#35 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
The second entry in the unofficial Cavalry Trilogy (bookended by Fort Apache and Rio Grande), John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is an entertaining and leisurely look at life in the US Cavalry centered around the final week of service of a retiring captain. It’s also the first film that John Ford made with John Wayne after his famous quote about Wayne’s performance in Howard Hawks’ Red River, which led to a more nuanced and complex performance from Wayne that Ford directed. It’s a solid rock on which to build the film.
Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) has just a few days left until he retires from the cavalry, and it’s the week after news has reached the remote Fort Starke of Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn. In a certain way, this could be viewed as some kind of direct sequel to Fort Apache since the events of those films were essentially a reworked imagining of Little Big Horn. Anyway, it’s a time of heightened tensions with the surrounding Indian tribes like the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Apache whom are coalescing into a large force, emboldened by the success of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse over the United States Army. The commander of the fort, Major Allshard (George O’Brien) fears for the safety of his wife Abbey (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru), ordering Brittles (under protest) to take both women on his next patrol to deliver them to the eastbound stage out of the area.
The bulk of the film is the journey outwards with the constant threat of Indian attacks around every bend in Monument Valley. There’s no great narrative drive, so we get little subplots that play out, mostly a love triangle between two lieutenants (John Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) and Olivia, the recovery of a sergeant from another platoon who could have been saved had Brittle’s platoon moved faster, and the discovery of a burned out farmhouse and the two surviving children. The plot of getting the womenfolk to the stage gets mostly forgotten on the journey to the point that I didn’t realize that the farmhouse was where the stage was supposed to be until Brittles announced that he had failed in his mission and was going back.
The trek back is tense as the enemy Indians can’t be that far behind. Brittles leaves both of his lieutenants behind to cover their retreat, promising to return after delivering the women back to safety. However, Major Allshard won’t let him go back. It’s time for Brittles to retire and let the rest of them take over. And then the movie becomes almost lackadaisical which is weird considering the terrible situation he left his lieutenants. Brittles has to spend the night with fitful rest before the remainder of his platoon give him a touching sendoff complete with engraved silver watch. In addition, Sergeant Quincannon (Victor McLaglen), also scheduled to retire in just a couple of weeks, gets an extended sequence where he tries on Brittles’ civilian suit at Brittles’ request, goes to get a drink, and gets into a fight with six military police. It’s all a ploy by Brittles to get his loyal sergeant an easy final two weeks in the guardhouse. It’s an amusing little sequence, but the distraction from the impending doom of the Indian attack feels weird, like a short story inelegantly inserted into a novel.
After this little side bit, Brittles leaves the fort in the middle of his final day, telling Major Allshard that he’ll be heading towards California, but he heads towards his lieutenants instead. He’s still technically a captain in the cavalry, and he uses his final hours to find a way to avoid the Indian war that’s brewing. It’s an interesting plan and well shot, ending two minutes past midnight and Brittles finding himself without position within the cavalry.
This is much of a piece with the bulk of Ford’s military films. The point is the camaraderie of the men in a military unit in trying times. Women are secondary concerns for the most part, and it’s about the rough and tumble life of the dangerous corners of the world. Ford captures a lot of that here which he does better in movies like They Were Expendable, Submarine Patrol, and Fort Apache. It’s a simpler, more crowd-pleasing picture that decides to go on tangents here and there, though. It’s a nice film, never falling into dullness, but it’s kind of oddly built, especially in the second half when it settles down instead of ramps up. I enjoy watching the film from time to time, but it’s definitely not at the heights of Ford’s body of work.