She Wore A Yellow Ribbon Review
So here they are, the dog faced soldiers, the regulars, the 50 cents a day professionals of the nation's outposts. From Fort Reno to Fort Apache to Fort Starke, they were all the same. Men in dirty shirt blue with only a cold page in the history book to mark their passing. But wherever they rode and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.
Dedication to the US Cavalry
It's probably fair to say that, while it isn't his finest work,She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is one of John Ford’s best loved films. It's the second of the unofficial "Cavalry Trilogy" between Fort Apache and Rio Grande, and is about as typical an example of Ford's work around the turn of the decade as you could find. Sentimental, nostalgic and boisterous, it's the archetypal Hollywood western and none the worse for that.
John Wayne, in one of his very finest performances, plays Captain Nathan Brittles, an officer of the Seventh Cavalry who is due to retire in six days time. His family are all dead and he has nothing to look forward to except a vague notion of a new life out West, in the developing communities of California. However, this is 1876 and the defeat of Custer has caused the Cheyenne to declare war against the intruders, preventing wagon-trains and stagecoaches from passing. The Seventh Cavalry is underfunded and undermanned, in addition to not having been paid due to Cheyenne interference, but Brittles is determined to drive the Cheyenne back up North before he retires. Matters are complicated by the insistence of the Major that his wife and niece are evacuated with the patrol, and by the decision of the niece, Miss Dandridge, to flirt with two of the officers, Ross (Carey Jr) and Cohill (Agar). This romantic triangle is the most tedious part of the film. The stage-Irish comic stuff with Victor McLaglen as Sergeant Quincannon is fairly idiotic, but at least it's quite well staged.
However, in looking at the film with a somewhat stern glare fifty years later, it's important not to forget that these romantic and comic elements were expected by the contemporary audience and were probably what made the film so successful at the box office. The sentimentality and comedy come straight from a storytelling tradition and the very broadest kind of theatrical extravaganza, designed to distract a boozy audience and make them whoop and weep. Ford loved this kind of simple entertainment and was, at his best, very good at it as The Quiet Man and Judge Priest demonstrate. But he was equally capable of going well over the top and this resulted in embarrassments like What Price Glory and the unbearable Tobacco Road. What we see in the Cavalry Trilogy is Ford wearing two hats at once – serious film artist (whatever he might say to the contrary) and audience pleasing showman – and I think he generally gets the balance right. Without Quincannon and his life-enhancing vulgarity, the film would be very sombre and, I think, unbearably sad. As for the romantic elements, they’re no worse than in most studio pictures of the time, although I find John Agar a real trial to watch. He’s somewhat redeemed by his warm relationship with Wayne’s Brittles, but I don’t think he’s helped by being put alongside a genuinely charismatic young presence like Ben Johnson.
What powers the film - the title of which comes from an old song and tradition that a girl in love with a Cavalry man will wear a yellow ribbon he gives her - and gives it an emotional charge, however, is the central theme of the Cavalry as a brotherhood, or even a family, which transcends simple soldiering to become something almost religious. It has its own rituals and codes which must be adhered to, otherwise the whole thing falls apart. This is the basis of many mythic structures of course - Camelot for example - but Ford has such a passionate feeling about the Cavalry that his vision becomes unique. This is not a remotely realistic film about America in 1876, it's as much a legend as John Boorman's Excalibur, and it can only really be understood in that context. Captain Brittles is that familiar figure from myth, the aged knight keen to do one last heroic action to preserve his reputation - and Wayne's presence inevitably brings undertones of his own legend, built so assiduously by the actor and his family.
Ford stages some wonderful scenes of ritual involving the man; his chat to his wife's grave for example, a scene which would be hideously embarrassing performed by virtually any other actor, and the beautiful moment as his men give him a gold watch on his last day, when you think for one heart-stopping moment that the Duke is going to cry. Wayne underplays these scenes with a humour and presence that serve the material and strengthen the character.
Wayne is one of two reasons for non-western fans to watch the film (Western fans will already have seen it and loved it). The other is that John Ford was one of the most visually confident directors of his generation, and his compositions are, quite simply, breathtaking. The location shooting in Monument Valley is to die for as well as being, now at any rate, iconic. Here, it still looks surprisingly fresh - fifty years on, it's inevitably become something of a cliche. The vibrant Technicolor cinematography by Winton Hoch won a well-deserved Oscar, but there's no question that it was Ford who called the shots, choosing the striking look of the film from paintings. The final ride into the Cheyenne camp is beautiful, all dust and moonlight. Ford also understands pacing - although the romantic stuff is disposable, it's actually played out in relatively few scenes. Victor McLaglen's slapstick is also kept on the sidelines for the most part until a barroom brawl which is really quite funny. The relatively few action scenes are as well staged as you would expect and there is a fair head of tension built up. This is more a character film than an all-stops-out Western however, and the pacing is deliberately slower than we are now used to, which is no bad thing.
The supporting performances are generally competent, but not much more than that. Joanne Dru, John Agar and Harry Carey Jr are as dull as their material and only Ben Johnson makes much of an impression. Johnson is a pleasing reminder of the Western tradition that passed from Ford to Peckinpah during the sixties, although he looks alarmingly young here. Victor McLaglen plays himself as usual at this point in his career, which is either a bonus or a drawback depending on personal taste. He’s just two years from his annus mirabilis as Red Danaher and he looks in fighting form, well into his sixties.
It does hover close to excessive sentimentality in places and the constant use of a burly mens' chorus to sing the title song becomes wearing after a while, but it's hard not to like a film made with such obvious love of the material. Wayne and Ford deepened their work in 1956 on the incomparable The Searchers turning the benevolent Cavalry officer into the misanthropic obsessive Ethan Edwards, and Wayne went on to more complex characters in Hawks' El Dorado, The Cowboys and his last film, the moving requiem for an icon, The Shootist. But this is the sort of film that could never be made now without seeming hopelessly naive, not to mention racist. The portrayal of Native Americans here is not what you might call progressive, although there is enough appreciation of thier lore and culture to suggest that they are at least a people in their own right rather than just whooping psychopaths. But since the film is clearly well into the realms of fantasy and uses conventions of the genre still very common in 1949, it's fair to overlook this. There’s also the extraordinary sequence where Brittles meets the Indian elder Chief Red Shirt and they acknowledge their impotence to stop foolish young men from going to war. Ford’s sense of futility and frustration here is palpable and it’s remarkable to consider the journey he had made in ten years between the simplistic racism of Stagecoach and this kind of moral complexity. Eight years later, it is this angle which would become the focus of Ford’s masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made.
In 2001, I was unlucky enough to have the task of reviewing the Universal R2 release of this film. In 2002, I obtained the Warners R1 version and was absolutely blown away by the picture quality. Four years later, it still looks very good indeed even though some of their more recent Technicolor transfers are even better. The release under review here from the Ford/Wayne box set is identical to the earlier release, albeit in an amaray rather than a snapper.
The film generally looks gorgeous in a richly coloured 1.33:1 transfer which is crisp and sharp, offering plenty of fine detail. There is some very occasional dust and dirt and other minor print damage but nothing serious and here and there you may notice some artifacting, but again this is just nit-picking. On the whole it looks lovely and the colours are to die for. The crystal clear mono soundtrack is also very impressive.
The extras are brief but welcome. Along with some textual material about Ford and Wayne, we get the original trailer and four minutes of home movie footage shot in Mexico. The latter is priceless and I wish it were a lot longer. It's silent but backed by the score from the film and is in remarkably good condition considering the source.