She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Dir. John Ford. Starring John Wayne, John Agar, Ben Johnson

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a better synopsis than a movie, which is hardly an uncommon problem for a movie, but rarely has that been more disappointing for me as a viewer. In practice, it makes for a lumpy flick without much feel for when things should happen or how. It’s not sure what to do with Joanne Dru, but it knows it needs at least one woman who forces the plot in a certain direction. It has Victor McLaglen but can’t figure out why he’s needed except for a single scene of Hulk smash bar brawling. Johnson rides a horse and has an unintelligible accent. Agar and Harry Carey, Jr. spar over Dru, but it feels like Agar ought to be playing the patrician who casually drops Delmonico’s into a conversation at a southwestern cavalry post and Carey should be the underdog vying for a girl outside his league. Even John Wayne feels a little strange to me, but maybe that’s because of the great irony in casting him as an older man. Most of the time it feels like I’m complaining that Ford should have just cast someone younger instead of Henry Fonda or Wayne himself; after watching this movie, it’s clear he should have just cast someone older instead of Wayne.

Aside from the giant cast of Ford regulars, there are all sorts of other moments which need our attention but feel a little stilted or stale: the funeral of a Confederate general posing as a mere cavalry trooper, a surgery conducted on a moving wagon, a truly inexplicable meeting between Brittles and an old Indian chief. Almost seventy years on, what feels even stranger than the basically historical conflict between American armed forces and the Native Americans who refuse to stay put on their reservations is the Lost Cause raising its head. Ford movies frequently include Confederate veterans, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is no exception; Tyree, an extraordinary scout, is mostly a Southerner because Ben Johnson has a drawl that sure ain’t from New England. (I chuckled at a line where he explains that his mother didn’t raise him to trust some Yankees, which is the kind of regional joke that you can, even nowadays, hear anywhere in this country.) It was a little stranger to watch the wife of an American cavalry officer give up part of her petticoat to sew together a small Stars and Bars to place on the coffin of the aforementioned general. Part of it is the ickiness of Lost Cause imagery which has only recently received strong criticism from mainstream perspectives; personally, it feels even weirder as a historical choice. The officers among Indian fighters were overwhelmingly holdovers from the Union Army: Phil Sheridan, Nelson Miles, Oliver Howard, George Crook, and of course George Armstrong Custer. Hearing Nathan Brittles, an Indian fighter in his own right, extol the virtues of a onetime Confederate general is a little strange if only from a historical standpoint. (It’s even odd to talk about the scene this much; honest-to-goodness talk of the Confederacy takes up maybe a minute of screen time, but heaven knows it has an outsize effect on a viewer.)

What feels most troublesome in the movie is that it undercuts its best moment, which has been set up in a series of strong, if unexceptional scenes. Brittles’ final mission is a failure on both counts. He was supposed to escort the female family members of the ranking officer at the fort (George O’Brien) to a stagecoach which would take them east, and while doing so was supposed to quell an Indian uprising forged after Little Big Horn. He arrives late at the outpost; the stage is on fire and it takes a cavalry charge to scare off the swarm of Native Americans who have successfully raided the post. He has no choice but to turn around, leaving a small group under Cohill behind as a rearguard, and retire in the knowledge that the last assignment of a career stretching back past the Civil War was a failure. His pleas to Allshard to rejoin his men as a scout or an interpreter, anything to get back in the field, are met with a series of negatives. Look, Allshard says, it’s time for our younger officers to learn how to do the things you know how to do. Cohill and Pennell are going to be the top dogs in this unit after you retire; it’s time to give the wars up to the young men. This is sound advice, even profound advice, and Brittles seems to understand it instinctively on some level. Earlier, he had dissuaded Cohill from taking one squad for his defensive action because it had too many married fathers in it. Here, he doesn’t resist Allshard’s orders (despite having a history of doing just that). He goes back to his quarters. He gives every sign that he will review the troops and then disappear in his civilian clothes, making a new life for himself in California.

That best moment comes just after he’s received a gift from the men he’s leaving. (The men remaining are under Pennell; Cohill has his own command by a river, where Brittles left them the night before.) They’ve all chipped in to buy him a solid silver pocketwatch inscribed with, among some other things, “Lest we forget.” Brittles had to take out his hitherto unseen spectacles to read it, and when he puts them away we can see a tear, hear him sniffle. Pennell has the entire company leave the fort before turning around on his horse, saluting his captain, and riding out himself. Brittles, in this moment, is basically alone. He is merely another old soldier, abundantly fortunate to be able to take his retirement rather than have it given to him by a bullet or arrow or virus. It would have been nice to end his career on a high note; many old soldiers end their days on a neutral, dull one; he goes out at a low point, but by his testimony he’s served at some of the major battles of the Civil War, so that’s not nothing. His wife and two daughters both died during his time in the service, and their deaths are part and parcel of what he carries away with him as he leaves the parade ground. Their ghosts are like the ghosts of the men and horses which he can surely still hear in the distance.

There’s a remarkable beauty in this scene because of its focus on submission. Westerns are not frequently given to the idea of submission; the tagline for this movie is that apologizing is a sign of weakness, and so you oughtn’t to do it. (I try to watch movies this old without judging them too much, but I couldn’t keep myself from rolling my eyes at that ugly little truism that everyone seems to take very seriously.) Westerns which rely on violence to achieve their ends emphasize the idea of struggle, especially the struggles against great odds; largely non-violent westerns both old and new, from Wagon Master to Meek’s Cutoff, codify struggle in terms of the journey or the intended destination or mere survival. The message for a few lovely minutes in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is “Give up while you still can.” It is fitting that Brittles should give up the fight for the reasons that Allshard gives him, and for a tradition much older than the U.S. cavalry. Young men fight, whether they are white Americans or Native Americans, and they can hardly be dissuaded from battle. Old men are supposed to be wiser, cooler. At worst they should stand out of the way while the young men ignore their good advice and hurl themselves at one another. Later on, the movie will take the legs out of this moment, which is tremendously disappointing. First it gives us some pugilistic comic relief via McLaglen before Brittles rejoins his men and avoids a full-scale war through his quick thinking. But in this moment, the strangeness of giving up quietly is dominant and fascinating.

3 thoughts on “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

  1. Anyone who understands the role of Southerners in the US Army and of their feelings for the CSA, has no problem understanding the reference to Confederate military service in the movie. it has nothing to do with slavery. They were part of the Army, just as Irish immigrants were a part of it. Ford, a reserve USN rear admiral and combat veteran, understood this.

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