Directed by John Ford
Based on the story by James Warner Bellah
Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, Laurence Stallings
Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, Ben Johnson, John Agar, Harry Carey Jr.
On the eve of his retirement, Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is asked a patrol out to stop a large Indian attack. In addition to stopping the attack, Brittles is also working to evacuate a number of women from the fort. These challenges soon force the Captain to make a serious of difficult decisions in an effort to keep everyone alive.
This is the second film in John Ford’s (My Darling Clementine) Cavalry trilogy that includes Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950). Ford was given a budget of $1.6 million, making it one of the most expensive Westerns made up to that point. The film is based on a collection of works by James Warner Bellah (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), with a screenplay by Frank S. Nugent (The Searchers) and Laurence Stallings (3 Godfathers). The movie stars John Wayne (True Grit (1969)), Joanne Dru (Red River), Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show), John Agar (Sands of Iwo Jima), and Harry Carey Jr. (Mister Roberts). On an interesting note, John Ford didn’t want John Wayne for this film. He initially said that he wouldn’t be able to handle playing a character that was twenty years older than he was. After viewing Wayne’s work in Red River Ford changed course. He was quoted as saying “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”.
This is a nice story that explores the plains through the eyes of the men in the Cavalry. Specifically, this one focuses on the life of Nathan Brittles, an aging veteran on the eve of his retirement. This movie is a mix of sentimentality over a career that is mainly in the past, and the tension building over the Indian aggression. This is a fun movie with moments that are light and almost comedic. The more serious tone of the larger arc still works nicely, although this one doesn’t quite find the clear direction of a film like The Searchers. The major issue is the loss of focus as the film attempts to focus on the bigger picture and the smaller relationships between the characters. Despite the weaknesses, this is still a solid story that pays off on the major points in the story.
If John Wayne established his credibility as an actor in Red River, he took it one step further in this film. Playing a character 20 years his senior, Wayne managed to bring out a very real sentimentality from his role. His performance really anchors the emotional tone of the film through a number of great moments. Wayne also establishes great chemistry with every actor he shares the screen with. Joanne Dru is just one of those actors who found nice chemistry with Wayne. Her performance brings the softer side of this story to life perfectly. She does a great job finding the right way to connect with each of the other actors.
Ben Johnson, John Agar, and Harry Carey Jr. also do great work in this one. This cast seemed to buy into the tone of the film and really help to give this one a sense of authenticity. It should also be noted that most of the filming required these actors to sacrifice a lot of the comforts of home. For much of the production the cast and crew slept in dirt-floor cabins without any hot water. The filming also took advantage of the changing weather conditions that required the cast and crew to work in thunderstorms. Despite all of these hardships, this one has some great acting throughout.
Like many of Ford’s films, this one was shot mainly on location. That decision gives the film an incredible backdrop that really illustrates the vast open space of the frontier. Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch (The Green Berets) did an excellent job not only capturing the bigger world, but also knew the right moments to get up close to the action. His work earned the film its only Oscar nomination and win for Best Cinematography. This one also has a nice score from composer Richard Hageman (Stolen Identity). One other point of interest is the title of the film. The name She Wore a Yellow Ribbon actually comes from a military song used to keep marching cadence.
This is a good movie that has a lot to offer. While it might not be the tightest story, there’s little to complain about. Fans of Ford should make sure they’ve seen this one. Fans of the stars would also do well to make sure to check this one out. If you’re a fan of classic Westerns this is also a great choice. I give this one 4 out of 5 stars.