Sergeant Quincannon: ‘The army will never be the same after we retire

Captain Nathan Brittles: ‘The army is always the same. The sun and the moon change, but the army knows no seasons.’

After taking an absurd two and a half years for the Cine-East Film Club to present a John Ford western, this week sees the second in a row.   If last week’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a revisionist take on the myths and realities of the West, no such thing can be said about She Wore A Yellow Ribbon: it is a classic western in the true sense, immersed in and creating those very myths.

Having said that, even though the film  starts with a voiceover which starkly declares ‘Custer’s Dead’ apparently setting up a justified revenge movie, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is far from the schematic good guys/bad guys, injun’ killing, cavalry as protectors of civilization film that you might dimly remember from seeing it as a child.   The middle film of Ford’s cavalry trilogy (like its predecessor Fort Apache) is a far more subtle film than that. It is a film about ageing and tradition, about family and belonging, and about surviving.

With the exception of a bar room brawl which is a little too stage Irish (a common feature of many films by John Ford, who was a little too keen to play up his Irish roots) and lacks in the subtlety of the rest of the film, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon assiduously avoids cliche.

No native Americans are killed in the film. Only one character with a speaking part dies: ‘Private’ Smith – actually a former confederate Brigadier, Rome Clay – and we do not see the shoot out that leads to his fatal injury.   Indeed there are no shots intended to kill or harm in the entire film. The only two on-screen confrontations between the cavalry and the native Americans result in warning shots being fired by the cavalry over the heads of a scouting party and horse stampede designed to stop a full out war from breaking out. This is a film about the military that is in essence anti-militaristic, seeing the primary virtue in the pragmatism that comes with experience.  A blindingly obvious fist fight between two rivals in love with the same woman is defused without a fist being thrown, and a minor character who is hit by an arrow and would in 99/100 westerns be bang to rights for dying, survives after a bit of bumpy surgery in the back of a wagon.

At the heart of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is Captain Nathan Brittles, in the last few days before his retirement from the cavalry. Brittles is played by a 42 year old John Wayne, playing a man 20 years older than he was at the time. It is, along with The Searchers, Red River and The Shootist one of Wayne’s finest performances – giving the lie to any notion that he could not act.   His Brittles is a man of honour and quiet leadership – a man who knows the weaknesses of his men (from Sergeant Quincannon’s alcoholism to the love rivalry for Olivia Dandridge between his two Lieutenants, Cohill and Pennell) but also how to get the best from them and how to maintain their respect.

Underneath all of this though is a melancholy and a vulnerability. The sadness is both for the family he has lost (his wife and two sons lay buried in the cavalry troop’s grave yard) and the family he is about to lose (the cavalry itself) when he retires after 35 years of service.   Wayne is wholly convincing in the role and I challenge you not to have a tear in your eye when he goes out to take his troop’s salute for the last time and in full dress uniform (the blues and yellows glinting in the sun) present him with a pocket watch for his farewell or not to be moved by his reading of the list of the names of men he knew who fell at Little Big Horn.

Brittles understands that his role, as commanding officer, is akin to that of a father. His job is to ensure that the younger men under him do not do anything foolish rather and learn what he can teach them about survival in a hostile environment, rather than to obtain military glory.   It will be Brittles, serving to the last minute of his command, who will stave off a disastrous war with the various native American tribes who have joined together after the defeat of Custer, and who see the return of a buffalo herd to the old hunting ground as a sign that the gods favour them.

The meeting between Brittles and Chief Pony That Walks (played by Chief John Big Tree) is as beautiful a scene as you are likely to see in a classic western, as two old men who have seen war and know what it means talk about going hunting together with mutual respect and how difficult it is to restrain the younger hot heads in their midst.   The scene is directly quoted in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (though will less impressive effect) when Wales meets Ten Bears to try to prevent an attack on the new Eden he has set up with his make do new family of stays and waifs picked up along the way.

Although the title of the film refers to the tradition (and the song) of a woman with a cavalry sweetheart wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair suggests a focus on the love triangle between Cohill, Pennell and Olivia Dandridge, in fact this is only a small part of the film and in truth a bit of a Hitchcockian McGuffin (something the film appears to be about but which it is not really and which is only a plot device). The real heart of the film is in the study of the cavalry as family.     The cavalry family is also used as a metaphor for the unity of a nation, as the civil war rivalries that existed only a decade or so before have been forgotten, replaced with a loyalty to the blue and yellow – a powerful metaphor for the US of the time, having pulled together so successfully for World War II (it might also help to explain why the third of the cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande, is both the weakest of the three and the most problematic in its portrayal of native Americans, as by the time it was made the red scare and McCarthyism were beginning to take their hold in a far more divided country).

Brittles, for all of his status as a cavalry officer, is determinedly blue collar in his outlook and attitudes – his relationship with the southern sergeant, Tyrie (played wonderfully by a young Ben Johnson), is the closest to father-son in the film, and far closer than his relationship with those who are going to take over his command, including the decidedly West Point-y Lieutenant Pennell (who we are told at one point has a trust fund which will enable him to leave the cavalry and set up home Olivia, without worrying about his officer’s salary).   For men like Brittles, Quincannon (Ford stalwart Victor McGlagen) and Tyrie, the cavalry is not just a career but the only real life they will ever really know.   Although Brittles talks about going to California (like we are told William Munny does at the end of Eastwood’s Unforgiven) after his retirement, he does so without enthusiasm or much of a real plan.  Ford directs all of this without bombast or unnecessary exposition.

The film is blessed with gorgeous cinematography, as Ford sought to replicate the colours, textures and framing of the great American landscape painters of the Hudson River School and the cavalry paintings of Frederic Remington.     The skies are as stunningly beautiful as any you are likely to see in cinema and the famous scene of the cavalry moving through a stormy monument valley is as astonishing now as when it was shot. Indeed in many ways it is more astonishing now, as (like the extraordinary horse chase of an out of control stage coach that opens the film) today it would all be done through CGI, with all its eye-aching artificiality.

The expanses the cavalry ride through seem endless but also somehow threatening and claustrophobic – the academy ratio of the screen’s frame giving a sense of not knowing what is beyond the narrow boundaries of human vision, in an almost endlessly vast landscape, something that the prettifying effect of the wide screen westerns of the 1950s and afterwards would somehow lose. This sense of immanent danger is underlined by the expressionistic use of matte painted blood red skies – this is artifice used with a purpose and a singular artistic vision.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is then as fine a classical western as was ever made. It does not seek to suggest that the myths and traditions of the West are in any way a lie, as later revisionist westerns (including as I argued last week, films made by Ford himself) would do.   But this does not make it any weaker a film, quite the opposite – the West portrayed here is distinctly unheroic, with its emphasis on the maintenance of peace rather than the glories of war; the values of belonging to a collective rather than of the lone gunslinger; and the wisdom of considered experience rather than the foolhardy impulsiveness of youth.   The Ringo Kid has grown into Nathan Brittles and purity and simplicity has become complexity and nuance as a result.

It is then one of the finest westerns John Ford made and that makes it, by definition, high up any list of the finest films full stop

 

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Sportsnight #40: 1982, “The Catch”

by Charlie_East_West on October 29, 2014

Good evening and welcome to Sportnight. Tonight’s action comes from Candlestick Park, San Francisco on January 10th 1982 and the 1981 season NFL NFC Championship Game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.

The match is widely regarded as as one of the most memorable events in NFL history. The game represented the end of The Cowboys domination in the NFC, and the beginning of San Francisco’s domination in the 1980s – and with it the start of superstardom for the most famous player ever to put on shoulder pads and a helmet – Joe Montana.

The game featured the most talked about and revered moment in NFL history – in what has become known as “The Catch“.

Going deep into the fourth quarter, Dallas held a 27–21 advantage. San Francisco had the ball at their own 11 yard line. They had 4:54 left in the game to somehow get the ball up the entire field for a touchdown – against one of the meanest defences in NFL history – the Dallas Cowboys.

Montana then led the 49ers 83 yards right up the field to the Dallas 6-yard line.

Following the 49ers second timeout, they faced 3rd and 3 on the Cowboys 6-yard line with 58 seconds in the game.

When Joe Montana took the snap, San Francisco Head Coach, Bill Walsh, called a play that was intended to be a pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon. However, the Cowboys covered Solomon perfectly. The Cowboys defence then started chasing down Montana, forcing him to backpeddle and skip towards the sideline. He seemed certain to either end up out of bounds or get sacked. But at the last moment, and after at first faking the throw, Montana threw a high pass to the back of the end zone that seemed destined to sail out of bounds until 49ers receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping touchdown grab with his fingertips to tie the game with 51 seconds left. The extra point by kicker Ray Wersching gave the 49ers a 28–27 lead to win the game.

This game was the beginning of the end of the golden era for the Cowboys, and the start of dominance for the 49ers. After being a consistently mediocre team in the 1970s, San Francisco went on to win four Super Bowls in the 1980s, and made the playoffs eight out of the next ten years. 49ers quarterback Joe Montana went on to gain all time great status. Meanwhile, Dallas, the most successful team in the NFC in the 1970s with five Super Bowl appearances, never made it back to the Super Bowl in the 1980s.

I knew very little about American Football until about a month ago. My nine year old son now loves to watch the Channel 4 NFL highlights package – which is what I did back in the 1980s – before largely forgetting about the game due to the ridiculous stop-start 3 hours of action – largely enforced for commercial television. But now, thanks to my son, I watch the highlights packages, and it features some of the most athletic, stupendous fears of sporting endeavour that you will ever see. It makes Rugby Union look like a medieval lumpen game by comparison.

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#948: 2014, Allo Darlin’, Romance and Adventure

October 29, 2014

Time for something contemporary, I think. Allo Darlin’ are one of those bands that remind me of all those jingly jangly guitar based melodic indie bands I grew up with – there is something refreshingly old fashioned about them, if you know what I mean. Female vocalist, wry lyrics about love and loss.   What’s not […]

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Is the Minimum Wage everything we hoped it would be?

October 28, 2014

In the last few months the Tories have been boasting about the Minimum Wage. Hmmm. They now see it is as something they are proud of; David Cameron even mentioned it at length in his leaders speech about howthey’ve increased it to £6.50 per hour, and how they intend to keep it, and even increase […]

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Songs to Learn and Sing Golden Years #14: 1972

October 28, 2014

This post is long long overdue.   With the posting by Jackie South of his Bobby Womack tribute song, the great Across 110th Street all the way back at #907, 1972 became the 14th year to have had 20 songs posted in our Songs To Learn and Sing feature and thereby enter our Golden Years pantheon.  The […]

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EU Money and Bullshit

October 28, 2014

Although you have to admire the mischief-making timing of the demand from the EU for a further £1.7 billion from the UK, David Cameron’s foot-stomping red in the face outrage is so overdone as to be laughable. If only we had a less credulous press. Let’s take a run through the process. Contributions to EU […]

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#947: 1967, Prince Buster, This Is A Hold Up

October 27, 2014

Tonight I have a little treat for you. I am going take you way back. Right back to Jamaica in 1967. Right back to the birth of Reggae Ska and the Godfather of Ska music – Prince Buster. The featured track is called This Is A Hold Up. It has also been previously titled as […]

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Week 43: Hero – Gough Whitlam

October 27, 2014

This Week’s Hero of the Week is the former Australian Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who sadly died last week. Gough Whitlam has been called the Australian Clement Attlee. That comparison is fully justified, both in his political importance and in terms of the radical policies he was responsible for introducing. Whitlam, led the Australian […]

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Week 43: Villain – UKIP

October 26, 2014

This week, the United Kingdom Independence Party receive our Villain of the Week award as their mask slips in the European Parliament For anyone tempted to vote for UKIP in forthcoming elections, a salutary lesson was delivered by their Members of the European Parliament. They proved both that they are markedly less principled than any […]

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Week 43: Prat – Mike Read

October 26, 2014

This Week’s Prat is the former Radio 1 DJ Mike Read. 80′s breakfast and daytime Radio 1 – ah the names come flooding back, Dave Lee Travis, Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Saville, Simon Bates, Ooh Gary Davies, Diddy David Hamilton, the names, the jingles, the terrible quiz shows the cheesy mock American accents, the often shite […]

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#946: 1963, The Kingsmen, Louie Louie

October 25, 2014

When George posted a song by Paul Revere and The Raiders last week, he mentioned this brilliant track of garage rock. Then during week, Eighties DJ/ Smashie and Nicie inspiration Mike Read released his imbecilic/racist “UKIP Calypso“, reminding us about how he propelled Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax to number one in the charts by banning […]

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Sportsnight #39: 1981, When Liverpool Ruled Europe – Liverpool v Real Madrid, European Cup Final

October 22, 2014

Good evening, and welcome to Sportsnight. Tonight’s action comes from the Parc des Princes, Paris, France and the 1981 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Real Madrid. As Liverpool and Real Madrid prepare meet in the Champions League tonight, Liverpool go into the game as huge underdogs. Real Madrid are currently the Champions League holders, […]

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The Debates Debate

October 22, 2014

Last week the broadcasters collectively put together a proposal for leader debates for next May’s general election.   The proposal is for three debates.  The first is to involve David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage.  The second a debate (along the lines of those in 2010) between Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and finally […]

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#945: 1979, The Dickies, Banana Splits (Tra-La-La Song)

October 20, 2014

“….Meanwhile, back in North Towers, Ray was still making his way through his friend’s record collection. And after two very satisfying Toyah filled weeks, he was now on to the 7 inch singles. He leafed through them with barely concealed glee. There they were, Hand In Glove by Sandie Shaw and The Smiths, The Valley […]

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Week 42: Villain – Lord Freud

October 20, 2014

This week’s winner of the Villain of the Week award is the Tory Minister, Lord Freud. Lord Freud symbolises everything that is odious about modern political life. He is a public school, Cambirdge educated banker, a multi-millionaire who was first called into government and ennobled by Labour, who asked this rich, privileged man to oversee […]

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Week 42: Prat – David Treddinick MP

October 19, 2014

This Week’s Prat of the Week Award goes to Conservative MP for Bosworth and (extraordinarily) member of the Health Select Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, for his suggestions this week as to how the NHS should save money on Channel 4 news In a rational world David Tredinnick would have been laughed out […]

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Week 42: Hero – John Lydon

October 19, 2014

Singer John Lydon wins our ‘Hero’ award this week The recent publication of Lydon‘s autobiography, Anger is an Energy, have spurred a series of interviews by TV and the press. And what a delight they have been. First, last week there was the polite and pleasantly chatty interview on BBC Breakfast that took a sudden […]

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Cine-East Film Club Presents #55: 1962, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)

October 18, 2014

Train Guard: ‘Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance’ Except that’s not true. For the man who shot Liberty Valance doesn’t get the girl, sees the home he was building for her burn down in a fire and dies in such obscurity that only a few old timers remember who he even […]

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#944: 1966, Paul Revere and The Raiders, Kicks

October 17, 2014

As befitting the name, they wore silly American Revolution era costumes.   As this clip shows they did really silly dances.   They were, then, a bit of a novelty band with a pretty crap gimmick, but hey this was the 1960s and this kind of stuff didn’t seem quite as naff then – look at any […]

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Why Ched Evans should be allowed back to work

October 17, 2014

I have stood up in the Courtroom in which Ched Evans was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for rape, on many hundreds of occasions, and on many of those occasions, I have told a judge that my client accepts that he will lose his liberty for his crime, but understands that he must use his […]

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‘Growth, growth, everywhere, but why are we so skint?’

October 16, 2014

By we, I mean those of us who are not earning massive salaries, and by skint, I mean, having the very services that we all rely upon devalued and diminished. This week we have seen the publication of a number of interesting economic statistics: unemployment is down, inflation is down, growth continues (though not it […]

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#943: 1980, The Clash, Something About England

October 15, 2014

The first verse sends shivers down my spine… They say immigrants steal the hubcaps Of the respected gentlemen They say it would be wine an’ roses If England were for Englishmen again The Clash wrote these lyrics to Something About England back in 1980. They could apply to the borderline fascist ideology from UKIP that […]

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Sportsnight #38: 2005, The Genius of Kevin Pietersen, The Ashes, 5th Test, The Oval

October 15, 2014

Good evening and welcome to Sportsnight. Tonight we feature a previously shown edition of our Sportsnight action, as we really need to talk about Kevin. Tonight’s action therefore once again comes from The Oval Cricket Ground, on the final afternoon the fifth test of quite possibly the greatest ever five-match Ashes series. It was an […]

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Allthatsleft Book Club #13: Pig Iron by Ben Myers

October 14, 2014

In my teens I read the Northern kitchen sink literature of Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse, Stan Barstow and John Braine. They were angry young men, usually Northern; grammar school boys who had been plucked from their working class roots and thrust socially upwards with the assistance of post-war free University education. They wrote with often […]

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#942: 1979, Public Image Ltd, Poptones

October 14, 2014

It really is autumn now: miserable, wet, dank, leaf-strewn autumn, heralding ever shortening days and months of cold. That most British of seasons. No song conjures up British autumn for me better than Poptones (released on Metal Box in November 1979). The combination of Jah Wobble‘s bass and Keith Levine‘s guitar somehow sounds like a wet […]

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Week 41: Villain – Nigel Farage

October 13, 2014

Yet again, the UKIP leader wins our Villain of the Week award In the week UKIP had its first Member of Parliament elected, and came within a whisker of a second, their leader yet again showed what a vile piece of work he is. No sooner had the polls closed than Farage let loose his ill-thought […]

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Week 41: Hero – Malala Yousafzai

October 13, 2014

This week’s hero is the Pakistani schoolgirl and campaigner for the rights of children and young girls, Malala Yousafzai. Malala has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace – fantastic! The good people who hand out the Nobel gongs don’t always get it right – Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama anyone? But, this time, fair play, […]

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Week 41: Prat(s) – Labour’s UKippy MPs

October 12, 2014

This Week’s Prats of the Week are those Labour MPs who have reacted to the UKIP surge of support in Thursday’s by-election by calling on Labour to adopt more UKIP-like policies There is no doubt about which political party won the political battle last week, and it was not the Lib Dems whose conference in […]

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The Album Collection #25: 1980, The Clash, Sandinista!

October 9, 2014

I recently spent an enjoyable evening listening to The Clash, London Calling and proceeded to made an impulse purchase of their follow up album from 1980, Sandinista! on iTunes. The last time I listened to Sandinista! was probably around 1992, as a student. I think I listened to the album twice, and eventually gave up […]

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By-Election Special: Heywood and Middleton

October 9, 2014

Today’s by-election in Heywood and Middleton should be won by Labour. But it might have been a different story if the election had been held on a different day. Of today’s by-elections, the media will focus most on Clacton, where most (including us) predict that UKIP will win its first parliamentary election. But Labour’s decision […]

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