Monday, February 28, 2011

My Favorite Movies: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, made in 1949, is the second of three movies directed by John Ford often known as the Cavalry Trilogy.  The first, Fort Apache, stars John Wayne but features Henry Fonda with Shirley Temple as his daughter.  The third movie, Rio Grande, features Wayne with Maureen O'Hara.  The stories aren't connected, so watching them out of order isn't a problem; they are simply related in a thematic sense as they are about the U.S. Cavalry on the frontier.

 SWaYR is one dear to my heart because of the kind of character the Duke plays.  He gained about thirty pounds to portray a cavalry officer, Captain Nathan Brittles, nearing his final days of active duty and anticipating his retirement. Brittles, a Union Civil War veteran, is a fighter, but not a firebreathing Indian hater.  Rather he is a keeper of memories, whether they are of battlefields long ago, or friends who've passed away.  One example of this is the many visits he makes to his wife's gravesite on the post as he relates the day's news to her, whether it is the news of Custer's fall at Little Big Horn and the death of an old friend, Myles Keough, or that Miss Olivia Dandridge, the post's belle, reminds him of her.
Captain Brittles bears the news of Custer's defeat during their evening chat.
In many respects the movie is about Brittles' effort to keep his extended Cavalry family safe in the face of a potential Indian uprising.  Set against the news of the Little Bighorn disaster Wayne is tasked with leading the women of the fort, Allie Alshard (wife of the commanding officer) played by Mildred Natwick, and Miss Dandridge, played by Joanne Dru, to a safe evacuation point.  The escorting troop is forced to detour from its rendezvous with the stage line at Sutro's Wells, and arrive only after a short and sharp skirmish with the Indians that leave the Sutros dead and several casualties.  Brittles is forced to return to the fort, posting a rear guard in a dangerous situation.  Though technically his retirement occurs on the day after his return, he leads the troop out once again, relieving the exposed rearguard, and driving off the massive Indian pony herd in a daring night attack.  The story ends as Brittles is appointed chief of scouts, keeping him in the family so to speak.
Brittles questions Quincannon's sobriety-again.
 There is a lot I like about this movie.  Ford and Wayne avoid massive violence against the Indians.  More than anything it is about relationships rather than slaughter.  As with many of his movies, Ford depends on Wayne and a skilled supporting cast.  Natwick is superb as "Old Iron Pants" Allshard, Arthur Shields is wonderful as Dr. O' Laughlin, and the inimitable Victor McLaglen plays himself, er, Top Sergeant Quincannon-tough as nails, especially around a whiskey bottle. The always excellent Ben Johnson is unreconstructed rebel Sgt. Tyree. There are some touching scenes.  None more than the death and burial of "Private Smith," CSA brigadier Rome Clay, mortally wounded at Sutro's Wells. The movie is one of seven Ford filmed in Monument Valley, and in many respects the gorgeous scenery is the star of the show. 
The retirement gift.  Brittles receives a silver watch from his troop on his final inspection

There's definitely some dopey stuff too.  The belief that the Southern Cheyenne and Kiowa would combine with Sioux, Apache and Northern Cheyenne on the southern plains is someone's hallucination.  The love triangle between Dandridge, Lts. Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Cohill (John Agar) is just dumb and an excuse for some eye candy. 

Nonetheless, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a solid movie with fine performances by Wayne and others and worth a look.

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