After Custer and the 7th Cavalry are wiped out by Indians, everyone expects the worst. Capt. Nathan Brittles is ordered out on patrol but he's also required to take along Abby Allshard, wife of the Fort's commanding officer, and her niece, the pretty Olivia Dandridge, who are being evacuated for their own safety. Brittles is only a few days away from retirement and Olivia has caught the eye of two of the young officers in the Company, Lt. Flint Cohill and 2nd Lt. Ross Pennell. She's taken to wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair, a sign that she has a beau in the Cavalry, but refuses to say for whom she is wearing it.Written by
O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie
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Colorful Centerpiece of Cavalry Trilogy...
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is, arguably, the most enduring and appealing of John Ford's 'Cavalry' trilogy. While lacking the dramatic core of a fatally flawed central character (FORT APACHE), or an estranged couple reunited by a headstrong son (RIO GRANDE), the film offers a richly sentimental tale of a crusty yet endearing career soldier (John Wayne) facing retirement, in a romanticized West where the cavalry stands as the only defense against the combined might of the Indian nations. The combination of Wayne and the cavalry in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is simply unbeatable!
Wayne, at 42, portrays the sixty-ish Capt. Nathan Brittles, and under Ford's sure hand, is magnificent in the role. Whether chastising young lieutenants ("Never apologize, mister, it's a sign of weakness"), complimenting an enlisted man ("Keep it up, and you'll make a fine corporal, in three or four years"), or kneeling at the grave of his long-dead wife, to share the news of the day, Wayne's performance shows a subtlety and sensitivity that his critics often claimed he lacked. When his commander, Major Allshard (George O'Brien) refuses his request to rescue Lt. Cohill (John Agar) and two squads who had performed rear guard duty, the anguish Wayne shows is heartbreaking. This is an Oscar-caliber performance, from a vastly underrated actor.
The rest of the cast measures up equally well. Victor McLaglen, as irascible as ever, plays Irish Top Sergeant Quincannon, full of blarney and (a bit of) whiskey. His morning scenes with Wayne, denying he'd been drinking, are comic gems. As the young suitors of Joanne Dru (who plays a more traditional role than in Howard Hawks' RED RIVER), Agar and Harry Carey Jr. are also quite good.
The real 'find' of the film, however, is Ben Johnson, in only his second major role. As Sgt. Tyree, ex-Confederate captain, and Brittles' best scout, Johnson shows an easy-going charm, a (feigned) lack of respect (when asked his opinion, he'd always begin with "That's not my department..." then make a dead-on assessment), and astonishing riding skills (not surprising, as Johnson had been a champion rodeo rider). A future Oscar winner, he displays a charisma on-camera that would quickly earn him a place in the 'Ford Family' of actors.
The visuals of SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON have been frequently compared to Fredric Remington's classic paintings of cavalrymen and Indians, and the comparison is justified; the film would win an Oscar for it's rich Technicolor photography, and images of 'dirty blue' riders on horseback against the stark blue sky and golden hues of Monument Valley are very reminiscent of the artist's work.
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is the kind of film you can watch again and again, and still find rewarding. It is on my 'short list' of favorite westerns, and if you haven't seen it yet, you're in for a treat!
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