‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ is John Wayne at his best in classic western

John Wayne with Joanne Dru in 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon'
John Wayne with Joanne Dru in ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’

Few filmmakers have left their mark on American cinema as John Ford has. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon comes second in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, between Fort Apache and Rio Grande, and it is perhaps the strongest film of the three.

While on the surface the film appears simplistic and at times even cornball, this belies the intricate thematic layers which Ford has expertly woven together. The film is both grandiose and subtle, broad and meticulous in the way it handles the themes of the individual versus community and civilization versus the wilderness of the frontier.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the story of Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne). Brittles is stationed at Fort Stark, a community both thrust out into the wilderness and insulated from it at the same time. The main thrust of the film has Brittles leading one last patrol before his retirement to observe whether there is unrest among the Native American tribes in the surrounding wilderness since news of Custer’s fall. He is forced to take with him the niece (Joanne Dru) of his commanding officer. Also on the patrol are two young lieutenants, Cohill (John Agar) and Panell (Harry Carey Jr.), polar opposites who are in competition with each other over Dru.

The stylistic choices Ford made with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon are in stark contrast to those of the other two cavalry pictures. Most obvious was the decision to shoot in Technicolor (the other two pictures were shot in black and white).

From the earliest stages of pre-production, it was John Ford’s intent to tailor the cinematography of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to that of the paintings of famous turn-of-the-century artist Frederic Remington, and he does so brilliantly. Ford makes effective use of the nostalgic grandeur that Remington’s canvas imbued onto the old frontier, and the vibrant color palette and carefully picturesque framing of each shot help recreate a romanticized West” which may only have existed in false memory. Innumerable scenes — such as the lightning storm in Monument Valley — helped Winton C. Hoch win the Oscar for best color cinematography.

In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford is clearly more interested with his characters (both human and environmental) than he is with the plot, which is bare-bones at best. The episodic narrative structure of the script emphasizes characterization over thematic confrontation. Personal interactions and character development take precedence over artificial plot points. As a result Ford is allowed to present thematic ideas naturally and fluidly, without the restraints of the more rigid, traditional dramatic structure.

This idea of fluid movement is especially important in the film. Through the use of dissolves (in place of fades) Ford creates a seemingly endless frontier; it is not just the geographical location of the characters, it is their universe. By making use of various well-known Western landmarks and locales and then seamlessly connecting them into a completely fictional filmic space, Ford is able to create a West even grander than that which already existed.

John Wayne addresses his cavalry in 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon'
John Wayne addresses his cavalry in ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’

From the very start, a dichotomy is set up between the fort and the frontier wilderness. The dividing line is the large gate of the fort: the frame which Ford uses to distinguish between worlds. The cavalry riders, seemingly so impressive in ranks while inside the fort, are continuously dwarfed in comparison to their treacherous natural environs.

Within the fort itself there is another split, between the two primary communities: the public (cavalry) and the private (family). Just as tensions exist between civilization and the frontier, frictions also arise between the military and the family as a result of the impositions the one puts on the other.

As with most westerns, the tensions between the East and the West are apparent. On the larger scale the cavalry represents the eastern value system which is imposing itself on the West and the Native American communities as the frontier is pushed further and further back. Also apparent in the film is the split between the North and the South. This is a particularly important theme for a cavalry picture, especially for one such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon which takes place very shortly after the Civil War and which attempts to show the slow healing process within the army as it tries to unite after its darkest historical moment.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is perhaps one of John Wayne’s finest performances. Far more subtle than usual as the aging Westerner watching the wave of new blood wash over the frontier, he serves as a linchpin for all of the themes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. He is a man respectful of foreign customs; the Native Americans, Southerners, and East-coasters alike are treated fairly and kindly by him. He is an independently minded westerner, hardened by a lifetime of cavalry service in the dangerous frontier, yet tempered by his public and private communal ties.

Brittles slowly has to come to grips with the changing times and his impending retirement. He has become an independent minded individual dependent on the social structure of his public community. Without this structure the only remaining option for him is to push further west, into the dwindling frontier, to cling to an existence which is ever more rapidly making the transition from contemporary to nostalgic.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon stands as a classic Western/Cavalry picture. With its gloriously broad Technicolor landscapes, its even broader humor, and its carefully interwoven, underscored themes, Ford is triumphant in eliciting a response to the mythic Old West which borders on nostalgia, even in those who were born forty years after the film was made and one hundred and forty years after the actual conquest of the West.

The DVD version of the film, put out by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, has surprisingly good picture quality for such an old film that has not been re-mastered. Most scenes remain gloriously bright and vivid, and the backdrop of Monument Valley is simply sumptuous. There are individual scenes or shots, however, where the colors seem somewhat muted and/or faded. There are moments where there is detectable dirt on the print, but overall the picture quality is slightly above average.

There is no surround sound available, but in 1949 there was no surround sound, so it’s not a big deal. The most disappointing aspect of this DVD is the complete lack of any decent special features. Aside from an old trailer and a bizarre silent 3-minute chunk of footage showing Ford and Wayne drinking beer, there is absolutely nothing. It would have been nice to have some more background on the film, its production, the use of Remington as inspiration, or the Cavalry Trilogy as a whole.

As it stands, all you really get is the movie. Not so bad, considering.

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