Log in

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Blu-ray Review)

20 Jun, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 Blu-ray
Not rated
Starring John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey Jr.

Of the three films from consecutive years that made up John Ford’s famed “Cavalry” trilogy beginning with 1948’s Fort Apache, follow-up She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949 stands out on one level as the only one shot in color — an astonishing three-strip accomplishment that won cinematographer Winton Hoch the second of his three Oscars (Hoch wasn’t even nominated for The Searchers, incredible as that seems). When I was a kid, it was Ribbon that was widely regarded as tops in the trio that was completed by 1950’s Rio Grande, a onetime thought-to-be Republic Pictures afterthought whose rep has grown significantly throughout the same revisionist years that have upped the status of Apache. But in terms of Technicolor, to say nothing of its signature John Wayne performance, Ribbon is still a movie for which Ford folk have enduring affection.

They’re likely to have even more after they see this Warner Archive Blu-ray, which is full of vital blues, reds, Monument Valley golds and (yes) yellows in a way that only movies of the extended (though not, for my money, extended enough) three-strip period could brandish. My experience with Ribbon goes back to the scratchy C&C black-and-white prints that my local NBC affiliate used to air when I was still playing four-square on the elementary school playground — and then extending through a period of where, if you could see a Technicolor 16mm or 35mm copy, it was still going to look as if a few horses’ hooves had kicked it around a little bit or Victor McLaglen had accidentally sprinkled it with some of his rotgut. This Blu-ray is a whole new experience that made me feel as if I were seeing the picture for the first time despite maybe seven or eight lifetime viewings, and am I ever glad to have recently sacrificed a few luxuries (like, say, food) to buy a new 75-inch, 4K Samsung. Jimi Hendrix fanciers have their Electric Ladyland, but this is Electric Seventh Cavalryland.

According to the AFI Catalog for the 1940s, Charles Bickford was the original choice to play Capt. Nathan Brittles, who is just days away from retirement as the story begins. Wayne, then in his early 40s, apparently didn’t strike Ford as a viable casting choice until the director saw his already longtime colleague in Howard Hawks’s Red River, where the actor aged convincingly in a patriarchal role and gave his greatest screen performance up to that time. In Ribbon, Wayne pretty well replicates the feat — though the overriding reason he didn’t get an Oscar nomination here is the one he did get for the Sands of Iwo Jima, which came out the same year and became something close the all-time Marine Corp recruitment vehicle. He is fabulous here — especially in his oft-excerpted farewell scene to the troops — and if I were a judge presiding over a case where someone contended that “John Wayne was always the same,” I’d show them River, Ribbon, Iwo Jima, The Searchers and True Grit before booting their ass out of the courtroom and onto the pavement outside (sonic boom immediately to follow).

Anticipating a stock-in-trade component of his screen persona in later years when he actually was an older man, Wayne is a combination mentor and scold here to much younger tenderfeet (assuming this really is the plural of “tenderfoot”) — a couple of whom (John Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) are smitten with the one eligible femme in the Fort Stark compound (Joanne Dru). Also coming off Red River, where she was probably the most attractive woman I’ve ever seen with an arrow in her shoulder, Dru has to tread easily herself when it comes to Capt. Wayne/Brittles’ ire. But this isn’t the post-1955 Wayne, where his characters sometimes got truly hacked off at the younger set; there’s usually a twinkle in his eye here. By all accounts, Ford-the-sadist treated Carey and Agar a lot worse on these pictures than anything Wayne does on screen, as when he’d refer to Agar on the set as “Mr. Temple” because the actor was married to world-beloved Shirley (though by this time, not for long).

The screenplay casts something of a wide net in terms of “event,” including a long scene late in the film (a mild pacing miscalculation, I’ve always thought) where Sergeant McLaglen takes apart a saloon in dress clothes after another of his daily booze-for-breakfast launchers. Much of the narrative has to do with the captain’s attempts to quell a band of rebellious Cheyennes who’ve moved south from their usual habitat — despite tactically tied hands from having been ordered to bring Dru along so that she can catch a stagecoach to more metropolitan eastern surroundings with presumably better plumbing. Like Wayne’s performance, the skirmishing-and-worse go against the expected grain by not being racist or even especially even bloody, given that the army’s job is to fight Native Americans (a term that would have likely caused Cecil B. DeMille to break the Commandment about using the Lord’s name in vain). When Wayne’s captain finally has a one-on- one with Cheyenne Chief Pony-That-Walks (played by familiar screen face John Big Tree, who, to my surprise, was born in Buffalo), they meet as wizened aging men trying to keep their young hotheads in line. The chief would just as soon go off with his unlikely buddy to fish, hunt, drink, smoke and share biographical lies with each other.

The film is more loosey-goosey or slightly less focused than Fort Apache is, leaving room for a lot of auteur bits that could only be Ford’s alone — my favorite being the one where McLaglen inspects the ranks while the world’s most comatose dog plunks himself in front of the men for some Rip Van Winkle slumber. Photographically, the standout is the famous wagon train sequence that Ford ordered Hoch to shoot during an under-lit thunderstorm packed with lighting, which resulted in Hoch filing a formal protest with the American Society of Cinematographers on his way to winning an Academy Award. Ford loved telling this story — who wouldn’t? — but Hoch must not have held much of a grudge. Especially since he won his third Oscar (Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc was source of the first) for Ford’s The Quiet Man.

Add Comment