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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.