“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.
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.
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.