Thursday, October 22, 2015

Tonight's Movie: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) at UCLA

Last Monday's John Ford double bill in the Archive Treasures 50th Anniversary Celebration began with MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), reviewed here, and continued with a 35mm print of SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949).

As I mentioned in my review of CLEMENTINE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON has been one of my favorite movies for many years -- since I was a young teenager, as a matter of fact. I was fortunate to see it on a big screen at an impressionable age, when my parents took me to see it in the huge (maybe even legendary) RKO retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when I was about 14 or 15.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is the second film in Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy," following FORT APACHE (1948) and preceding RIO GRANDE (1950). It's my favorite of the group -- though RIO GRANDE is an awfully close second -- and it's my favorite John Ford film. Ford's THE SEARCHERS (1956) might be the greater movie, but YELLOW RIBBON is the one with the bigger place in my heart.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is really a fairly simple tale of cavalry life on the American frontier; indeed, the longest section of the film depicts an army unit simply going in a big circle, heading from the fort to a stagecoach station but instead encountering "Indian trouble" and ultimately heading back to the fort. It's the journey that matters, not so much the destination.

John Wayne, in one of his finest performances, plays Captain Nathan Brittles, who's about to retire. Major Allshard (George O'Brien) commands the fort, but Brittles is greatly looked up to by his men -- not to mention the major, who cheerfully encourages Brittles to protest his orders, in triplicate. The widowed Brittles serves as a father figure to those who serve under him, such as the fractious Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar) and 2nd Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), who squabble over Major Allshard's pretty niece Olivia (Joanne Dru).

It's because Olivia isn't "army" enough that the Major directs Brittles to deliver her and his wife Abby (Mildred Natwick) to the stagecoach station, so Mrs. Allshard can escort her niece back to the East. Ultimately Olivia, Flint, and Ross will all do some maturing due to their experiences traveling with Captain Brittles.

How do I love SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON? Let me count the ways:

*John Wayne, John Wayne, John Wayne. He is simply superb as the aging longtime soldier who will soon be leaving his military "family." The scene where his men honor him with a retirement gift never, ever fails to make me cry. Perfect acting, and perfectly hitting the emotional notes without being manipulative.

*Ben Johnson, in a charismatic performance as Captain Brittles' scout, Sgt. Tyree, a former Confederate soldier. Has there even been an actor who could ride on screen like Ben Johnson? Having recently heard movie horse expert Petrine Day Mitchum speak, along with currently reading her book HOLLYWOOD HOOFBEATS, I particularly noticed Johnson's beautiful horse on this viewing; Steel, who was owned by Johnson's father-in-law, was considered one of the greatest of all movie horses. (Johnson, incidentally, plays a character named Trooper Travis Tyree in RIO GRANDE and another Travis in WAGON MASTER.)

*Monument Valley. My 2013 photos of my visit to the movie's locations may be found here.

*The Ford Stock Company. Ward Bond may be missing on this go-around, but George O'Brien is on hand, and many of the players worked with Ford on other occasions, including Johnson, Carey, Agar, Dru, Natwick, and Victor McLaglen, Arthur Shields, Francis Ford, Jack Pennick, and more. For me, the film is a visit with beloved friends.

*The tone. The film has moments of melancholy and enough issues and conflicts between the army and Indians to keep things interesting and even thought-provoking, but it's essentially an optimistic view of the military and the American West, rather than the more mournful takes of some of Ford's later work. There are some later Ford films I still need to see for the first time, including TWO RODE TOGETHER (1961), but I'll confess that I've never been especially taken with the downbeat THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). That said, it's been enough years since my last viewing that I need to try it again -- especially as Edmond O'Brien is in the cast.

*Always noticing something new, even on the tenth viewing -- this time it was the constant presence of dogs, not just at the fort but on the road with the troops, even fording a river alongside the soldiers! I believe I've heard they were all unscripted local dogs who wandered into the film; the funniest dog is the one who sleeps alongside the horses lined up for inspection.

*The Technicolor cinematography, the last point I'll mention, which I will comment on at greater length. My favorite sequence in the film, as I'm sure it is for many, is the scene when the soldiers are trudging through the desert during a lightning storm, while the doctor (Shields) and Mrs. Allshard attempt a surgical procedure on a wounded soldier in the caravan's lone wagon.

The look and feel of this scene is simply stunning, unlike any other film I can recall before or since. You can almost smell the dust as the raindrops hit the ground. Cinematographer Winton Hoch shot this scene under protest, due to both the lack of light and the danger from the lightning, but I don't think anyone would dispute it's ironically Hoch's work in this sequence which cemented the Oscar he won for SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON.

This sequence also underscores something modern movies have lost: the magic of reality captured on film. Surely, older movies had all sorts of special effects, with glass plates, forced perspectives, miniatures, and back projections, but at the same time they weren't completely overrun with CGI so that the viewer constantly wonders what's real and what's been generated on the computer. Some of the power and the beauty of the storm sequence is because it's real.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON runs 104 minutes. The Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings screenplay was based on a story by James Warner Bellah. The narrator is actor-director Irving Pichel.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON has been released on DVD multiple times, including several single title editions and in more than one TCM collection. It's also part of the John Wayne - John Ford Film Collection. Years ago it also had a release on VHS.

Last week the Warner Archive conducted a survey to assess interest in the Blu-ray releases of several titles. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON was one of about 10 candidates, so perhaps it will have a release in that format in the future.

Update: SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is now available on Blu-ray, which I have reviewed here.

Finally, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON can be rented for streaming on Amazon.

Most highly recommended. "Lest We Forget."

May 2016 Update: I had the chance to see this again via a digital restoration at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival.


Blogger Jerry E said...

Nailed it, Laura! Not just one of the great movies but, as you say, also one of the most beautiful. Anyone who criticizes John Wayne as an actor obviously cannot have seen his Capt. Brittles.

Aside from the Ford stock company names you mentioned, I would like to draw attention also to brief appearances by former B western leading man Tom Tyler whose career had been changed by a disastrous car accident that altered his facial appearance dramatically and also Frank McGrath (see him with bugle above). He was in the Ford stock company and also in Ford's drinking circle, I understand. It was his close friendship with Ward Bond that landed him the part years later of Charlie Wooster in TV's 'WAGON TRAIN'.

Terrific review of a film we both love.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

"That ain't in my department" is one of my favorite classic movie quotes to use in everyday life. :) Although Rio Grande is my favorite of the trilogy and Johnson is great in that too, I think I like his role in Yellow Ribbon even better.

And my sisters and I always say "There's Steel!" now when we spot him in a Western. Johnson rode him in Wagon Master and Rio Grande too, Joel McCrea in Four Faces West, and I understand Gregory Peck did in Yellow Sky, which I haven't caught yet. Such a beautiful horse—he just seems to skim along the ground when he runs. (They actually used another horse called Bingo to double Steel for the very fast and more dangerous runs—if you look closely in the scene where Tyree is chased by the Indians you can see the difference.)

8:15 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Jerry! Coming from you that is a great compliment. I so agree about Wayne. I'd say first watch ANGEL AND THE BADMAN and observe all Wayne's nonverbal acting...then watch him effortlessly and flawlessly play Captain Brittles...then watch him in THE SEARCHERS. The man was an actor of the highest caliber.

In fact, there's a great interview I read of Binnie Barnes, where she was asked who was the greatest actor she worked with: Laurence Olivier? Ralph Richardson? Her answer was "John Wayne."

Thank you for calling attention to Tom Tyler and Frank McGrath, Jerry, I'll be looking for them particularly next time around.

Elisabeth, I like what you say -- there are times I think RIO GRANDE is my favorite but Johnson's part in YELLOW RIBBON helps give it the edge for me. (I'm also a huge fan of WAGON MASTER which is in my Top 5 Ford films.)

Thanks so much for sharing the info on Bingo, I hadn't come across his name before and that's great info to have. I'll watch for him next time!

Best wishes,

8:01 PM  
Blogger Sheila O'Malley said...

Laura - what a beautiful tribute to one of my favorite Fords/Waynes, The way John Wayne puts those glasses on to read the inscription ... makes me dissolve into tears every time. And thanks for the background on much of the filming. The dogs!!

3:33 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Frank McGrath is the bugler in all three of the trilogy (and he's also Leo Gordon's sidekick in Hondo, which I never realized until glancing at IMDB in recent years). And Tom Tyler has one of those voices you recognize instantly even if he's only in a tiny part—he's a trail hand in Red River and the man loading the evacuated officers on the plane at the end of They Were Expendable.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Sheila, I appreciate your kind words so much! I agree about how lovely that scene is with Wayne.

Elisabeth, I hadn't particularly paid attention to McGrath before and am glad to know he's the bugler in all 3 films, that will make him easy to spot! I'll also be looking for him in the other movies you mention. I'm due to watch RED RIVER before too long, it's been a very, very long time since I saw it. Thank you!

Best wishes,

8:43 PM  

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