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SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON(director: John Ford; screenwriters: James Warner Bellah/Frank S. Nugent; cinematographer: Winton Hoch; editor: Jack Murray; cast: John Wayne (Capt. Nathan Brittles), Joanne Dru (Olivia Dandridge), Victor McLaglen (Sergeant Quincannon), Ben Johnson (Sergeant Tyree), John Agar (Lieutenant Flint Cohill), Harry Carey Jr. (Lieutenant Pennell), Mildred Natwick (Mrs. Allshard), George O’Brien (Major Allshard), Tom Tyler (Corporal Mike Quayne ); Runtime: 103; RKO/Argosy; 1949)
“The best of John Ford’s trilogy about the 7th Cavalry.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The best of John Ford’s trilogy about the 7th Cavalry, which includes the initial offering of Fort Apache(48) and concludes with Rio Grande(50). John Wayne is in all three of them, playing a somewhat similar role of a rugged officer who is fighting the Indians. Though this film has the advantage of the protagonist being in the twilight of his career, having found peace within himself and who can now seek peace with his foes without the need to apologize for it. Wayne has commented to friends that this is his favorite role of all the films he ever made. It is an elegantly sentimental work touching on the rituals observed on an army post. Ford pulls out all-the-strings of patriotism and what it means to be brave in action, in order to show how self-sacrificing the cavalry men were in their dangerous role of staking out and protecting the territories that made up the West of 1876 after Custer’s defeat. But it is most of all the story of John Wayne, an army man, who is retiring after a distinguished career in the service of his country, looking at himself for one last time in uniform. He commands the full respect of his superiors and the men he leads, and is the ideal of what a soldier is supposed to be like.

A spoiled rich officer who is opting to leave the cavalry but accepts a chew of tobacco from Wayne and sees a gunrunner selling guns to the Indians, which becomes enough for him to realize that he has a patriotic duty to stay in the army. That’s how powerful John Wayne is in this film, just by being friendly he gets the young soldier sold on staying in the cavalry. Those were indeed more simplistic times but, believe it or not, it is not totally out of the realm of how some modern day soldiers may feel.

Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is about to retire in a few days from a job that he more than loves. He is given one last assignment by Post Commander Major Allshard (O’Brien), to escort an attractive single lady (Dru) and the commander’s wife (Natwick) out of harm’s way because the Indians have united and are on the warpath.

The twists in the story line come from the quirks the characters display and not from the story itself, which is rather ordinary. The camaraderie between the captain and the John Ford regular, the very much Irish, top sergeant (McLaglen), who likes a bit of whiskey and adds comic relief to the stodginess of the cavalry routine, fits in with the buddy theme of most Ford films. They show complete loyalty to each other and to the army they serve. A virtue considered essential for any character in a Ford movie that he really cares about.

The other Ford cornball subplots involve the romantic battle over Dru fought by the two lieutenants, Agar and Carey, which is played to the hilt as she willfully flirts with each, until she chooses the one she really loves. The bravery of a corporal (Tyler) in battle who even when severely wounded must finish his mission by reporting to the captain what he saw, is looked upon with gushing respect by the army company. And, finally, the most sentimental moments are savored for the captain talking to his dead wife about what he did for the day, expressing a love for her that is eternal. It adds to the feeling that the past cannot be ignored. It is the future without the army that scares an old soldier like Wayne, the most.

Winton Hoch, the cinematographer, won an Oscar for photographing the visually memorable mesas and haunting loneliness of the Monument Valley landscape, which was used as the film’s location sites. It provides the film with an epic scale of the country, as there is a melancholy intermingled in those vistas with a sense of reverie for the men who are so far away from civilization. They live in isolation surrounded by the red sand and barren mountain peaks, yet are greater practitioners of civilized etiquette than even the citizens back east through their daily obedience to rank and order and their need to socialize by formal dance and their chivalry toward women. It might seem old-fashioned, but is pleasantly accomplished here under Ford’s nostalgic eyes.

What pulls the film together and gives it its raw power, is something that can only be ascertained by accepting Ford’s premise that it is absolutely necessary what the men do: that they are in the right because they have God on their side, a just country behind them, and that the men are fighting to make the country safe for democracy.

To add color and more sentimentality to the story there is the theme song of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, played countless times to the immense pleasure of most viewers. The yellow ribbon worn by Dru, is a signal that she has chosen a boyfriend on the post. That act was given just as much importance in the story as was the key moment of the film, when Wayne rides into the Indian camp to try and make peace using the rational argument that both sides will lose many of its brave young men who are irreplaceable by carrying on this unnecessary bloody war. Ford justifies the placing of the Indians in reservations, as long as we treat them with respect and honor their customs. The cavalry should follow them to their reservations, but stay out of sight so the Indians wouldn’t be humiliated by the men watching them. Ford thinks he is being very liberal adhering to that philosophy.

This is Ford’s personal look at the West and the cavalry men he adores so much. Perhaps the scene that summarizes the film’s intentions best is when Wayne is given a solid silver watch by the men for his retirement, and the presenting of the gift and the accepting of it are met with a few well-chosen words each weighed heavily with an aura of mutual respect. It almost brings tears to Wayne’s and the audience’s eyes, as he reads the inscription that you know means so much to him. If you can see that as a glorious and magnificent scene you will have, most likely, fallen in love with this grand and lyrical film. But if you don’t, you can still be swept away by the eloquence of the film and Ford’s belief that this God created country has room in it for everyone who acts civilly.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”