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Movie Review: She wore a yellow ribbon

Updated on November 27, 2019

She wore a yellow ribbon

Produced by Argosy Pictures Corporation

Directed by John Ford

Screenplay by Frank Nugent & Laurence Stallings

Music Score Richard Hageman

Made in 1949

Running Time 103 minutes

Actors John Wayne

Joanne Dru

John Agar

Ben Johnson

Harry Carey Jr

Victor McLaglen

Mildred Natwick

Set in the American South-West in 1876, the movie opens with the news that Custer is dead and along with him, his entire command. Fears among the settlers grow as they receive the word that the Native Americans, of all tribes, are putting aside their differences and are uniting against them. The scene is set for an hour and 43 minutes of pitched battles and ‘death or glory’ charges but if that is what the viewer is expecting they will be very much mistaken but not disappointed. Instead, Director John Ford has delivered a story driven by the relationships of its characters not by action. That is not to say it doesn’t have the obligatory scenes of riding to the rescue with bugles blowing and guidons waving but it is mostly to help others who have suffered the worst of the battle before they arrived.

John Wayne is excellent as Captain Nathan Brittles, a veteran cavalry officer on the eve of his retirement who takes out one last patrol. His is a world of tradition and discipline. In fact the entire film is devoted to exploring the mores of the cavalry, its role as a sub-culture and the values, such as service, respect, obedience and punctuality, it considers important. It does not comment on whether the expansionist policy of the United States, the ‘Manifest Destiny’ as it became known, at the expense of the original inhabitants is right or wrong. Nor does it portray the Native Americans as mindless savages (although they do toss the gunrunner into the fire a few times). It leaves politics out of it and attempts to show the significant, but often unheralded, part the cavalry played in building the nation and the hardships they faced doing it.

What western would be complete with a romance and Joanne Dru fits the bill nicely as the niece of the fort commander who causes a rift between the post’s two lieutenants played by John Agar and Harry Carey Jr. Along with her Aunt (Mildred Natwick) she accompanies the patrol in an effort to catch a stage coach to safety but the aptly named ‘Red Shirt’ has already made sure this is not possible. One character to watch out for is ‘Tyree’, a former captain in the Confederate Army who now serves as a sergeant in the United States Cavalry. Played by Ben Johnson, a rodeo champion before moving into movies, his riding skills and dry wit often steal the scenes.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was the first colour feature film shot in Monument Valley, Arizona and Ford takes full advantage of the magnificent scenery, using the more prominent features as backdrops to the action or to frame scenes such as Nathan Brittles riding off into the sunset. A great deal of the action seems to take place either early in the morning or late afternoon, probably to capture the colour nature provides at those times of the day. By today’s standards the dialogue could be accused of being clichéd but clichés have to start somewhere and it reflects the language of the day (1949 when the film was made). The music by Richard Hageman delivers some stirring songs to spur the riders into action and some typically Irish tunes to accompany the lighter moments provided by Victor McLaglen. The Irish connection is no coincidence as many immigrants found their way into army in search of adventure and to make a living.

The second of Ford’s cavalry trilogy (the others being Fort Apache, 1948 and Rio Grande, 1950) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon will appeal to those who enjoy sentiment as much as action. Rather than detract from the experience, the lack of battle scenes advances the plot at a good pace and gives the characters more time to interact and for Ford to spell out his message. Even after 50 odd years it is still worth a look for those who enjoy the genre.

Four stars out of five

She wore a yellow ribbon


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