Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reeling Backward: "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" is considered one of the all-time great Westerns, and supposedly John Wayne himself regarded it as his favorite role. But after finally catching it, I found it strangely unaffecting.

"Ribbon" is about a man who is retiring, and he doesn't really want to. In a way, it's sort of an Old West version of "About Schmidt," except John Wayne doesn't suffer from modern neuroses like Jack Nicholson. Both men have lost their wives, and are essentially alone as they face a horizon that holds who-knows-what for them.

The two films diverge in that Schmidt is leaving behind a business that could care less about one more old timer packing it in, whereas "Ribbon" is very much about the manly camaraderie of U.S. Cavalry troopers scratching out some semblance of law and order in the wake of an American Indian uprising. The men love Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles (now there's a cowboy name for you) and want him to stay as much as he does.

There's a strange little ritual Brittles performs every morning. The crusty, boozy Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen, a mainstay of John Ford's Westerns) wakes him up and escorts him outside for the morning review. As soon as they exit his barracks, they are joined by a couple of young troopers, and they all fall into a military cadence as they walk, without any order being given. The two older men -- Quincannon is also due to retire soon -- lurch along in a bow-legged crawl weighted by their years, while the youngsters are crisp and straight.

Wayne's character is supposed to be in his early 60s or so, though he was actually about 20 years younger than that. He wears gray dye in his hair and a walrus mustache in a rather unconvincing attempt to age him up.

The film's title comes from the character of Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), the commander's daughter who is ordered to leave the post, along with her mother, now that the Sioux are on the warpath in the wake of Little Big Horn. It's tradition in the Cavalry for a woman to wear a yellow ribbon in her hair to indicate that she is bonded to a member of the troop. Though in Olivia's case, she leads two hot-headed young lieutenants to each believe she's wearing it for them.

I honestly found the whole subplot of the romantic triangle incredibly tedious, and hated whenever it diverted the movie from the main storyline, which is about Brittles' final mission.

He's supposed to lead a patrol out with several objectives: To deliver the women safely to the stagecoach landing, to reconnoiter with another patrol that is in danger of Indian attack, and to prevent a rogue government agent from selling rifles to the rebellious Indians. He fails all three.

The Cavalry is portrayed as unambiguously heroic, stalwart and true -- men who love the life in the company of others with similar natures. Ben Johnson plays Sgt. Tyree, the troop's best scout and a Rebel during the Civil War who good-naturedly throws barbs at his Yankee commanders.

With all the talk about the massacre of Gen. Custer at Little Big Horn, it's hard to reconcile that these same glorious figures in the movie were also the same responsible for atrocities against the Indians, slaughtering innocents at Wounded Knee and enforcing the capricious will of a federal government that repeatedly made and broke promises to the Indians.

My main complaint with the movie is how everything revolves around the character of Capt. Brittles. If the Cavalry was really as comradely as the film portrays, it seems unlikely that one man would so dominate the action and emotions of the group. One senses that if the role were played by an unknown actor instead of John Wayne, it would seem ridiculous that everyone is paying so much attention to the doings of what is just one member of a troop of hundreds.

So he's sad about retiring? Big deal. And the fact that the minute he rides off the post, the commanders send Tyree after him to offer him a new job undercuts everything that came before it. You've got nearly two hours of conflict about a man who doesn't want to leave his old life behind, tough and deadly though it may be, and then boom, he doesn't have to. The ending is so anticlimactic, it feels like that Gilda Radner character from the early days of "Saturday Night Live," who would get all worked up over something and then say, "Never mind."

2.5 stars out of four

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