John Ford directs She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with a point to make about unity and the wisdom of elders. It’s kind of a scattered effort, offering up a meditation on some of the rituals of life in the United States Calvary just after the defeat of General Custer. Ford’s affection for the Calvary is evidenced by his trilogy involving the mounted forces and this movie seals it.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the second film in the so-called Calvary Trilogy, with 1948’s Fort Apache starting the project and Rio Grande wrapping up the vision in 1950. This isn’t a series in a traditional sense, as one doesn’t need to have seen Fort Apache to get a run on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but Ford does plant his pictures in the same soil.
John Wayne stars as United States Calvary Captain Nathan Brittles. He’s on the cusp of retirement at Fort Starke and he’s tasked with one last patrol before he calls it a career. The Indians are restless in the surrounding area and there is word of the Cherokee and the Arapaho working together for one common good.
Not only does Brittles have to lead his unit through Indian territory, he has to do it with his commanding officer’s wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) as part of the group. Olivia has a yellow ribbon in her hair, which indicates that she’s in love with someone in the Calvary. Unfortunately for the lads, she’s not telling anyone who her desired beau really is. Tee-hee.
Wayne is the father figure. He’s an experienced soldier, with flecks of silver in his hair and a moustache that means business. Wayne, some 20 years younger than Brittles, has to swing up to reach the big meaty parts. And he does, with game sophistication and the sort of sleepy skill that grants him the respect of his younger troops.
Those troops include the First Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and the Second Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.). Cohill and Pennell are the objects of Olivia’s affection and they fight over her. At one point, they’re ready to come to fisticuffs. She watches with specious concern.
Dru’s character is an irritating sort. She’s perfectly content to lead both men on. She even momentarily ropes old Brittles into the fold when she visits him at his wife’s grave and cuts a hell of a quixotic profile on the dead dame’s headstone. To his credit, Brittles never even entertains the idea.
The concept of the yellow ribbon and Olivia’s smart-alecky, dopey lust is one of many such behavioural issues Brittles must contend with on his last pass-thru. The drunk Sergeant Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) is also pushing toward retirement, but he has a drinking problem. A scene involving the drunk and a saloon brawl feels tacked on and daft.
There is talk of old leaders and new messiahs, with the untidy, hokey voiceover reminding the audience that there’s a history going on. And Wayne’s character rides out to visit his old Indian pal, Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree), to talk over how imprudent and full of vinegar the young braves are.
Winston Hoch handles the cinematography and captures the wide, conversant panoramas with plenty of fire and lightning. There are many interesting scenes, including a cloudburst over the desert and a nice bit of visual verse when Wayne says cheerio to his troops and accepts a gift. The lens knows just how close to get to his bespectacled, made-up face.
It’s clear that Ford holds great affection for the ritualistic procedures of the military, especially in these “simpler times.” He suggests there’s nothing more important than the bonds between men, but there are few complications. Even Cohill and Pennell sort out their differences with whispered sorries after Brittles gives them a little cuff.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a lighter western in its depictions of rows of singing (and bronzed) men and the women who love them. It speaks to an incorporated core (the Calvary is comprised of North and South soldiers) and suggests the distinctive morality of uniting to rout a common enemy. He puts his frontline in its place, all fancy and polished and good ‘til the bitter end.