anyone with eyes, and, as contemplative and solipsistic as anything put forth by an Olivier or Gielgud. Ideologically, Wayne typifies a certain breed of leading man virtually vanquished from the movies long since; the unapologetically virile man of action, charging headstrong into battle, dictated to by none, and driven by primal urges to love, hunt, defend and conquer (not necessarily in this order); a real man’s man, made attractive to women by his principled integrity. In another life, John Ford might have ventured into such daring does of self-discovery himself. And in Wayne’s Nathan Brittles we not only see this sort of rugged individualism Ford sought to emulate, but also the kind of furrowed class, later to canonize Wayne’s iconography as a monument to veracity. Brittles is something of a chivalrous warhorse, but as only Ford could have imagined; Wayne willing his broad-shouldered/rough-hewn physicality into a sort of rear-guard heroism on the wane.
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon gets criticized for its lack of story; considered one of Ford’s less substantive slices of Americana, perhaps in large part because Winton C. Hoch’s superlative Technicolor cinematography seems to take over and, on occasion, eclipse the performances being given. Without question, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is one of the most resplendently startling westerns of all time, its fiery sunsets, starkly sun-baked early dawn patrols across the barren red-earthed landscape, and moodily lit night scenes with a perpetual low bank of clouds lazily slicing off the tops of these towering stone monuments, adding pictorial girth to an otherwise gentle and unprepossessing lover’s triangle. In point of fact, one cannot entirely dismiss the somewhat episodic nature of Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings’ screenplay; the vignettes, including brushes with a Cheyenne dog-party on the prowl, a hellacious deluge on the great plains, epic buffalo stampede, and, emergency surgery performed on a wounded man, built around a burgeoning conflict of intimacies, involving determined Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) and a pair of shave tails; Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Second Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.). Cohill is the amiable of the pair, sheathing this affable good nature under a cloak of moderate jealousy, especially when Dandridge gives every indication she might favor his competition instead. After all, Pennell comes from privilege (that’s right, honey – you marry for love). But Cohill has rank on his side and occasionally manipulates the chain of command to ensure he remains front and center as the candidate of choice in this moderately caustic romance.
The plot, such as it is, begins in 1876, following the death of Gen. Armstrong Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn. The Cavalry, led by Capt. Nathan Brittles, address a beleaguered stagecoach, lumbering into Fort Stark after suffering an attack by the Cheyenne; robbed of its payroll, its driver, killed. Capt. Nathan Brittles is understandably concerned for the safety of his fort, recognizing that the Cheyenne rarely venture so far south. Acknowledging the attack as a prelude to war, Nathan’s concerns continue to mount. In just six days, he is being forced out of the army after a long and illustrious career. Brittles perennially – if slightly – inebriated arbitrator of good sense, Top Sgt. Quincannon is perhaps the first to realize what retirement truly means for Brittles – a man soon to be marked without a purpose. For more than forty years, the army has been Brittles’ whole life. Sacrifices made during this passage of time have decidedly taken their toll on Brittles. He ventures to nearby familial headstones where he consults with his deceased wife, Mary, on what the future may hold for a solitary soldier, perhaps with a little wistful longing for the hour he will rejoin her in heaven. His quiet ruminations are witnessed by Olivia Dandridge; a compassionate and mature young woman who has a great affinity for Brittles as a sort of father-figure. Dandridge wears the yellow ribbon in her hair; a symbol of her status as an eligible maiden in search of a beau; her ambitions for a husband presided over with benevolent encouragement from her Aunt Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Uncle, Maj. Mac Allshard (George O’Brien).
Fearing a Cheyenne revolt, the Major orders Brittles to escort his wife and niece from Fort Stark under the protection of an Indian patrol to Sudros Wells where they will catch a stagecoach back East. Brittles is incensed, believing the military escort puts not only Abby and Olivia’s lives in grave danger, but also those of his men, whose energies are thus divided, making them even more susceptible to an attack. After registering his formal protest, Brittles begrudgingly leads the patrol into the wilderness. Taking notice of the yellow ribbon woven into Dandridge’s hair, Cohill and Pennell each ponder whether he is the object of her affections. Playing her chances right down the middle, Dandridge has given neither definitive proof of her heart’s truest desire; previously endeavoring to venture on a picnic with Pennell, only to have this outing thwarted by Cohill, who manipulates direct orders to deny the couple their time alone together.
Soon thereafter, Brittles learns from his scout, Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson) of two solitary white men riding to Sudros Wells. Tyree later confirms a large contingent of Arapaho is also traveling in the same direction. Concerned for Abby and Olivia’s safety, Nathan orders his patrol to take a slightly longer route into town, fully aware its detour may cause them to miss the stagecoach. Along this new route, the patrol encounters a large herd of grazing buffalo. Tyree and Brittles concur that an inter-tribal council meeting is likely planned in secret; attended by Indian agent, Karl Rynders (Harry Wood) and his interpreter, selling guns to Chief Red Shirt (Noble Johnson), an enterprising and blood-thirsty Arapaho, determined to make war against the settlers and the army. Astutely reasoning Sudros Wells is likely the focus of such an attack, Brittles orders Tyree to hurry ahead to Paradise River and return with the unit he commands to Sudros Wells. Alas, before Tyree can reach his destination his unit is attacked, the Indian assault diffused by Brittle’s quick intervention. As storm clouds break across these desolate plains, Tyree move his patrol out. Wounded in the previous skirmish, Corp. Mike Quayne (Tom Tyler) is operated on by Dr. O'Laughlin (Arthur Shields).
Brittles and his entourage reach Sudros Wells too late, the outpost decimated in a bloody coup, forcing Brittles and his regiment to retreat to Fort Stark. Later in the evening, Cohill, Brittles and Tyree spy on a war council meeting. Rynders naturally assumes he has the upper hand, bartering with Red Shirt to secure a higher price for the weaponry he has brought along. But Rynders has overestimated his trading relationship with the Indians. Red Shirt orders one of his men to brutally slaughter Rynders and his interpreter; the gruesome spearing, before being repeatedly dragged through a raging campfire, witnessed by Brittles with dispassionate satisfaction. It is now of the utmost importance Brittles return the ladies to Fort Stark post haste. He orders Cohill to remain behind with three squadrons to flank their crossing. Realizing she may never see him again, Dandridge embraces Cohill with a kiss, signaling once and for all her clear decision to accept him as her beloved.
Declaring their mission a lost cause, Brittles nevertheless ensures everyone’s safe return to Fort Stark. He is forced to accept his retirement by Maj. Allshard, but elects to help Cohill prove his mettle by rejoining his forces at Paradise River. Determined he should return to Dandridge in one piece, Brittles orders Cohill to stand down while he and Tyree venture ahead to negotiate a truce with the Indians. Although elder Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) offers Brittles and Cohill a warm reception, nothing they say is able to dissuade him from making war. Eager to avoid further bloodshed, Brittles orchestrates a midnight raid on the Indian camp, successfully scattering their horses and thus forcing the Indians to return to their reservation on foot; humiliated, but otherwise unharmed. Realizing his regimental tenure is at an end, Brittles prepares to depart. Of late, his thoughts have been leaning to the promise of a fresh start in California. As both fate and good fortune would have it, Tyree arrives in the nick of time with a letter from the War Department. Brittles has been promoted to the exalted rank of Lieutenant Colonel Chief of Scouts. Accepting this post with great humility, Brittles and his men return to Fort Stark where he admits the hearty congratulations of his fellow cavalrymen. Blessing Dandridge’s decision to marry Cohill, Brittles prematurely leaves the gathering to share his good fortunes with Mary.
Despite some very finely wrought performances, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon doesn’t hold its own as well as some other John Ford westerns. Perhaps, something to do with its title – an erroneous misdirection, as the proverbial yellow ribbon, presumably worn by eligible maidens for their lovers sent off to war, is only touched upon, though never given weight within this story; the focus herein, on a snapshot of cavalry life and the solitary stoicism it breeds in men of a certain vintage and honor. John Ford is undeniably the master of this sort of male bonding and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is hardly unworthy of all the critical accolades it then received. But it pales somewhat in Ford’s vast back catalog of iconic western-themed dramas; the real star, arguably, Winton C. Hoch’s positively gorgeous Technicolor cinematography; a richly saturated tapestry of hues designed expressly to illicit a certain careworn pride while evoking an epic sense of grandeur. And Ford, with this movie, ever intuitive in his reinventions of the serialized and cliché-ridden matinee ‘cowboys and Indians’ melodrama, continues to elevate the social standing of the Hollywood western to a finite level of uniquely American artistry – as sumptuous and evocative as any renown painting by Remington while ever so gingerly eschewing the usual western milieu of brawls, broads and braves, battling it out against this windswept and sun-kissed tundra.
The failing here is perhaps the script; a story seemingly about nothing except the daily rigors and occasional mundane duties in cavalry life; the Nugent/Stallings’ screenplay methodically paced, but lacking two fundamentals to make it truly click; first, a sense of drama in its narrative arc, and second, some emotional satisfaction owed from any of these characters to setup their suffrage as genuinely engaging. John Wayne delivers a supremely nuanced portrait as one of Ford’s most iconic ‘celibate heroes’ burdened by a sense of personal loyalty as well as truthfulness. In short, Wayne is magnificence personified; the elder statesman preparing to enter his emeritus years; given a last minute reprieve from merely fading with these moldering pages of history. Joanne Dru is an eloquent and forthright heroine, possessing a far greater intelligence as an actress that serves the enterprising Olivia Dandridge well. She plays her cards right in the romance department too – affectionately attracted to Wayne’s statured senior officer; exhibiting restrained regard for which the separation of their years will not allow a more permanent amorous involvement.
In lieu of this complication, Dru’s heroine knows her own mind. There is never any real doubt John Agar’s Lt. Flint Cohill is leading the pack, though Dandridge sincerely makes him work for the honor. She is not the shrinking violet, but the mistress of her own destiny; rather, determined to test the stillness of these very deep waters. Last, though hardly least of all, Victor McLaglen stirs and warms the heart as the clumsily noble sidekick, imbued with the Irish gift of the blarney stone. Interestingly, Victor Andrew de Bier Everleigh McLaglen was born English – not Irish – though the movies would have us believe he never ventured too far beyond Killarney for his inspirations as the stout-hearted thespian. McLaglen, who ought to have had a more robust standalone career, nevertheless adds another indelible and charming figure of fun to the girth of his actor’s repertoire.
In the last analysis, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is second-tier John Ford; which is pretty much first-tier everyone else. With what he has been given, Ford has exercised an exemplary mastery of his cinema language; delivering the goods with spans of lurid action interspersed between tender moments of uncomplicated introspection; his peerless visuals both intrepid and handsome. There was not a director in his own time to make a troop of soldiers appear more majestically the embodiment of America’s outward pride in its own nation-building prowess; or satisfy so completely with odes to bygone chivalry, sandwiched between twinges of social regret carved into an old soldier’s sad-eyed valediction. Yet, Ford’s sense of artifice and authority are occasionally at odds with the realism of these stark, craggy plains that envelope. The movie is perhaps a little too understated for most expectations; the battle sequences more or less resolved in a cause and effect matter-of-fact manner.
This might have worked if Ford had given us more involvement between characters along the way. Instead, he indulges us with his obvious love of the land; long tracking shots of the journey, the real drama to be found in some awe-inspiring vistas shot in vibrant shades of glorious Technicolor. Lavishly produced and extremely edifying, the cinema language in this piece is nevertheless limited and not enough to sustain it as a drama/actioner; more of a moving tableau, superficially touching upon the rigors, virtues and vices of military cavalrymen perennially on the march. Cobbled together from interiors shot on a sound stage, it is the jaw-dropping sumptuousness of the exterior locations, for which cinematographer, Winton Hoch deservedly won an Oscar, that continue to enthrall. Spectacular visuals can obfuscate a lot of sins. Alas, they are never the ‘cure all’ for less than prepossessing storytelling. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is a grand movie experience, but it never truly burns its moments, however lyrical, into the subconscious with any authentic staying power.
The Warner Archive delivers the goods in spades with this stunningly handsome Blu-ray. Restoration expert, Robert A. Harris has suggested the image is good but not perfect, as it was derived from an IP of the original 3-strp camera negatives, rather than the negatives themselves; a cost-cutting measure on Warner’s part that nevertheless has yielded some uncompromisingly breath-taking results. It’s difficult, if not impossible to imagine how much better this might have looked with more money spent. Warner Home Video’s old DVD suffered from a modicum of Technicolor mis-registration creating damn disturbing halos that greatly softened the image. These have been completely rectified on this new 1080p transfer. Wow and thank you! Contrast advances monumentally. Blacks are richer; whites, crisper, with everything in between snapping together with renewed freshness arguably unseen since the picture’s opening night splendor.
Although Technicolor was generally known as a grain-concealing technology, film grain herein is exquisitely prominent and naturally realized; perhaps ever so slightly smoothed during the main titles. Does it matter? Not really. What’s here is a visual banquet for the Technicolor enthusiast. I adore and applaud the efforts. As for the audio, it has been restored from an original nitrate track print; a second generation choice, likely made because the originals no longer exist. Extras are once again limited to the vintage home movies shot by Ford and a theatrical trailer, both featured in 1080p. Yes, I could be forlorn no new audio commentary compliments this important reissue on Blu-ray, but frankly, I’m just too in love with the picture quality to care. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is required viewing and WAC’s new Blu-ray is decidedly the only way to experience one of Ford’s most fondly recollected masterpieces in style.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)