SheWoreaYellowRibboncoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
1949, 103 min., Color
Warner Archive Collection
Not Rated (would be PG for violence and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the second in the so-called Cavalry Trilogy of legendary director John Ford. It’s also the only one shot in color and the last of the three to finally make it onto Blu-ray—available now from the Warner Archive Collection and at Amazon.com. While it doesn’t offer the same psychological character study as Fort Apache (1948) or the classic first pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara moviegoers saw in Rio Grande (1950), it still features one of John Wayne’s favorite performances, and Ford’s slow-boil of a plot keeps picking up steam once the film hits the 20-minute mark.

That might be a little late for a young generation of viewers coming to old Technicolor Westerns for the first time, but this film is part of America’s heritage. Like it or not, imperialist or not, America’s westward expansion put settlers in conflict with Native Americans, and it was up to the U.S. Cavalry to protect and serve. Ford obviously had a soft spot for the men in blue, but his treatment of the American West can sometimes seem contradictory. In Fort Apache he cast Henry Fonda as a stubborn commander obviously patterned after George Armstrong Custer—so much so that the commander forces his troops into a near-identical “last stand.” But in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a voiceover tells us that Custer and his men were just massacred and word of a massive Indian uprising was worrying even outposts in the southwest. What was treated as foolhardy in the first film is paid tribute to in the second.

Ford was a stickler for authenticity, though, and you’ll marvel at shots of horses and riders and even horse-drawn wagons going over rough terrain. The backdrop is the dramatic Monument Valley, where Ford filmed at and around the Navajo reservation, insisting on employing the Navajo as extras instead of hiring whites made to look like Indians, as was still common at the time. Ford was so respectful and appreciative of the Navajo that one harsh winter he airlifted supplies at his own expense so the people and their livestock wouldn’t perish. Yet, apart from a single scene in which Wayne’s character talks with an Indian chief, the Indians get less respect this outing.

SheWoreaYellowRibbonscreenThe situation in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is this: Capt. Nathan Brittles (Wayne in make-up that aged him 20 years) is counting down the days until he retires from the Cavalry. For his last mission he’s sent to try to contain a group of renegade Cheyenne and Arapaho that have joined forces and have attacked settlers in the area. But with danger mounting, Brittles’ commanding officer also orders him to take along his wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) in a wagon to meet the eastbound stage to safety. The niece, meanwhile, seems more interested in toying with the affections of two young officers—the nine-year veteran 1st Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and the rich and relatively green 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.). She wears a yellow ribbon in her hair, which signifies that she has a beau in the Cavalry, but won’t say which one she’s wearing it for.

The more you know about this film, the more you can appreciate it. The Monument Valley footage is stunning, especially in 1080p, and though Winton Hoch won an Oscar for his cinematography he was constantly at odds with Ford, who at one point ordered him to keep filming as a thunderstorm approached, despite Hoch’s concerns about the equipment acting as lightning rods. The West was wild, and Ford Westerns, especially those starring Wayne, have at least one character who drinks too much and a number of them who enjoy fistfights as much as drinking. In the Cavalry Trilogy it’s the highly likable Irish Sgt. Quincannon, though the equally likable Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson) balances the scales by not taking tobacco or alcohol. But it’s all about the soldier’s life, with an emphasis on honor and sacrifice and those comic fights that relieve the tension of serving in an outpost in the middle of nowhere.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is sentimental and nostalgic, a paean to Cavalry life on the frontier, and yet there’s something rousing, still, when the soldiers sing the title song as they ride off for what might be the last time. And Wayne is himself an American classic, as much as Ford and Monument Valley. Those are three great reasons for watching this film, at least once. Another is to give families a chance to talk about such things as changing attitudes. In this Western, there’s great respect for opponents and people who fought for other causes. Those who rode with the grey in the Civil War are still given the same measure of respect . . . and the Confederate flag, now widely banned, was placed atop the coffin of a soldier in one scene. Add to that attitudes towards America’s treatment of the Indians and it should make for a provocative discussion. Even one of Brittles’ mottos—“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness”—might prompt a family debate.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Off-camera, mostly, except for a scene where one gunrunner is shot with an arrow and another is thrown repeatedly into a fire by the Indians
Adult situations: Drinking, cigars, and chewing tobacco
Takeaway: If your children are resistant to black-and-white and The Searchers is a little too intense and intensely racist, this film is probably the best to introduce them to John Ford and John Wayne’s American West

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