Cine-East Film Club Presents #56: 1949, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)

by George_East on October 30, 2014

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 with 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 strays 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 with 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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