She Wore a Yellow Ribbon cadence
The cringe-worthy aspects of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can send chills down the spine of a non-rabid Ford fan. There is the tiresome Irish drunk act with Victor McLaglen, with Ford mining yucks from McLaglen guzzling whiskey and punching out troopers on his way to the guard house. Then there is the flimsy love story with dull John Agar and ho-hum Harry Carey Jr. half-heartedly locking horns for the affections of diffident Joanne Dru. And finally there’s Ford’s unquestioning glorification and right-or-wrong-be-damned depiction of the U.S. cavalry, which is presented as the one reasoned and civilized oasis in a cauldron of angry Indians. In a middling John Ford film, this kind of stuff would be enough to make you vomit. But She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is not a middling Ford film.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is, in fact, robust and rousing with glorious Technicolor cinematography by Winton C. Hoch and an endearing and stirring performance by John Wayne.
Wayne plays cavalry veteran Nathan Brittles who, after a career of service to the cavalry is being sent out to pasture with six days to go until his forced retirement. On his final mission, Brittles is sent on patrol to quell an Indian insurrection following the massacre of Custer and to take wife of the commanding officer Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick), Major Allshard (George O’ Brien), and his niece Olivia Dandridge (Dru) to safety and away from the dangers of the Indian revolt. But the marauding tribes get the jump on Brittles, and his company never makes it to the rendezvous point. Brittles has to retreat and get his company back to the fort, his mission a failure.
After Wayne’s performance in Howard Hawks’ Red River, Ford remarked to Wayne, ‘Jeez Duke, I didn’t think you could act.’ But Wayne’s performance in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon proves beyond a doubt that Wayne was a great film actor. Playing a character ten years older than himself, Wayne’s Brittles is strong, dominate, and unapologetic. (‘Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness, ’ declares Brittles in a nod to one of Ford’s own axioms.) One of Wayne’s qualities as an actor is his stillness (something Ford took advantage of in Stagecoach) and with Brittles, Wayne uses that stillness to reflect melancholy and bittersweet remembrance. One of the finest and most subtle acting moments in all of Wayne’s career occurs when the troop awards him a farewell watch and in order to read ‘the sentiment’ engraved on the watch, he sheepishly reaches into his vest for a pair of glasses.
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