She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (RKO, 1949)
Ford at his majestic best.
John Ford and his partner Meriam Cooper wanted to recoup the fortunes of their company Argosy Productions after the disastrous failure of their picture The Fugitive in 1947, and in the late 1940s Westerns were a good, bankable way to do that. Fort Apache at RKO, which we recently reviewed (click the link for that) with John Wayne in 1948 was a great start, being a fine film, a critical success, and not a bad earner either. Even before Fort Apache was released in August 1948 Ford was back on a Western set making 3 Godfathers for MGM, also with Wayne, and then it was back to Monument Valley in November to start filming on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, another cavalry Western for RKO, yet again with Duke.
Though the budget was smaller than its predecessor’s (Yellow Ribbon was budgeted at $1,851,290, $40,000 less than Fort Apache) it was decided to use Technicolor, and compensate with a shorter runtime (I hour 44 minutes as opposed to Apache’s hefty 2 hours 8 minutes). On 3 Godfathers Ford has used as cinematographer Winton Hoch, and he brought him back for Yellow Ribbon. Hoch was a three-time Oscar winner and would do The Quiet Man and The Searchers for Ford. He was a great talent, and Yellow Ribbon is a visual delight. Already on Fort Apache Archie Stout’s black & white photography of the Monument Valley locations was stunningly good; now, in color, in all its oranges and pinks and ochres, it was even better. In fact Yellow Ribbon was one of only three Westerns (four if you count Hud a Western) ever to win an Academy Award for Cinematography, and it is the color and the setting that give the film its epic quality.
Wayne later wrote, “We lived in a tent city [Wayne was slightly stretching the we there: he and Ford were the only ones to have private cabins] and at night we played cards. … Sometimes the Sons of the Pioneers were there, and they sang too. It was kind of captured companionship and we made the most of it. And most of it was delightful because it was different from the way we lived at home.” This rose-tinted nostalgic view was not, however, the way most of the cast and crew remembered the location shooting; it was pretty basic out there in the valley.
This time Wayne is not Captain (then Colonel) York, but crusty Captain Nathan Brittles, in his last week of service before retirement. Ford didn’t want Wayne at first. The AFI Catalog reports that “In Aug 1948, Argosy Pictures was negotiating for Charles Bickford to play the film's lead.” But of course Red River had shown how well Wayne could play an older man. When Ford saw that he said, "I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” Wayne’s performance as Brittles is stunningly good. He is totally convincing as an elderly officer, twenty years older than his real age; the way he walks and looks and talks are just right. The business with the spectacles as he examines the inscription on the farewell watch could easily have been saccharine but in the hands of Ford and Wayne it is in fact touching and moving.
Wayne said that this was his favorite role ever. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” What Wayne had, in spades, was an ability to suggest an essential nobility of character beneath rough Western manners. This ability suited the parts he played in Ford’s cavalry Westerns right down to the dusty ground.
Many others of the Ford stock company are there too. Victor McLaglen repeats his act as an Irish sergeant fond of a drop. John Agar returns as the young man who gets the girl (he got Shirley Temple, who was in fact his wife, in the first movie). Lt Harry Carey Jr, first used by Ford in 3 Godfathers, is Agar's rival. We also have an outstanding Ben Johnson, one of the finest Western actors of them all, splendid as Sergeant Tyree, former Confederate captain. Like Brittles, all he has is a lost past.
The director’s brother Francis Ford is the barman (he’s only in one scene but Ford kept him on wages for all eight weeks of the shoot). George O’Brien (Collingwood in Fort Apache) is back, and Paul Fix is there, as a villain. And many of this cast were to reappear in Rio Grande. It is the cast and the setting, as much as the tone or theme, which make these pictures a trilogy.
The female lead this time, though, and the ribbon-wearer, was Joanne Dru. Ms. Dru had made a stuttering start to her career in the early 1940s but had been chosen by Howard Hawks to play opposite Wayne in Red River (filmed before Fort Apache but released just before Yellow Ribbon). She rather got typecast in Western roles from then on - painful for a woman who hated horses. But she was good in Yellow Ribbon, and very beautiful.
The film is frequently sentimental and nostalgic, and Ford’s penchant for low (and, it must be said, also rather clumsy) humor is probably regrettable too but you can forgive the weaknesses for the undeniable strengths. And the sugariness is counterbalanced by the power and rawness of life on the frontier. It’s a galloping, bugle-blowing, roustabout cavalry picture.
We are at remote Fort Starke. As he sits beside the grave of his departed wife and talks to her (an idea Ford used a lot, notably in Young Mr Lincoln and My Darling Clementine), Brittles says, “We had sad news today, Mary. George Custer was killed with his entire command. Myles Keogh - you remember Myles?”
So we can date the setting pretty exactly to the summer of 1876. Now there is a post-Custer rising of the tribes. The Indians have united and are on the warpath. Brittles is given one last assignment by post commander Major Allshard (O'Brien): he must escort an attractive single lady (Dru) and the slightly less attractive and rather hard-bitten commander's wife (Mildred Natwick) out of harm's way. That’s the basic plot. Of course, Indians are a threat, and equally inevitably, two young lieutenants (Agar and Carey) vie for the hand of la Dru, even though it is she who wears the eponymous ribbon, a sign that she has chosen a beloved among the soldiers. She flirts with both but eventually opts for her true love.
There’s a subplot of a sutler (Harry Woods, with Fix as henchman) selling rifles to the Indians. In Western movies that was a crime of such heinousness that it could never be forgiven. Selling your grandmother into slavery was a minor misdemeanor by comparison.
Like the other two cavalry pictures, Yellow Ribbon was based on the writing of James Warner Bellah, and some of the credit for the story and strong characterizations must go to him, but Ford and his screenplay writers Laurence Stallings and Frank S Nugent again did a lot of adding and subtracting – and a lot of softening. Bellah was, frankly, a racist who also had a crude pulp literary style. Nugent and Ford turned Bellah's Saturday Evening Post stories, to which Ford had bought the rights (two, Big Hunt and War Party, were cobbled together to make Yellow Ribbon) into a far subtler, and far more powerful tale.
Ford ‘saw’ the story rather than heard it. He wrote Bellah, “Jim, I think we can make a Remington canvas … broad shoulders … wide hats … narrow hips … yellow strips down the pants leg … war bonnets and eagle feathers trailing in the dust … the brassy sound of bugles in the morning … the long reaches of the prairie … the buttes and mesas in the distance and the buffalo.” (Ford’s punctuation). And indeed Yellow Ribbon is, supremely, a visual Western. There is a dramatic thunderstorm – Ford insisted on keeping the cameras rolling while the crew cringed from lightning strikes. It is said that Hoch complained afterwards to the ASC, though this is denied by Harry Carey in his memoir. Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times review, wrote, “No one could make a troop of soldiers riding across the western plains look more exciting and romantic than this great director does. No one could get more emotion out of a thundering cavalry charge or an old soldier's farewell departure from the ranks of his comrades than he.”
Ford had so much of the picture mapped out in his head before he even began shooting. He was at this time a supreme professional. In his fine biography of Ford, Scott Eyman wrote of him during production of Yellow Ribbon, “This is not the shambling Ford of the public image, an aw-shucks working stiff, a shit-kicking, directorial version of Will Rogers. This is the ferociously focused artist the world outside of Hollywood never glimpsed.”
But of course sound – dialogue and music – is still very important. There is, naturally, the lusty cavalry singing, chief among the tunes the title song.
In fact, though, and interestingly, Yellow Ribbon is actually quite a dark film, despite all the luminous color. It’s about old men about to lose their only community. Brittles is alone, his family all dead, and he relates to no one unless it be Sergeant Quincannon (McLaglen), but even that only because they share the pain of oncoming retirement and have nowhere to go except “the West”. Brittles is saved at the end by being brought back into the community but you feel it’s only out of pity, and was even rather a weak ending. I don’t think Ford could bear it, having Brittles ride off from Army life to nowhere.
Fort Apache (and Rio Grande indeed) were classic ‘progressive’ Westerns about the future, making the frontier safe and bringing civilization to the Wild West. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is about the past, and the future is black and pointless. But it’s Ford at his majestic best.
The picture was released in July 1949 and did really well, selling 11,739,130 tickets and grossing $5,400,000 that year alone. It was by far the most popular Western.
Furthermore, the critical reception was again extremely positive. The New York Times of the day said that “in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent ‘Indian country’ and across the magnificent Western plains.” Crowther added, “Bulwarked with gay and spirited music and keyed to the colors of the plains, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a dilly of a cavalry picture.” Variety said it was a Western “done in the best John Ford manner.”
More recent critics have also loved it. Dennis Schwarz thinks “this grand and lyrical film” is the best of the trilogy. He says, “What pulls the film together and gives it its raw power, is something that can only be ascertained by accepting Ford’s premise that it is absolutely necessary what the men do: that they are in the right because they have God on their side, a just country behind them, and that the men are fighting to make the country safe for democracy.” He says that you can “be swept away by the eloquence of the film.” Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns also thinks it the best of the three. Brian Garfield in his Western Films called it “a marvelously entertaining masterwork” and “proof that art can be fun”.
Wayne reprised his role in a March 12, 1951 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast, co-starring Mel Ferrer. In 1958 Bellah wrote a TV pilot titled Command, which starred Everett Sloane as Captain Brittles and Ben Cooper as Lt Cohill, but it was not taken up as a series. I’m glad. I want to stay with the splendid feature version. Every time I watch Yellow Ribbon, I think it’s the most mature, the subtlest, the finest of the three films.
Until I watch Rio Grande. But that’s for next time. So come back soon, blogpards!