SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is a well-mounted, fondly recalled 1949 John Ford western, simply great to look at, but so steeped in sentimentality that if you squeezed it hard enough you’d strain out a couple Imperial gallons of Irish whiskey. Little action in this, the second in what’s always rather lazily referred to as “the cavalry trilogy”, bracketed by Fort Apache and Rio Grande ( the trio came out over a 3-year span, but you could just as well extend the courtesy and make it a sextet with The Horse Soldiers, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn). Mainly it’s a character study of an aging captain (John Wayne), on his last mission before retirement.
In the wake of the 1876 Custer debacle, aside from confounding the warpath-bound tribes, the veteran ‘Captain Nathan Brittles’, mulling his life after the army, chatting to his wife’s gravestone in the post cemetery, has to nursemaid some fresh lieutenants (John Agar and Harry Carey, Jr.), who are both in heat over a spunky army brat (Joanne Dru). He also has to humor his loyal noncoms, Ben Johnson as ‘Sgt.Tyree’ and Victor McLaglen as ‘Sgt.Quincannon’. Did anyone named ‘Quincannon’ ever exist outside a John Ford western?
Tried & true, with most of the comic and romantic relief silly and annoying instead of engaging or affecting. Richard Hageman’s score really plows in the noisy nostalgia. But Wayne looks great, made up to pass as a man twenty years older (he was 41), and gives a warm, full-bodied, honest and dignified performance that he often mentioned as his best. He was nominated that same year for his hardcase Stryker in Sands Of Iwo Jima, but felt he deserved it more for this kinder, mellower, more introspective role. He remains, rest assured, fully In Command. Me-self, strong as he is here, I’d be favorin’ Duke in another of his five from ’49, Master Ford’s Three Godfathers.
Ford’s affection for the romantic mythology of the horse soldier, (a lot of which he effectively created), his bygone world and the awesome landscapes he patrolled are framed by cinematographer Winton C. Hoch in richest Technicolor, making the most of the majesty of Monument Valley. “Pappy” instructed Hoch “I want Remington color.” The shots of the proverbial “column of two’s” riding over the red earth, monoliths in the background, while black clouds of a lightning storm sweep in are Americana treasures. They were a break—both lucky and dangerous– to capture on camera for that memorable scene, when the gale blew up suddenly. Everyone got nervous because the metal on bridles and saddles could conduct electricity, but Ford was adamant, Hoch aced the shots, and and was awarded an Oscar for his work.
The farewell patrol runs 103 minutes, co-stars Mildred Natwick, George O’Brien, Arthur Shields and Tom Tyler. In small parts are Ford regulars Chief John Big Tree, Jack Pennick, Fred Graham, Francis Ford and Mickey Simpson. The ever-present bugler is feisty Frank McGrath, who later found fame and fans playing cantankerous chuckwagon cook ‘Charlie Wooster’ in 271 episodes of Wagon Train. The now-sappy narration was done by Irving Pichel. Ford and his writers Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings took elements from two short stories by James Warner Bellah, but worked mostly off a free-flowing memo Ford wrote outlining what amounts to a visual poem, an elegy to aging, a salute to tradition. He shot quickly and economically; knowing just what he wanted he was effectively editing in camera. He brought it in with just 31 days of shooting and well under the budgeted $1,800,000.
It got and still receives high marks from reviewers, and was a financial success, making $7,600,000, 24th place back in ’49. I’m somewhat lukewarm on it, apart from the assured excellence of Wayne—who, with Red River under his gunbelt—had fully ‘arrived’, and those glorious visuals. Agar grates, Dru is pretty but bland and it draws out the ending to a thumb-twiddle. I prefer Fort Apache, but heck, it’s hard to resist the lusty stanzas of the title tune, as well as “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and snatches of “Garry-Owen”. And Ben Johnson is…well, Ben Johnson. The most audacious scene has thieving gun-runner Paul Fix being repeatedly thrown into a roaring campfire by his cheated and enraged Cheyenne clientele. That’ll learn’im…*
* Cantankerous to a fault, Ford paid his 200 Navajo extras 50% more than the local Mormons he hired. It was a big leg up for 31-year-old former rodeo cowboy Ben Johnson, who Ford then featured in several films. It’s a pleasure just to hear his relaxed drawl, let alone watching him ride like he’s part-horse. Speakin’a men, down a tequila with a quote from Big John: “The feeling of the men who worked on westerns was altogether different from the feeling on straight pictures. We lived in a tent city and at night we played cards…Sometimes the Sons of the Pioneers were there, and they sang, too. It was kind of captured companionship and we made the most of it. And most of it was delightful because it was different from the way we lived at home.”
Wayne & Ford biographer Scott Eyman: “Brittles embodies abstract qualities like honor and loyalty and Wayne makes them concrete with a total mastery of effect. It’s a film that could only have been made by two men who existed in a perfect state of silent communication, where words were basically unnecessary, as with the autographed picture of Ford that hung in Wayne’s house for decades: “To Duke from the Coach”, it said. “John Ford, Hollywood ’47.”