SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON B
USA (103 mi) 1949 d: John Ford
Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness. —Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne)
A movie that typifies director John Ford’s Achilles heel, a man whose cinematic visualizations are renowned, but his hatchet job of American history is equally legendary, as he insists on perpetrating the same racist myths about Indians that have been in effect for the past 100 years, which makes his historic vision as a filmmaker no better than the dime store novelist that originated these misconceptions. Ford has always portrayed Indians in the least desirable light, showing them to be less than human, vicious savages, terrible shots, poor military strategists, and little more than pathetic wretches of humanity, so little sympathy is ever shown when a gazillion Indians are killed onscreen, such as in STAGECOACH (1939). Compare that to the elevated sympathy offered in this overreaching drama when a cavalry troop escorts two white women through hostile Indian country. The film opens in 1876 just as news is spreading about the defeat of General Custer at the hands of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe, sending waves of anxiety and fear throughout the West, where a newsreel style narrator misinforms the audience straightaway, probably exactly as the newspapers speculated in that era, believing various Indian tribes were gathering together in great numbers to purge the West of white settlers.
In reality, Indians were gathering in record numbers to defend themselves against the inevitable advance of the whites into their territory. After the Custer debacle, however, rather than remain a fighting force of multiple tribes united in opposition, as is suggested here, they split back up into smaller tribes, each going their own separate way, as they had always lived, reflective of their nomadic lifestyle of living off the land. But that’s not the way the movies tell the story, instead projecting a view of the white settlers as victims of random and indiscriminate Indian violence, overlooking the genocide initiated against Indians by the U.S. cavalry throughout the West, ordered to militarily defeat one tribe after another, rounding up all free Indians in a form of ethnic cleansing, eventually forcing them into submission, legally requiring that they live away from their traditional hunting grounds, forcing them to live in isolation on desolate reservations, subject to rampant disease and the rotted food of government rations where more than half died within the first few years. Ford conveniently leaves out all references to the true story of “American” history and instead recounts the same mythological racist lore that turns Indians into savages while the whites are noble heroes.
In this film, the second of a 3-part cavalry trilogy, between FORT APACHE (1948) and RIO GRANDE (1950), Ford is really paying tribute to the men in uniform, offering a glowing and idealized portrait of romanticized courage under fire. James Warner Bellah wrote the short stories on which the entire trilogy is based, while screenwriter Frank Nugent adapted the first two into movies, a character driven and nearly plotless story offering an intimate glimpse of military life at a remote cavalry post. This is largely a nostalgia piece, complete with a rousing Americana musical score that doesn’t shy away from playing Dixie, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and several variations of the title tune, which is still the official anthem of the United States Cavalry, where despite some strong individual performances, the collective portrait of the Second Cavalry Regiment is really the featured star of this film. Ford and his cinematographer Winton Hoch, who won an Oscar, use vivid Technicolor to continually frame them on the move in single file formation while traveling through the stunning panorama of the natural backdrop of Monument Valley in Southern Utah, which is now part of the Navajo Indian Reservation. These compositional images so completely resemble authentic Western artworks, particularly those of Frederic Remington, that Ford’s Westerns are forever associated with Old West authenticity. The same can’t be said for the subject matter, however, where Ford tends to mythologize the West, once more overlooking the real history of the Second Cavalry, which was responsible for the Marias Massacre in 1870, where despite warnings from scouts that they were attacking the wrong camp filled with Blackfeet Indians friendly to whites, some 200 Indians, mostly women and children were slaughtered in an act of wrongful brutality, while the Piegan tribe and their Chief, the military’s actual target, escaped safely to Canada.
Here, however, the cavalry is depicted as a harmonious place where soldiers from both the North and the South have come together after the Civil War under one flag and one common purpose, to keep the West safe from Indians. The charismatic leader holding them all together is John Wayne in one of his better performances as Captain Nathan Brittles, a savvy veteran of 40-years in service whose long deserved retirement is expected within a few days, though he has mixed feelings about becoming a civilian. This is one of the first Westerns to pay tribute to an aging Western hero, along the lines of Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) or Clint Eastwood’s aging gunfighter in UNFORGIVEN (1992). Still served by his orderly Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) from their days together in the Civil War, their morning ritual has a relaxed, comic flair of longtime friends as Quincannon is expected to join him in retirement just two weeks afterwards. Also interesting is Brittles’ respectful relationship with Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson, a real cowboy, a champion calf roper discovered by Ford), a man with equal rank while serving the Confederacy, whose opinion he values, but Tyree is reticent to offer, claiming “That’s not my department,” sarcastically claiming the orders come from the Yankee War department. When a fellow Southern soldier dies, Brittles finds it noble and befitting to bury him with a Confederate flag.
When a paymaster stagecoach carrying the troop’s wages is attacked by Indians with the passengers murdered and robbed, Brittles is ordered on one last patrol to quell the vicious outbreaks by a band of renegade Indians who have broken from the reservation. Added into the mix are his orders to escort the commanding officer’s wife and niece, Abby (Mildred Dunnock) and Olivia (Joanne Dru) to the nearest East-bound stagecoach, claiming they could not withstand an “Army” winter, where Olivia has inflamed the hearts of a few soldiers by adhering to a cavalry tradition of wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair, which symbolizes her faithful devotion to one of them. But this doesn’t prevent two young officers, John Agar and Harry Carey Jr., from spending more time fighting one another than they do with her, a sign of their youthful inexperience for leadership, making Brittles even more reticent to give up his command. When a long line of Indians is spotted moving their entire village with them, Brittles thinks it wise to avoid contact, as they’re not in battle mode, preferring to take a longer route, even though the delay has serious consequences, eventually missing the stage which is destroyed in a violent Indian encounter at the stage post, including several lives lost. Flabbergasted at the turn of events, believing he failed every mission he was assigned, this tribute to an old soldier reveals Brittles has a few more tricks up his sleeve, all of which exhibit a flair for intelligence and cunning, displaying the kind of wisdom and experience that endear him to his troops. In the end, Ford depicts them as one and the same in this loving tribute to “the regulars, the fifty-cents a day professionals riding the outposts of a nation.”