She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Directed by John Ford
Written by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings

It doesn’t come often in this marathon where I’ll uncover a title I’ve seen before, but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of those titles. I can’t even recall why I’ve seen it, but it was fairly recently too (within the last five years). Of course, the legendary director John Ford might have something to do with why I would have chose this film to be one to pick out outside the confines of this marathon. Seeing this film within the context of all the other westerns is a treat though, and a big reason I decided to include titles I’d seen before. To see where She Wore a Yellow Ribbon sits within the filmographies of both John Ford and John Wayne is a fascinating exercise, as I feel much more well equipped to put this film within the context of everything else now nearly 60 films into this marathon.

Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is an aging cavalry officer who is nearing his retirement at a western outpost. Just weeks from the end of his duty, Indians attack further south than expected, prompting the fort commander to evacuate his wife and daughter (Joanne Dru), who has an affinity for one of the cavalry officers (either Cohill (John Agar) or Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), marked by her donning of a yellow ribbon. Brittles is tasked with leading a patrol to escort the women to the nearest town to catch the latest stagecoach and get them out of harm’s way. But even his experience in the army can’t prepare him for balancing his soldiers and the women he protects with the dangerous impending Indian attacks.

Of my own admission, this has been a rough month for me in the western genre, failing to find anything all that exciting or impressive past the surprising Yellow Sky. Enter John Ford and John Wayne, right? Well, mostly. I have to admit that I didn’t love She Wore a Yellow Ribbon quite like the first time I saw it, but it still remains a wonderfully constructed film full of life and little greatnesses sprinkled throughout. The mortality of the Duke, John Wayne I think is the best element to this film. Wayne is an aging captain on the eve of retirement, and he has never looked older. He’s also never given a better performance (to this point in the marathon). There was something about his sense of service and dedication to his country, the sense of a happy and productive chapter of his life coming to a close, that really allowed Wayne to shine. He’s always been great, but here he feels more human than any of his other performances.

The cinematography, which won the Academy Award that year, is also stellar. I’ve mentioned before about being stuck in the Black and White era, even though there are many beautiful black and white films, but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is particularly beautiful in its use of color. It really pops off the screen, which gives a great sense of setting in the film. This is perhaps the best the west has looked so far in this marathon. All I’ve done is heaped praise on this film from the point I started this review, and yet I opened by saying I liked it less than the last time I saw it. Why? I’m not sure I have a detailed answered, but I wonder whether having seen so many other examples of the genre has watered down my opinion of it. There are long stretches of time which feel unexciting, and per usual, I’m not always impressed by Ford’s sense of humor, a common theme I’ve noticed in watching so many more of his films.

But at the end of the day I must say that this is a very good movie, and John Ford once again delivers the goods, as he did with Fort Apache. He has masterpieces on his resume, like StagecoachMy Darling Clementine, and The Searchers, but not everything he does has to match those heights, bringing in a film like this to fill out his incredibly impressive career. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon should not go unnoticed. I do wonder how the trajectory of Wayne goes from here. He rose to stardom in the 40s, pushed on by his 1939 appearance in Stagecoach, and I know he has much more to offer within the genre, with so many more titles still on my radar, but his role in the film suggests the beginning of the end. So what type of roles will he fill from here on out? Time will tell, but I will be here for whatever he and Ford have to offer. They’ve more than proven themselves as the best in the west at this point.

★★★ – Liked It

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