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Arguably no one but the artist Frederick Remington did more to imprint an image of the Old West on the American imagination than director John Ford. The vistas of Monument Valley, the heroic posture of John Wayne, the sense of almost mournful nostalgia for a time when civilization had not yet encroached upon the free reign of the rugged individual - these were the essence of Ford's great Western films.
By the time of the release of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), however, Ford was beginning to lose favor with critics. Post-war Hollywood was turning toward stark realism and contemporary themes. The classic popular genres, among them musicals and westerns, were starting to be regarded as old hat and irrelevant to the concerns of the day. But audiences obviously still found something in Ford's work that the critics either missed or dismissed because from the first day of its release, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was a solid box-office hit, and today it's regarded as one of his finest.
Set in 1876, shortly after Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, the film tells the story of 43-year cavalry veteran Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne), who faces an Indian uprising on the eve of his retirement. With this, the second picture in Ford's cavalry trilogy (bookended by 1948's Fort Apache and Rio Grande in 1950), the director further displayed his fascination with the heightened sense of camaraderie among fighting men and the value of tradition and ritual. It also gave Wayne one of his most memorable roles, playing a man a generation older than himself with a more vulnerable side; something the actor had rarely shown before. Years later, Wayne spoke admiringly about the touches Ford added to give dimension to his character, such as the scene where Brittles, accepting a watch from his troops as a retirement gift, comically fumbles with a pair of bifocals to look at the inscription.
But this proved to be a critical disappointment for Wayne, too. Although several reviewers praised his portrayal, the general critical consensus was not in favor of his trying something new and expanding his range. Wayne recalled rather bitterly that he never got the credit he deserved for the picture, so he just went back to "re-acting" for the rest of his career, an assessment that would seem odd to anyone who's ever seen him in Ford's The Searchers (1956).
Reviews aside, audiences were happy to be back in familiar Ford territory, not only in the company of several actors who made up a sort of stock company for the director (including Wayne, Victor McLaglen and Harry Carey Jr.) but in the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley. By the time he made this movie, Ford considered the location on the Arizona-Utah border his lucky spot and knew every inch of it. To capture it, he hired Winton C. Hoch, one of the pioneers of Technicolor and the foremost color cinematographer in the business. Ford, Hoch and art director Jim Basevi pored over Remington's paintings for the look and feel of the Old West. But although Hoch was meticulous about focus, frame and lighting, he almost didn't get one of the most famous and characteristic shots in the picture, an incident that marked the beginning of his long but tempestuous working relationship with Ford.
At one point, while shooting a line of soldiers on horseback, a desert storm kicked up. Ford thought the angry, dramatic clouds made a good backdrop for the scene, but Hoch insisted there wasn't enough light. Ford demanded the cameras be kept rolling anyway, and Hoch filed a formal complaint with the American Society of Cinematographers saying the shot was unacceptable and that he had been forced to do it. But on Academy Award night the following year, Hoch was the only one of the cast and crew to walk away with an Oscar.
Producer: Merian C. Cooper
Director/Producer: John Ford
Writing Credits: James Warner Bellah, Frank S. Nugent, Laurence Stallings
Cinematographer: Charles P. Boyle, Winton Hoch
Costume Design: Michael Meyers, Ann Peck
Film Editing: Jack Murray
Music: Richard Hageman
Cast: John Wayne (Capt. Nathan Brittles), Joanne Dru (Olivia Dandridge), John Agar (Lt. Flint Cohill), Ben Johnson (Sgt. Tyree), Victor McLaglen (Sgt. Quinncannon), Mildred Natwick (Mrs. Abby Allshard), Harry Carey Jr. (Lieutenant Pennell)
C-104m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Rob Nixon