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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Embodying the themes and ideals that so often comprise John Ford films — including honor, duty, and the passing of values from one generation to the next — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) might be the first John Ford film you would show to somebody who knew nothing of the director. Part action-adventure, part drama, and mostly set in the American southwest's starkly beautiful Monument Valley, the film was the second of Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy," the other two being Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950). In this outing, John Wayne stars as U.S. Army Capt. Nathan Brittles, a veteran of the Union Army who, by 1876, is planning to retire in a matter of days. Based at an isolated Army outpost, Brittles is unsure what to do after 40 years of service. However, Custer's Last Stand at Little Big Horn has caused a group of young Arapahos and Cheyenne warriors to join forces, convinced that the time is right to increase hostilities against white settlers. Brittles is given one last assignment — lead a patrol to gather up other patrols in the region and return them to the fort. But the task is complicated by commanding officer Maj. Allshard (George O'Brien), who insists Brittles escort his wife Abby (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to the village of Sudro's Wells, where they can catch a stagecoach back east for the winter. Matters aren't helped either by two young officers, Cohill (John Agar) and Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), who are infatuated with Olivia and often threaten to fight over the young lady. The soldiers find themselves in difficulty early on, taking a longer route to Sudro's Wells to avoid the Arapahos. A lost patrol is found after a brutal attack, and when it's clear that Brittles' arrival at the small village has come far too late, he declares the mission a failure — only to find himself forced to divide his forces in order to escape hostile territory. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon often is cited as one of John Wayne's best acting performances — which might not be saying much, as a lot of folks think he was never a great actor to begin with. However, while it's true that Wayne always played one character (with minor variations), this 1949 film marks the beginning of some mature performances that would include The Quiet Man (1952) and The Searchers (1956). Wayne gets at least three great scenes here, including a tender soliloquy at the graves of his dead wife and children, his bitter, sardonic reaction when he arrives at Sudro's Wells, and a poignant, underplayed moment when his men present him with a silver watch as a retirement gift. But being a John Ford movie, Yellow Ribbon includes its fair share of comedy, including a slapstick bar-brawl with boozy Sgt. Quincannon (comic relief Victor McLaglen), as well as strains of dark humor when Brittles and his men passively watch an Indian-trader and a few gunrunners murdered by Arapahos. Photographed by Winton C. Hoch — who won an Oscar that year for his efforts — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is full of beautiful panoramas and a few lively action scenes, offering a splendid backdrop to Ford's somber story of one man who hungers for both the excitement and structure of the military while time exacts its inevitable toll. Warner's DVD release offers a clean full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with audio in the original mono (DD 1.0). Special features include a sample of John Ford's home-movies (4 min.), the theatrical trailer, and textual notes. Snap-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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