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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a 1949 Western film directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. The film was the second of Ford's trilogy of films focusing on the US Cavalry (and the only one in color); the other two films were Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950). With a budget of $1.6 million, the film was one of the most expensive Westerns of the time, but became a major hit for RKO and remains a popular classic today. Known for its breathtaking views of Monument Valley located in the Navajo reservation, at the northern edge of Arizona; the cinematographer, Winton Hoch, won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography. Ford and Hoch based much of the film's imagery on the paintings and sculptures of Frederic Remington. The film is named after a song common in the U.S. military, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", which is still used today to keep marching cadence. It is a variant of the song "All Around My Hat". On the verge of his retirement at Fort Starke, a one-troop cavalry post, the aging US Cavalry Capt.
The cringe-worthy aspects of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can send chills down the spine of a non-rabid Ford fan. There is the tiresome Irish drunk act with Victor McLaglen, with Ford mining yucks from McLaglen guzzling whiskey and punching out troopers on his way to the guard house. Then there is the flimsy love story with dull John Agar and ho-hum Harry Carey Jr. half-heartedly locking horns for the affections of diffident Joanne Dru. And finally there's Ford's unquestioning glorification and right-or-wrong-be-damned depiction of the U.S. cavalry, which is presented as the one reasoned and civilized oasis in a cauldron of angry Indians. In a middling John Ford film, this kind of stuff would be enough to make you vomit. But She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is not a middling Ford film.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is, in fact, robust and rousing with glorious Technicolor cinematography by Winton C. Hoch and an endearing and stirring performance by John Wayne.
Wayne plays cavalry veteran Nathan Brittles who, after a career of service to the cavalry is being sent out to pasture with six days to go until his forced retirement. On his final mission, Brittles is sent on patrol to quell an Indian insurrection following the massacre of Custer and to take wife of the commanding officer Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick), Major Allshard (George O' Brien), and his niece Olivia Dandridge (Dru) to safety and away from the dangers of the Indian revolt. But the marauding tribes get the jump on Brittles, and his company never makes it to the rendezvous point. Brittles has to retreat and get his company back to the fort, his mission a failure.
After Wayne's performance in Howard Hawks' Red River, Ford remarked to Wayne, 'Jeez Duke, I didn't think you could act.' But Wayne's performance in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon proves beyond a doubt that Wayne was a great film actor. Playing a character ten years older than himself, Wayne's Brittles is strong, dominate, and unapologetic. ('Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness,' declares Brittles in a nod to one of Ford's own axioms.) One of Wayne's qualities as an actor is his stillness (something Ford took advantage of in Stagecoach) and with Brittles, Wayne uses that stillness to reflect melancholy and bittersweet remembrance. One of the finest and most subtle acting moments in all of Wayne's career occurs when the troop awards him a farewell watch and in order to read 'the sentiment' engraved on the watch, he sheepishly reaches into his vest for a pair of glasses.
Wayne's brilliant performance takes place amid the towering and mythic vistas of the Monument Valley landscape, painstakingly modeled upon the paintings of Frederick Remington. Ford lets that landscape do the talking, framing the troops as tiny figures making their way through a beautiful and untarnished vista, a natural world that dwarfs these humans and all their problems and wars.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is an old man's movie shot with a young man's energy and gusto. Ford clearly sees death lurking around the corner in every scene, from Brittle's monologues at the grave of his wife as he recalls the old days and the outpost's doctor saying his farewells to Brittles ('Goodbye Nathan. And may the road be kind to you') to the elderly Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) mournfully remarking to Brittles, 'We are too old for war.' Ford casts the film in a doleful haze of regret and with Brittles at first reluctant to make way for the young and inexperienced but ultimately realizing that the U.S. Army is as enduring as the desert landscape ('The army is always the same. the sun and the moon change but he army knows no season') and whomever takes Brittles' place the army will endure.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a passionate film and Ford hasn't curdled. Despite some glaring shortcomings, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon overcomes them all and ends up being a triumphant splash of western nostalgia.
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