Friday, February 15, 2008

Target #187: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford)

TSPDT ranking: #415
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Warner Bellah (stories), Frank S. Nugent, Laurence Stallings (screenplay)
Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, George O'Brien, Chief John Big Tree

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

After finally seeing The Searchers (1956) a few weeks ago, my first John Ford/John Wayne Western, I was anxious to get my hands on some more, and an opportunity came quickly with the late-night showing of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Produced on a budget of $1.6 million, the film was one of cinema's most expensive Westerns at the time, but the radiant Technicolor photography, coupled with Ford's ardently professional direction, resulted in a picture that has dated surprisingly little in the last half-century. The second film in a trilogy that also includes Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950) {both of which I am yet to see}, Ford's Western concerns the travails of the United States Army Cavalry, with John Wayne donning a moustache to play Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, the distinguished no-nonsense leader of the Cavalry, who is just days from official retirement. Winton C. Hoch's exemplary Oscar-winning cinematography perfectly captures the might and majesty of Monument Valley, Utah, particularly during an impressive lightning-storm sequence.

Following the defeat of General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the American frontier is in disarray. Tribes of Native Americans – Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache – are forgetting their petty inter-tribal disputes and banding together in opposition to the invading settlers. Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, though somewhat reluctant to retire at such as crucial stage of the conflict, embarks on his final objective, though is hampered by the baggage of two women (Joanne Dru, Mildred Natwick) who must be evacuated before winter sets in. The film's storyline is somewhat inconsequential, never threatening to even approach the emotional depth of 'The Searchers,' and some of the film's events are almost incomprehensible to one who is ill-versed in American history and Westerns in general. However, Wayne's profound characterisation of Capt. Brittles forms the picture's core, and he is, indeed, astonishing in the subtle and thoughtful complexity that he brings to his character. The remaining, less-experienced players, such as Harry Carey Jr. and John Agar, aren't particularly memorable, but serve the story adequately and with presumably-sound authenticity.

Fortunately, John Ford litters the rather lightweight story with an enjoyable amount of humour, compensating for the relative lack of emotional depth with sheer entertainment. Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) provides most of the laughs, particularly during a drunken brawl sequence that sees him fending off seven able-bodied soldiers and still finding time to take another sip of whisky between swings. Also mildly amusing is the friction between lieutenants Flint Cohill and Ross Penell (Agar and Carey, Jr.), both of whom notice that Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) is wearing a yellow ribbon, and hope that it is for them. The story's ending struck me as something of an anti-climax, even though, admittedly, it would have been downright arrogant for Ford to alter history. As the Native Americans congregate in preparation for a direct assault on their enemies, Brittles' stern conversation with Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) promises an incredible climactic battle of epic proportions. However, when John Wayne astutely manages to disrupt the planned attack by scattering the tribes’ horses, I couldn’t help feeling just a bit disappointed.

Currently my #4 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
3) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
4) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
5) Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock)

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