Review: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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“Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” ~ John Wayne as Nathan Brittles

Instigated by one of the cataclysmic massacres of the West, Custer’s Last Stand, the word is sent by telegraph and pony express all across the country. Simultaneously, members of numerous tribes including the Sioux and Cheyenne are on the warpath. They have a new resolve to make war with “The White Man” who has continually lied and cheated them out of their land. It brings deep-seated issues at the core of American’s history to the surface.

However, for what initially appears a heavy drama, Ford’s picture comes off surprisingly light and quite comical in patches. Frank Nugent’s script forges a story about the U.S. Calvary at Fort Stark. Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is counting down the days until his retirement not so much with anticipation; it’s all but inevitable. Because you see, he’s been in the service of his country for a good many years and it’s about time for him to step down.

John Ford gave Duke the part, realizing after Red River (1948), Wayne was not simply a warm body with an imposing presence; he truly was an actor by this point in his career. Resultingly, he makes Ford’s decision to cast him in a slightly more demanding role pay off handsomely. To his credit, he makes a fine showing imbuing the part with a certain world-weariness that comes with age but also immense good humor.

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Victor McLaglen, as the burly First Sergeant Quincannon, calls on his Colonel every morning taking a nip out of the bottle he has conveniently hidden in the other man’s quarters, as they commiserate about their military careers coming to a close.

Meanwhile, the two hot-blooded young men under his command (John Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) turn foolish in their pursuit of the prettiest (and only) flirt in camp, niece of the commanding officer Allshard, Ms. Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). Brittles observes with mild amusement as they vie for her affection, barking reprimands at them for their undisciplined behavior, while simultaneously stirring them on — noting that she wears a yellow ribbon in her hair denoting a beau. The question remains who she will pick and it becomes one of the film’s running gags as much as it is a source of easy conflict.

Initially, there seems to be little nuance in how the Native Americans are portrayed, prone to indiscriminate violence, yet at least, even for a moment, the film suggests it is not a cultural divide but one defined by generations. Young men are intent on making a name for themselves and finding glory on the battlefield. It is the old man who have gotten past that. They have seen how war ravages the earth and humanity. They are weary of such ordeals.

Nathan Brittles goes to Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) on the eve of his retirement to forge some fragile peace. But his old friend is powerless to do anything so Brittles takes yet another approach to save lives. It’s his one final gift to his men. Mind you, he was not required to take on any of this and yet a man such as Brittles would have nothing less because he cherishes his command and the men who ride beside him. They mean just as much to him as the U.S. Calvary itself has for well nigh 40 years.

What makes all these preceding events genuinely striking is the stunning Technicolor frames. The continuous processions over the plains are breathtaking panoramas with skies as immaculate as the western backgrounds themselves.  The most well-conceived moments come in capturing thunderbolts out on the prairie as Brittles leads his caravan on their mission with their two female cohorts.

In such instances, there’s a scope and grandeur that gives the impression of an intricate painting even more than a film and it’s true Ford and his director of photography purportedly drew inspiration from the works of Frederic Remmington. In this regard — and I’ll try to not overstep my bounds — Winton Hoch’s cinematography stands up to if not surpasses the imagery of The Searchers. Likewise, there are wonderfully decadent period costumes evoking the era nicely but as always John Wayne dons his worn in, one-of-a-kind pride and joy that he would wear until his Rio Bravio (1959) days.

Though relatively forgotten alongside more formidable offerings like The Searchers, Stagecoach, or even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon might just be one of Wayne’s most fascinating performances in a Ford picture. Not only is he playing a man 20 years his senior — and doing it with surprising credibility — he makes the old calvary man into a figure with true heart and soul. He’s not too hardened or unfeeling to hold onto lifelong friendships, enjoy a good joke, or grin at the young love that besets the hearts of the men under him. They respect him and he cherishes them in return.

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There are numerous poignant moments as his tenure winds down but one of the finest comes when he gives his beloved troops one final inspection. They surprise him with a gift paid for by all of them — a solid silver watch with a remembrance on it. It’s a token of respect to a man they deeply admire. In a move that can’t help but conjure up George Washington himself, Brittles pulls out his granny glasses to read the inscription and we see yet again this great man of strength was, as we always suspected, a man of a certain sensitivity too. He’s deeply touched.

He rides off, a job well done, but as it so happens the cavalry is not done with him as trusty Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson) comes to fetch him one final time. Not by a long shot. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is simultaneously an elegy to those who served and were lost in the line of duty and more specifically to a man who took great pride in his post.

4/5 Stars

Wagon Master (1950)

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“Wagons west are rolling…” – Sons of The Pioneers

Despite being a tighter film, Wagon Train still bears the irrefutable mark of John Ford. Together with producer Meridian C. Cooper, he crafts a piece of work as near to a fully realized articulation of his vision as he probably ever achieved; this made it one of his personal favorites.

Because there is no one to answer to except for himself and if anything, in contrast to his career prior, it’s a freeing proposition. Wagon Train contentedly meanders along ever toward its destination with time enough to stop and visions enough to keep an audience engrossed.

Without John Wayne, the story instead finds able space for other worthy stalwarts of the Ford stock company and in this aspect alone it’s a fine showing. Ben Johnson’s athleticism on horseback is matched by a plain-speaking integrity proving both steady and unperturbed.

The beauty of the casting is the very authenticity of it. He’s the real deal as a one-time rodeo hand, stunt double for the biggest stars like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, and a certified roping champion. He performed all his own stunts in the picture including the well-remembered scene where he weathers a bucking bronco after Joanne Dru dumps bath water out of the rear her wagon spooking his horse. He stayed on for 10 bucks before getting thrown. That was only after a previous take had to be reshot.

Furthermore, Ford gives the other prominent roles to young Harry Carey Jr. who is Johnson’s trail companion and the more spirited of the two. While Travis and Sandy are intent on selling their stock and nothing else, they eventually agree to come aboard as wagon masters for a caravan of Mormons heading out West. The Elder, played by the venerable Ward Bond, is a man of faith who nevertheless has the raw courage and determination to lead his people on their journey. And he has his usual bearing which only blesses the story. In truth, it’s an obvious precursor to the heralded TV western, Wagon Train, also starring Bond for its first few seasons.

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Even as the search for the Promise Land subsists, lead by Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) and the sounding of her horn, it is Bond who has decency enough to stop for those in need. They end up running across a hoochie-coochie show made up of a swacked trio (Alan Mowbray, Ruth Clifford, and Joanne Dru) who, without any water left, tried to survive off spirits.

Though a group of social outcasts and equally proud, the Elder obliges to help them out even as their own resources are dwindling. Thus, the procession exuberantly races toward the first sign of water. Jumping off horses, dipping their hats in it, taking a nice cool drink for the first time in far too long.

Our two heroes, also begin to call on their lady friends. Travis tries to extend a gentlemanly hand to Denver (Dru), who defiantly rebuffs his advances and simultaneously Sandy starts eyeing a Mormon girl who already has a beau. In another interlude, a fist-fight erupts between the two young men which the Elder handily breaks up, only to wind up with his pants torn to pieces by a feisty dog.

What becomes evident in the stages of this story is how it is never truly about one individual but an entire community. Part of that comes with the absence of a marketable star like John Wayne or Henry Fonda — two regulars in Ford pictures. However, like My Darling Clementine (sans Fonda), there is this sense of the communal nature of civilization. This western on wheels brings together religious pilgrims, medicine show performers, and Navajo Indians who are all able to find a certain amount of common ground.

Dances become something not only proving to be a form of gaiety and lively human interaction; they might very well be a mechanism for how a bit of home is brought to new territories as a means of making them more habitable. It’s a sign of kinship.

Of course, every society has its outside stressors and in this case, the caravan is paid a visit by a band of glowering men led by a crotchety old-timer (Charles Kemper) winged in the arm. It’s a tenuous partnership at best as his “boys,” including James Arness and Hank Worden, are a testy and trigger-happy bunch. Even as he knows how dangerous they are, The Elder agrees to extend the olive branch, while Travis bides his time knowing now isn’t the time to act. Sandy can’t quite fathom this initial passivity but their forbearance is rewarded in the end.

A John Ford gunfight ensues and not unlike its brethren in My Darling Clementine, the exchange of bullets is efficient and to the point; it’s not meant to bear the entire weight of the picture. Instead, Ford settles back into a broader perspective, reinforcing the lyrical quality of his imagery with the vocalization of The Sons of the Pioneers.

I remember them most vividly from my days watching Roy Rogers serials, hearing the group sing their harmonies, and I do miss the throaty vocals of old folk western tunes like “Song of the Wagonmaster” and “Wagon’s West.” Though I hesitate to call Wagon Master, an all-out musical because that would probably give the wrong impression, it is indebted to its music much in the same manner of a High Noon (1952) or a Rio Bravo (1959). You cannot begin to separate the two.

4/5 Stars

Review: Red River (1948)

redriver1Any conversation on quintessential American Westerns certainly has to at least consider Red River. It has genre mainstay John Wayne in one of his most stirring performances, a moody precursor to The Searchers. It boasts the debut of the often criminally under-appreciated method actor Monty Clift. Moreover, it’s cinematic space is filled out by a colorful array of prominent Western stock players. You have the always ornery Walter Brennan, pudgy Noah Beery Jr., Harey Carey Jr., Hank Worden, and numerous others. For a second you can even forget that this isn’t a John Ford film, but instead, the story is placed in the ever-adept hands of Howard Hawks, who knows how to craft compelling stories no matter the genre he’s working in.

In 1851, before Tom Dunson (Wayne) settles on a new plot of land near the Rio Grande and begins to raise his cattle with the brand of the Red River D, he loses the love of his life to an Indian raid, while also picking up an orphaned boy in the aftermath. That young man, Matt Garth (Clift), would become like Dunson’s adopted son and his right-hand man when it comes to running his ranch. The rest of Red River is essentially a road film that chronicles the first cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail. It’s bound to be a gritty, sweaty, and undoubtedly smelly road ahead as Wayne and Clift take the reins on this journey. The intrigue comes with power dynamics because when you put two or more people in a confined space sparks are bound to fly at some point.

redriver2When Dunson begins the massive journey to sell his cattle in Missouri, many wranglers sign on for prospects ahead, but they don’t quite know the degree of hardship that they will face. Soon enough, a stampede leaves one man dead and the company without one of their chuck wagons of provisions. Dunson is a hard taskmaster, who expects his hired hands to finish their job. Morale in the band begins to sink from lack of food and fierce downpours that leave most everyone dejected and distraught.

Then, when Dunson prepares to hang two deserters to make an example out of them, Matt must finally step in. He’s always the subservient one, always backing Dunson with his gun, but for the first time in his life, he crosses the will of his mentor. All the wranglers are quick to continue the journey as they change course for Abilene Kansans and the prospect of the railroad. But Garth leaves a brooding Dunson behind, vowing to kill Matt if it’s the last thing he does. It’s this act of the story which brings to mind the Biblical vendetta of Esau as he pursues his kin for stealing his birthright.

redriver6Garth and his contingent do end up getting to Abilene and are met with open arms by the kindly Mr. Melville, however, perhaps, more importantly, Matt falls in love with a fiery beauty (Joanne Dru) and must leave her behind. Days later Tess Millay also meets Tom Dunson, the man she has heard so much about, and he’s far from being dissuaded from his mission.

Thus, the expected showdown comes with Dunson riding into town with his hired guns, the alarm being sounded, and Garth waiting for him. Dunson draws and Garth will not. It’s a fitting moment, but Howard Hawks develops it in a fabulous way. He fills it with tension and ultimately a hint of humor. The addition of Joanne Dru shifts the power dynamic and she says what everyone else is thinking while angrily packing a pistol.

redriver4Because if Red River was story alone, it would not be the preeminent Western that it is, and I think I made that mistake before. Hawks is a master at using all his actors to perfection in not simply the climactic moments, but also the lulls. With such a substantial ensemble, even the way he positions all his players in the scene holds importance. His scenes are continually interesting from talk of Walter Brennan’s false teeth to complaints about the abysmal quality of the coffee.

My only qualm with the film is the rather shoddy transitions, and so I am interested in getting a look at the theatrical cut with narration from Brennan. John Ford famously quipped that he never knew that Wayne could act until this film, and it’s true that he gives a darkly vengeful performance. But in many ways, Clift proves himself as a worthy co-star. There’s always a tightness, a lilt to his voice, that signals an earnestness and vulnerability. It starts coming out in this film right when he knows that he’s no longer going to follow Dunson. It took two starkly different actors to make the narrative work as well as it did, and Hawks added yet another classic to his catalog. On a side note, the music of Dimitri Tiomkin was noticeable, because the refrains can be heard verbatim in Rio Bravo. If something’s good why change it, right?

4.5/5 Stars

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948)

6a177-sheworeayellowribbonpost“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.”

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can probably be considered lighter fare than the Searchers or Liberty Valance, but it is still worth a watch for Ford or Wayne fans.The 2nd installment of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this film was shot in Monument Valley in color and features a 41 year old John Wayne playing a 60 year old captain on the verge of retirement. However, before he is done he must diffuse the aggression of the Native Americans due to the aftermath of the Little Big Horn. At base and on the the trail he must deal with two young bucks (James Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) and the stuck up girl (Joanne Dru) they are fighting over. However, he also has some very capable men in his company, two of which are played by Victor McClaigen and Ben Johnson. With his retirement imminent he salvages his last mission before riding off as a civilian towards California. Except they are not quite done with him yet.

Here Wayne takes on a more fatherly role and does a good job dispelling his knowledge and know how as the experienced Nathan Cuttings Brittles. As usual John Ford does not disappoint and there is some brilliant scenery whether it is Monument Valley in the rain or the shine. Next are Fort Apache (1948) and then Rio Grande (1950)!

4/5 Stars