Tuesday, May 20, 2014

#1,373. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar

Tag line: "Wayne's greatest role as an Indian fighting Captain !"

Trivia: The exterior shots of Capt. Brittles' quarters and the building where Maj. Mac Allshard, Commanding Officer Fort Starke, has his HQ are still standing in Monument Valley

Director John Ford’s eye for action, coupled with a breathtaking Monument Valley setting, did its part to make 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon an unforgettable motion picture. But it was John Wayne’s poignant, heartfelt portrayal of an aging Cavalry officer that made it a great one.

Following the Battle of Little Big Horn, U.S. Cavalry troops stationed at Fort Starke have been put on alert, and Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles (Wayne) is assigned to quell any potential uprising by the local Native Americans. A few short days from retirement, Capt. Britlles leads his men, including old friend and comrade Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen); his eventual successor 1st Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar); experienced scout Sgt. Tyrell (Ben Johnson); and 2nd Lt. Ross Pinnell (Harry Carey, Jr), on what will undoubtedly be a very dangerous mission. 

Also along for the ride are Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick), wife of Capt. Brittles’ commanding officer, Major Mac Allshard (George O’Brien); as well as Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), a pretty young woman who has caught the eye of both Cohill and Pinnell. Against his better judgment, Capt. Brittles has been asked to accompany the women to the nearest town, where they’ll catch the next stagecoach heading east. 

But with everything from hostile natives to gun runners standing in their way, it’s looking like Capt. Brittles final mission will be the most difficult of his career.

When it came to staging action scenes, few directors were as effective as John Ford. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, we get a handful of exciting sequences, most of which center on the Cavalry’s run-ins with the Native Americans. And while Ford would shoot several films in Utah’s picturesque Monument Valley, including Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon makes the best use of this stunning locale. Ford and his cinematographer, William Hoch, who won an Oscar for his work here, feature it in just about every scene. 

As for John Wayne, he’s damn near perfect as Capt. Nathan Brittles, a proud officer and a brilliant leader of men who must deal with the fact that he has reached the end of a prestigious 40-year military career. The movie’s most touching scene has Capt. Brittles receiving a watch from the entire company, a gift in honor of his service. The watch was clearly a surprise to him, but it’s the sentiment etched into it, “Lest we forget”, that almost moves him to tears. Only 42 when he appeared in this film, Wayne, aided by some fine make-up, does more than just look the part of a much older man; he embodies it.

There are other strong performances as well, including John Agar’s (who would go on to star in such ‘50s B-movies as Tarantula and The Mole People) and future Oscar Winner Ben Johnson’s (in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Johnson plays Sgt. Tyrell, a Cavalry soldier who, a few years earlier, was fighting on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War). Yet, despite their superior work, it’s John Wayne who steals the show.

I always felt that Wayne deserved an Oscar for his turn as the bigoted Ethan Edwards in Ford’s The Searchers. After re-watching She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I now think he should have won two.


Billy Kravitz said...

Love this post! Love this film. You got it spot on!

Anthony Lee Collins said...

Definitely my favorite of the "cavalry trilogy" (Fort Apache has many great parts, but it also has entirely too much "funny drunk Irish soldiers" shenanigans -- plus it has Shirley Temple).

There's not a bad moment in this one, and, as you say, great performances all around. I keep thinking of scenes to mention, but then I'd end up mentioning them all. :-)