Why "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"


For my Dad


I promised I would write more about why I was thrilled to introduce "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" last night with Robert Osborne.

As I said in my introduction, growing up out here in the West, I have an affinity for the west, its landscape, its mythology and its history.  As Americans, we tend to like to have our history romanticized.  The western film genre provides that romanticism like no other.  The western film, like jazz, is an uniquely American art form.

While westerns have always been a part of our cinematic history, John Ford gave birth to the modern western with his silent classic "The Iron Horse" (which, ironically enough, was filmed in northern Nevada back in the mid-1920s).  From the moment he discovered Monument Valley in the late 1930s, (thanks to the enterprising husband and wife team, Harry and "Mike" Goulding, who ran the local trading post), Ford found what few directors do, a place that allowed him to express himself creatively and beautifully.

Ford was born in Maine and had grown up in the East before heading west to join his brother, Francis, in the early days of movie-making in Hollywood.

Ford began shooting in Monument Valley in 1939 when he directed "Stagecoach" and he returned there to direct "Fort Apache", the first of his three films about the cavalery.  Both of those films were in black and white.

"Yellow Ribbon", he shot in Technicolor in Monument Valley.  He and the cinematographer, Winton Hoch, who would win an Academy Award for this, wanted the film to evoke a Remington painting.  And that it certainly does.

Ford had an affinity for the landscape and the vistas that Monument Valley offered in abundance.  As I said last night, many directors have returned to film extensively there, perhaps because of the close identification that the Valley has with Ford.

As Orson Welles said, when asked to name his favorite directors, he replied "John Ford, John Ford, John Ford."

One of Ford's longest collaborations was with John Wayne.  Wayne and Ford knew each other long before Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in "Stagecoach".  That movie propelled Wayne into movie stardom but he was always ready to work with "Pappy" when ever the call came.

Many people believe that every character he ever played on film that John Wayne was essentially playing himself.  It's a myth almost as big as Wayne, himself.  While Wayne did have his "Wayne" persona, he was also as they say "a damn good actor."

His introduction in "Stagecoach" with that incredible dolly-in to his face against the Monument Valley landscape is one of the best cinematic introductions in the history of film.  His Kirby York in "Fort Apache" plays second-fiddle to Henry Fonda's over-bearing and tyrannical Lt. Col. Owen Thursday.  But it is Wayne, who at the end of the film, delivers the up-side of history as legend.  Rather than his friends to have died in vain because of Thursday, York, instead, sells the myth of Thursday, the gallant hero leading his men into a gallant meeting with destiny, leaving out the fact that Thursday is the reason for them riding to their doom.

His wonderful turn as Rusty Warren in "They Were Expendable" during World War II is a portrait of Wayne being a good actor.  Howard Hawks saw the real potential in him, acting wise, before "Pappy" did.  Hawks cast Wayne as Tom Dunson in "Red River" and allowed Wayne to age and be a rather mean character.

The story goes that Ford said, "I didn't know the sonvabitch had it in him."  It may be that that performance was a turning point in their relationship.  From that point on, Ford and Wayne created some of Wayne's best and most complex characters.

Captain Nathan Brittles in "Yellow Ribbon" is a man on the verge of retirement.  He has been in the army for forty years.  He, Mac Allshard (the wonderful George O'Brien) and Quincannon (the scene-stealing Vic McLaglen) all came into the army about the same time.  Brittles and Quincannon have been together since the early days of the Civil War.  In their bantering, we discover that they used to be drinking buddies (and good ones at that) until Brittles gave up the drink in the wake of losing his wife and daughters ten years prior to when the film opens.

While Brittles is passing command of his troops to Flint Cohill (John Agar), it is Tyree (the wonderful Ben Johnson, in a career making debut) that he feels the most affinity with.  Though both men come from different backgrounds and both fought on different sides during the Civil War, it is Tyree's judgement about the various Indian situations that Brittles seeks out.  It is Tyree who will fill Brittles' boots in the years ahead.

With Ford films, it always about ritual and tradition, whether it's the army or family or, very often, both.  There are rites of passage in every one.  In "Yellow Ribbon" as my good friend Gale reminded me this morning, the rite of passage in this film belongs to Ross Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr).  He goes from being a spoiled, rich kid with "the army his only hope" who cannot wait to return to Delmonico's with Olivia Dandridge on his arm, to turning his back at the dancing and the party that heralds Nathan's return to his home.  It is Pennell that watches Nathan walk out to the small cemetery to give his "report" to his Martha.  Those dinners at Delmonico's are a distant memory now.

When Wayne portrayed Brittles, he was twenty years younger than the character.  But his characterization is filled with the aches, pains and heartaches of an older man.  He self consciously removes his glasses to read the inscription on his "brand-new, silver watch" - "Lest We Forget".

It's a scene that has rung true with me from the first time I saw the film forty years ago and it still rings true today. 

Wayne reminds me a great deal of my dad and never more so, than in this film.  I got teary talking with Robert Osborne about this scene last night and I cried (as I always do) when I watched it play out last night.

Ford and Wayne would go on to create memorable films, the most important one being "The Searchers".  In this film, Wayne created one of the darkest characters to ever play out across a movie screen.  Had Ford not been in World War II and seen the horrors of war up close, I'm not sure he would have made the "Searchers".

When people tell me that Wayne won the Oscar for "True Grit" by playing himself, I remind them to watch "Red River", "They Were Expendable", "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", those roles are why John Wayne was finally awarded an Oscar in 1969.

Lest we forget, indeed.