SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is a well-mounted, fondly recalled 1949 John Ford western, 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. Very 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 ). Mainly it’s a character study of an aging captain (John Wayne), on his last mission before retirement.
Aside from confounding the Apaches, the veteran 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 and Victor McLaglen).
Tried & true, routine—with most of the comic and romantic relief annoying instead of 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 an honest and dignified performance he regarded as his best (he was nominated that same year for Sands Of Iwo Jima, but felt he deserved it more for this mellower role).
Ford’s affection for the romantic mythology (a lot of which he effectively created) of the horse soldier, and the awesome landscapes he patrolled are framed by cinematographer Winton C. Hoch in rich Technicolor, making the most of the majesty of Monument Valley. Ford instructed Hoch “I want Remington color.” The shots of the proverbial “column of two’s” riding over the red earth, peaks 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, 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 an Oscar for his work.
The story runs 103 minutes, co-stars Mildred Natwick, George O’Brien and Arthur Shields. It got and still receives high marks from reviewers, and was a financial success, making almost $5,000,000.
I’m lukewarm on it, apart from Wayne and the visuals. The most audacious scene has thieving gun-runner Paul Fix being repeatedly thrown into a roaring campfire by his cheated and enraged Apache clientele. That’ll teach him…