I never much liked this movie until I retired. It’s the tale of Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne in his forties proving the acting point), in his final days in the U.S. Cavalry, fending off battles with Cheyenne and Arapaho who have left their reservations (hmmm….), and trying to get his boss’s wife and niece home: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
There isn’t much more plot than that. They go about their jobs; things prove difficult and dusty in a Technicolor way through spectacular landscapes.
The point is the characters and the pains of age – and perhaps how gorgeous they all look, uniformed in blue and yellow, their horses marching them through the desert to the cracking score.
Wayne – quite some way from the heavy vulnerability of The Shootist (1976) – shows us a man at the end of his working life, feeling the impending loss of worth. He’s got a hint of swagger, and is too thin for the age portrayed, but centres the film with a dignity and duty that settle you just as John Ford tells America’s story to itself. For there’s just a hint of over-love in the flag and that yellow ribbon.
The Duke is, as you might expect, a warm if gruff leader, utterly decent in the face of the brickbats thrown at his pride. He has any number of grand moments – from chastening the young to negotiating with an old enemy to a touching, embarrassed moment when his men give him a goodbye gift. Not quite a Mr Chips, but a great performance of age by a young man. Just watch him talk to his wife’s grave…
And age catches Brittles just as it does Victor McLaglen‘s nutso turn as Sgt. Quincannon. He nearly obeys, is nearly disciplined, and gets full character-actor marks throughout. Chest out and broadcasting comedy oafishness, actor and character go over the edge for me, but you can’t fault the old-fashioned fun of him. An easier weariness comes from the ever-droll Ben Johnson as Sgt Tyree – now there’s someone enduring middle-age and hard work.
Contrasting all these ageing comrades are the young. Joanne Dru is Miss Dandridge, sweet flirt and distraction to the brave young men of the cavalry. John Agar and Harry Carey Jr battle it out over her to the annoyance of Brittles and, this is where old Jack resists the film, to the exhaustion of the audience.
A mix of history lesson, hubristic American eulogy and treatise on the fears of retirement, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon grew on me quite considerably when it came time to pack in the office job and travel National Trust sites with Mrs Jack. The militaristic, Native American and Proud America stuff still leaves me cold, but the Duke’s performance has grown more pertinent with the years. For Brittles is a man dragged through a whole bunch of failure as he stands ready to jump in the Gramps-Mobile and dawdle off into the sunset. You watch him, tense at how close to being free he is, and how close the fear and messiness of the job come to wrecking his dignified exit.
In the end, of course, movie-land gives him a happier than happy ending. Not something you see in these corridors, to be honest, so well worth an afternoon watching if only for the daydream of it all.
I should probably tell you that director John Ford made two other Cavalry based films. This is the really good one.