She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

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I may have promised Hitchcock or Wilder, but it has been even longer since I’ve reviewed a Ford western. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a classic example of one, and I’m glad to have caught up with it. There are some flaws with it, but a lot of good points too.

Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) of the US Cavalry is due to retire within the week, and is given one last mission in the meantime. In the wake of General Custer’s defeat, the Native American forces in the area are joining forces across tribes and Capt. Brittles’ mission is to get them to return to their reservations. Despite help from his lieutenants, 1st Lt. Cohill (John Agar) and 2nd Lt. Pennel (Harry Carey Jr.) , he is going to find this especially difficult to accomplish in less than a week with his commanding officer’s wife Abbey (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) along.

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A mild complaint I have against this film is that it was very unclear to me what Brittles’ exact mission was, though perhaps I just missed something along the way. The film’s dialogue places a lot of emphasis on delivering orders and lodging formal complaints, but that’s somewhat of a misdirection because the whole operation ends up having a very haphazard feel. As the film goes along, it becomes more clear that Brittles has about three different missions in one, the main one being get the Native Americans back on the reservation and not fighting the US Army, but also to stop the guy selling them guns, and get the women to a settlement so they can catch a stagecoach back east. He fails at the first two and goes back to the outpost in somewhat of a disgrace.

The plotting of the film is very strange, perhaps intentionally so to reflect the haphazard nature of what the West was actually like. Westerns often deal with the imposition of order on the frontier and what that means for the people who are already there or just coming there. Even if westerns don’t directly deal with these themes, they are always in the background. It seems like Brittles’ sets out on a mission that has been planned in some amount of detail, but they always arrive a bit later to their various stops and usually only dead bodies are there to greet them. For a film that outwardly places a lot of emphasis on military precision and procedure, the only victories Brittles can really claim happen after he’s “retired” and goes back on his own accord to finish what he’s started.

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Though I thought the plot was a bit scattered, I really did enjoy this film. I contains many familiar Ford staples, including Monument Valley locations, many of his regular actors Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, and of course John Wayne, and a strong sense of community throughout. Similar to The Searchers, there’s a bit of a generational divide here, where Wayne’s character is about to retire and his lieutenants are arguing over who loves Olivia more. As with that later Ford film, the young love aspect of it all is a bit hard to take, but it still makes for a more layered story.

The real star of this film though, is the technicolor photography. Winton Hoch, the film’s cinematographer won the Oscar that year for the breathtaking visuals you see on display here. I’m almost always biased towards three strip technicolor, I just think it has a vibrancy and texture you don’t see with anything else. I’m pretty sure is what was used here judging by the time period in which it was made and how vibrant the reds are in particular, noticeable in the scene when Wayne visits his wife’s grave in the sunset. The visual strategy is said to be based on the paintings of Frederick Remington and you can see it in the deliberately painterly compositions throughout the film.

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This is not to minimize Ford’s direction or Wayne’s performance. It helps that he is playing quite a likable character here, an older man struggling through a generational change-over but not allowing himself to be seen as obsolete. The other characters in the film consistently rely on him and need him, and differently from other characters Wayne has played in Ford films, he seems mostly comfortable within society and the establishment. It is said that this is the role that finally forced Ford to recognize Wayne’s talent as an actor, and with the amount of pathos he brings to the picture here it is easy to see why.

I don’t think She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a perfect film, but I do think it is a really good one. It has a lot of familiar elements from Ford’s other films (I listed the positive ones but I also feature unfortunately drunk Irish stereotypes and almost total Native American anonymity), for better and for worse. It looks amazing and does a decent job conveying the pains of growing old and seeing the world change before your eyes.

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“Yes, we are too old for war. But old men should stop wars.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review

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