She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, George O'Brien, Chief John Big Tree, Arthur Shields

The centerpiece of Ford's cavalry trilogy, the title is a reference to a popular US Military song that is sung over the opening credits. In the movie the yellow ribbon is worn by the commanding officer's niece (Joanne Dru) as a sign that she has a sweetheart in the cavalry, but she refuses to say for whom she's wearing it. The love story is only a minor subplot in the film's main story about an officer, Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) on the verge of his retirement in times of an impending Indian war.

The movie is set immediately after Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn and opens with a statement about his death. Ford had treated Custer's Last Stand - in a symbolic way - in Fort Apache, the first part of the trilogy. Captain Nathan Brittles has only a couple of days left in the army and is given one last mission: to bring the commander's wife and niece to safety before the Indians attack the fort. He's supposed to bring the two women to a stagecoach post, but when they arrive, they discover that the station has been destroyed. Back in Fort Starke, Brittles is told that the date of his retirement has arrived and it's all up to the younger generations now. A bloodbath seems inevitable, but Brittles still has a few hours left as a cavalry officer and uses them for one last desperate attempt to avoid a massacre ...

She Wore a yellow Ribbon has always been one of Ford's (and Wayne's) most popular movies, but it has also been criticized for being over-sentimental. Some have also read some strong anti-communist propaganda in it (1). Ford had been accused of communist sympathies after his adaptation of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1940) and he may have been a bit over-zealous in showing his patriotism, but his movies are not about politics, but about people (2). The Cavalry  is often presented in Ford's movies as a safe haven in the wilderness, and his notions about togetherness originate in this idea, not in political theories about collectivism. In such harsh and dangerous conditions, camaraderie and the force of the group were essential. Some characters in the movie (like Nathan Brittles) have fought for the North, others for the South, and the message is that they must unite, become one in the face of a new enemy. 

According to Ford biographer Joseph McBride, the movie also marks the starting point of Ford's (and Wayne's) intolerance with younger generations. Brittles' most loyal servant is a former Confederate officer (Ben Johnson), demoted to the rank of sergeant; his own lieutenants show little responsibility, are more concerned with their mutual rivalry than with the safety of the regiment, while Brittles himself is forced to step out of the box to avoid a catastrophe. His only true soul mate in the movie (apart from his late wife, whose grave he visits to talk to her freely) is an old Indian, Pony That Walks. The two Old Timers know many young men will die in the upcoming battle, but the young (on both sides) are bellicose, won't listen to their wise words. For Ford, the family man, this is a precarious situation. Traditions will only be preserved if the young are willing to learn from the elderly.

Such a complicated situation, requires a special action: when all seems lost, Brittles chases the Indian horses away from the camp, so they'll have to give up their planned attack. The scene may feel a little like a deus ex machina, but it serves the story well, especially in relation to Fort Apache. In Fort Apache a brave but reckless charge of the troops, led by Owen Thursday, had ended in disaster. The honor and unity of the regiment, could only be saved by covering up the man's folly. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the daring charge has the opposite effect: a massacre is avoided, but exactly for this reason, no-one will ever hear of it. Brittles stand for those anonymous men who do their job, risk their lives, but never end up in history books.

Allegedly this was John Wayne's favorite of his performances. John Ford didn't want him for the part of Nathan Brittles, but changed his mind after he had seen him in Red River. In Red River a 39-year old Wayne had played a character in his fifties (the film was released in 1948 but shot in 1946), now he was supposed to portray, at the age of 42, a man in his sixties. Not for a second we have the idea we're watching a young actor playing an old man: Wayne is Nathan Brittles, the veteran who's experiencing the existential angst of becoming a useless individual: his beloved wife has already passed away, he has no specific future plans, and all his friends are army men.

The tone is elegiac, melancholic, with some comic relief delivered by Victor McLaglen's hard-drinking sergeant. Wayne himself wasn't too happy with the ending, in which Brittles is called back, and offered the job of chief of scouts; he thought it would've been better to let Brittles ride into obscurity (4). Winton Hoch received an Oscar for his cinematography, which pays homage to the style of western artist Frederic Remington (5). There's an iconic scene of the troops carrying away a wounded soldier through Monument Valley in the midst of a thunderstorm. But in spite of all this picturesque beauty, the movie scores above all with some of its 'smaller scenes', such as Brittles visiting his late wife's grave, a woman watching the men march out and wondering how many will return, and the scene in which Brittles receives a watch from the men who have served him for years, and puts on his glasses, not only to read the inscription on the plate, but also to hide his tears.

* (1) Laurel Westbrook: Propaganda and American Values in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon 
* (2) If anything, Ford was a conservative. For this reason Roger Ebert called him an odd choice to direct an adaptation of Steinbeck's book, which clearly expressed left-wing views.
* (3) Paul Simpson, The rough Guide to Westerns, p. 121
* (4) Gary Wills, John Wayne's America, p. 181
* (5) Ford said about this: "I tried to copy the Remington style there. You can't copy him 100%, but you can get the color and the movement"