Director John Ford is known, remembered and respected for any number of westerns from a long, distinguished career. For me, I’ve always been a big fan of his ‘Cavalry trilogy,’ starting with 1948’s Fort Apache and 1950’s Rio Grande. Smack dab in the middle? A movie featuring — for me — star John Wayne‘s best role, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
It’s the fall of 1876 and the U.S. cavalry is dealing with the fallout following the massacre at the Little Big Horn where George Armstrong Custer and much of his Seventh Cavalry was wiped out. At isolated Fort Starke, Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is just days away from retirement after a distinguished 40-year career. He’s been given one last mission; to take a patrol out and see if he can’t drive a growing Indian force back to the reservation. Brittles is saddled with an additional job though, transporting two women to safety in the wake of the likely coming attacks. With a potentially huge assault mounting as the Indian tribes band together, Brittles and C Troop has their work cut out for them.
Recently I reviewed Ulzana’s Raid, a cynical 1972 revisionist western that showed what the cavalry, the Indian wars and the American west was really like. Ford’s Cavalry movies? More like the way the west should have been. I liked ‘Ribbon’ as a kid but didn’t love it. It’s too slow with not enough action. It’s only as I grew up that I appreciated it more and more. Now, I think of it as John Wayne’s best role (along with The Searchers and The Shootist) and in general, one of the best westerns ever made. Other Ford-Wayne pairings usually get the attention, but this definitely belongs in the conversation.
What an enjoyable movie. The kicker? There’s little to no story in a 103-minute running time. Brittles is retiring in a few days, an Indian uprising looms…and go! ‘Ribbon’ features an at-times leisurely pace, moving from episode to episode. It doesn’t need a detail-oriented story. We’ve got the situation, a laundry list of great characters and so much more. Filmed on location in Monument Valley (a Ford favorite), ‘Ribbon’ is visually stunning, the Technicolor filming absolutely popping off the screen. The cinematography rightfully earned an Academy Award win. Throw in a memorable score from composer Richard Hageman, and you’ve got a lot of key pieces kicking into place left and right.
As an actor, Wayne often gets the short end of the stick. With the right script, the man could A-C-T. After seeing Wayne in Red River, Ford exclaimed “I didn’t know the SOB could act,” resulting in this pairing. Wayne as Brittles is pitch-perfect. Here’s the Duke playing a man 20 years his superior (gray in his hair and mustache, lines on his face), and nailing it. Brittles is a career officer, a loyal, brave and honorable soldier who gets the job done but looks out for his men in the process. What’s always appealed to me about the performance is that it never feels like show-boating. This is understated, emotional and never feels forced.
Two memorable scenes come to mind. One early on has Brittles visiting the grave of his wife who passed away some 9 years before. Watering plants on the grave and sitting in a small folding chair, he tells her about the new developments in his day-to-day life. He smiles, filling her in on all the details. A scene that easily could have been overdone or fake, but Wayne delivers in subtle, scene-stealing fashion. The same for a late scene when Brittles receives a silver watch with an inscription from C Troop. An embarrassed Brittles reaches for his glasses and holds back tears as he reads the inscription. Anyone who thinks Wayne couldn’t act should watch those scenes and then re-evaluate their opinion.
Plenty of the John Ford Stock Company join Wayne in an impressive cast. Joanne Dru plays Olivia Dandridge, a young woman visiting her uncle at Fort Starke who’s also caught the attention of two lieutenants in C Troop, Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.). The dynamic isn’t great and is the weakest aspect of the movie, but it’s not as bad as Red River! Ben Johnson is another scene-stealer (as usual) as Sgt. Tyree, the scout and point man for C Troop, the man Brittles relies on most. He’s also a real-life cowboy so all those scenes of Tyree tearing across the horizon are legit. Ford regular Victor McLaglen is a welcome addition to the cast as Quincannon, a similarly retiring veteran soldier who’s longtime friends with Brittles.
Ford movies lean toward the romantic side of the cavalry and the west. He has a respect for the men who donned the blue uniforms and curled campaign hats for $30 a month and constant danger over the next rise. These are good, old-fashioned stories with strong characters (if at times stereotyped) and style for days. Just a gem of a movie. Not always identified as Ford or Wayne’s best, but it should be. A classic worth checking out and/or re-visiting.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949): ****/****