She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, 1949
[Note: This is a rerun of a review first posted in October of 2003. I did indeed watch the movie again, but decided that what I said before stands unchanged. Links have been updated, a little light editing has occurred, but mostly this is what I wrote five years ago because this is still how I feel about the movie.]
So here they are: the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty-cents-a-day professionals… riding the outposts of a nation. From Fort Reno to Fort Apache — from Sheridan to Startle – they were all the same: men in dirty-shirt blue and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing. But wherever they rode — and whatever they fought for — that place became the United States.
How did this get to be one of my favorite movies?
In college, I took a course in Film Westerns, a broad overview of the history of the genre, from Tumbleweeds to Unforgiven, taught by the great Hugh Cohen. It opened my eyes, and I began avidly hunting down the work of different directors and writers within the genre, especially the pre-1960s artists.
But still, there are some darned hoary clichés. And John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon puts many of them on full display. If you watch this movie for the first time, you’re likely to think to yourself, “Ah, so that’s what Bugs Bunny was making fun of!”
The cavalry riding to the rescue, the constant bugle calls, Indian raids, the hero riding off into the sunset… it’s all here, displayed proudly, unabashedly.
On the other hand, the clichés get tweaked. The cavalry emphatically does not arrive in the nick of time. The bugle calls serve an essential purpose each and every time. The Indians are suffering a generational conflict, and the elders among them would prefer peace and harmony with the White Man, preferring to get drunk with friends and hunt to making war. And John Wayne rides off into the sunset — but that’s not where it ends.
Do you know how Wayne got this role? Oh, to be sure he had worked with John Ford many times previous to this. But the year before, Ford had seen Wayne play a much older man in Howard Hawks’s great Red River. In fact, Ford was sitting next to Hawks at the premiere of that film and, when it was over, Ford turned to Hawks and said “I’ll be damned; I never knew the big sonofabitch could act!”
So Wayne got the role of Captain Nathan Brittles, US Cavalry, who is being forced to retire in six days due to his age, having rendered forty years of service. Brittles is a widower, and the only life he knows is the Cavalry. He has one last mission to lead, and then must leave.
John Wayne was a great actor. That’s a notion I would have mocked before that westerns class, but it’s true. If you don’t believe it, you are hereby ordered to acquire three movies and make yourself a triple feature — this one, Red River, and The Searchers. If you come out of that lineup thinking he was a ham, there’s no hope for you.
His performance here is a wonder. At once brittle, stern, fearsome and lovable. He gives orders like “Well, don’t just stand there, haul off and kiss her back so we can get moving!” He sets up his oldest and best friend Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) to get locked away for two weeks in the guardhouse — so that he won’t lose his rank of sergeant before retiring himself.
In fact, there’s a scene with Quincannon and a young boy that encapsulates everything I love about this movie. The troop is out on the trail, and Quincannon has the boy with him to watch over. He draws a flask out when none of the other soldiers are looking, and says to the boy “It’s time for me to take me medicine.” He takes a slug, and makes a grotesque face. He looks at the boy again: “It tastes horrible!” That sort of nuance, that human foible coupled with decency, permeates the movie.
John Ford and John Wayne made better movies than this together. But never one that I loved more. It is honest, it is good, it is true, and I love every damn one of the characters in it.