John Ford Feature #6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

SheworeayellowribbonpostShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank Nugent, Laurence Stallings (based on The Big Hunt & War Party by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen

The second part of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy is a beautiful and sweeping technicolor dream, marking it one of the director’s very first full-color films.  The middle chapter in this spiritual series takes place immediately after the death of Commander George Armstrong Custer, who in real life died during the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon had the honor of being one of the most expensive western films ever produced up to 1949, and went on to be a smash hit for both John Ford and RKO Pictures.  The name of the film is listed from the classic and triumphant cavalry marching song of the same name, which makes an appearance or two in the movie.  The film was shot in beautiful color by cinematographer Winton Hoch, one of the originators of the technicolor format.  He won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his photography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a prize he had won the previous year for Joan of Arc, and would win again in 1952 for John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  John Ford would take on Hoch as a cinematographer for four other pictures, many of which are acclaimed for their cinematography.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon once again stars John Wayne, this time as Captain Nathan Brittles, as well as Joanne Dru as Olivia Dandridge, John Agar as Lieutenant Flint Cohill, and Ben Johnson as Sergeant Tyree.  The film also stars Ford regulars Harry Carey Jr., and Victor McLaglen.  Apparently, the casting of John Wayne in the lead role was up in the air initially.  The character of Brittles was two decades older than Wayne was at the time, and Ford wasn’t certain of his long-time partner’s acting abilities.  After seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ classic Red River, Ford realized that John Wayne could act, and promptly changed his mind and finally decided on his lead star.

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As mentioned previously, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon begins immediately after the fall of Commander Custer and his cavalry troops in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is a man on the verge of retirement, but has been given one last major mission to carry out.  The mission is to lead his troops from their post in Fort Starke to ease tensions with Cheyenne and Arapaho forces following Custer’s Land Stand.  Things are further complicated when Brittles has to escort the Major’s wife and niece, Abbey Allshard (Mildred Natwick), and Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) along with them.  The women are accompanying the cavalry to a nearby post in order to avoid the incoming Indian War.  Two of Brittles’ soldiers, Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), become romantically interested in miss Dandridge along the way, further complicating matters.  After the apparent failure of both such missions, Brittles decides to retire and head back for his Fort.  After some deep thinking by the Captain as well as unnecessary bloodshed, Brittles rejoins his men and arranges for a face-to-face meeting with the important Chief Pony-That-Walks (Chief John Big Tree).  When things once again don’t go so well with the Chief, the cavalry must regroup and devise a plan to lead the Native American forces back to their reservations and ultimately avoid another senseless war.  Will Captain Brittles finally overcome the odds and make peace with the Native people, or will he be forced to see more violence and bloodshed before his retirement?  Find out in the second chapter in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is quite possibly the most beautiful film in the marathon so far.  I might be biased though, because I’ve always had a soft spot for technicolor.  I love how the format looks both a little too bright and a little washed out at the same time, it never fails to create incredible imagery that I’ll remember for a long time to come.  Not only is the photography by Winton Hoch spectacular, but the lead performance by John Wayne is absolutely something to behold.  Even though he’s playing a man much older than he was in real life, you believe that Captain Brittles is a tired old cavalry captain on the verge of retirement.  It’s easily one of the best performances I’ve seen Wayne give thus far, and I can’t wait to see more of his more celebrated performances as the marathon goes on.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is famous for being the moment that John Ford realized the acting potential in John Wayne after a twenty year partnership, and I can certainly imagine the “eureka” moment he must have had.  A scene where Brittles breaks the news about no longer leading the cavalry to their mission and receiving a medal from his troops is truly touching, and allows Wayne to display a rare instance of humanity in one of his characters.  Captain Brittles may not be as loveable as Wayne’s Kirby York in Fort Apache and Rio Grande, but the performance given more than makes up for that.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon tells a realistic story where not every plan goes the way that they’re supposed to, and watching Captain Brittles battle his frustrations and doubt himself is heartbreaking in moments.  The “overcoming the odds” story is often riddled with cliches and general cheesiness, but somehow this film manages to subvert the tired trope and become something unique.  When things finally start to go the way they’re supposed to, you can’t help but feel triumph along with the rest of the cavalry.  On top of the triumphant moments felt when Brittles does have things go his way, the film’s titular theme song helps move the action along and makes the adventure feel much more grand.  IT plays over and over and roars over the film’s greatest moments, and I can guarantee it’ll be stuck in your head for a week afterward.  I haven’t stopped whistling the tune since the credits rolled the first time around.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon doesn’t have the same level of comedy, redemption, or incredible action set pieces as seen in Fort Apache, but it’s still a more than worthy follow-up to a terrific trilogy opener.  

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The first two parts of John Ford’s famous cavalry trilogy have been terrific pieces of good old fashioned western films, bringing with them a grand sense of adventure, thrills, progressive attitudes towards the Native American peoples, and two terrific performances.  I can only hope that the closing film, Rio Grande, is half as good as these two are.  With its terrific John Wayne performance, beautiful technicolour photography, roaring score and theme song, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is everything you could ever want from the western genre.  There’s a great deal of fun to be had here, no matter how you feel about westerns or the films of John Ford.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is highly recommended.

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