She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, made in 1949, was the second film in John Ford’s famous cavalry trilogy and it nicely encapsulates all that was best in Ford’s film-making style.
It is just after the disaster that befell George Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1876. The Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho and the Comanches are all on the warpath. It is an uneasy time, with no-one knowing where the next blow might fall. It is an especially uneasy time for Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne). He has given his whole life to the army and now they’re putting him out to pasture. In six days’ time he retires. His next mission will be his last.
The commanding officer of the fort has decided to send the women east to safety. That will make Captain Brittles’ job even more difficult, with a wagon and two women accompanying his troop on patrol.
The unease mounts as a large party of Arapaho is sighted. They make no hostile move and Brittles (who has no intention of starting trouble if it’s not necessary) decides to bypass them. This will delay his patrol, with fateful consequences.
More signs of trouble soon follow. The Paradise River patrol is attacked and because of the delay caused earlier they barely escape to rejoin Brittles’ troop, with one badly wounded man. He will need an immediate operation which will delay the troop even further. And they need to get to a nearby outpost in time ti get the women safely on the stagecoach. But they are too late, and they are too late for the people at the outpost. It seems that Nathan Brittles’ career has ended with an ignominious failure.
He leaves a rear guard to defend a ford and heads back to the fort where he will ride off to an uncertain future in civilian life. It seems a strange ending to the movie, with the lead character about to be written out of the picture. But this movie is not over yet, and nor is Nathan Brittles’ story.
Being a John Ford movie there is comic relief as well, mostly provided by Victor McLaglen as a feisty old top sergeant who also happens to be one of Brittles’ oldest friend. He is also about to be retired. In this case the comic relief works well, lightening the mood for a moment before the dramatic climax.
There is also romance. Olivia Dandridge has been enthusiastically courted by both Lieutenant Flint Cohill (who will take over command of the trop when Brittles retires) and 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell. The other woman in the picture is the wife of the commanding officer, known affectionately as Old Iron Pants. She is more army than any of the men.
There is action as well, and Ford’s method was always the same with action scenes. He loathed the idea of rehearsing an action scene - he preferred the chaos and spontaneity of simply rolling the cameras and as usual the method works superbly. It is of course a method that only a master film-maker could get away with.
Winton C. Hoch won an Oscar for his Technicolor cinematography on this picture, and deservedly so. It’s magnificent.
John Wayne gives his usual apparently effortless performance as the ageing Captain Brittles. Of course this kind of apparent effortlessness can only be achieved by an actor with vast experience and who has learnt his craft perfectly. It’s one of Wayne’s finest and subtlest roles.
He gets good support from John Agar as Lieutenant Cohill and Ben Johnson as Sergeant Tyree (a former Confederate officer), and from Joanne Dru as Olivia.
Ford was never cynical about heroism but that didn’t stop him from examining the phenomenon with intelligence and a critical eye. Heroism in a John Ford movie is not a simple or an obvious thing. Nathan Brittles is a doughty fighter but that doesn’t mean he likes fighting. He won’t run away from a necessary battle but he won’t provoke an unnecessary one. As in Fort Apache we see the John Wayne character trying to avoid a fight with the Indians and showing that he regards them with respect. Brittles and his old friend, the equally ageing Chief Pony That Walks, do their best to avoid a fight but again as in Fort Apache circumstances are against them. Younger and more hot-headed men want war.
The Warner Brothers DVD presents the superb Technicolor in all its glory.
Another intelligent and subtle western from the master of the genre. Anyone who doesn’t take Hollywood westerns seriously has clearly never seen a John Ford western (and I’d further suggest that anyone who doesn’t take John Wayne seriously as an actor has never seen the westerns he made with John Ford).. A great movie, and a very entertaining one. Highly recommended.