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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

In director John Ford's autumnal and sentimental western, it was the second of his "cavalry trilogy" series (and his personal favorite, preceded by Fort Apache (1948) and followed by Rio Grande (1950) which were in black and white, and all starring John Wayne); it was filmed in Ford's favorite scenic locale - Monument Valley; the RKO hit film was noted for Winton C. Hoch's beautiful Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography (the film's sole nomination and win):

  • the film's opening narration (voice of Irving Pichel) described the historical situation in mid-1876 following General Custer's (and the 7th Cavalry) defeat and 212 dead at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana, and the departure of Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho Indians from their reservation: "Custer is dead. And around the bloody guidon of the immortal 7th Cavalry lie 212 officers and men. The Sioux and Cheyenne are on the warpath. By military telegraph, news of the Custer massacre is flashed across the long, lonely miles to the Southwest. By stagecoach to the 100 settlements and the 1,000 farms standing under threat of an Indian uprising. Pony Express riders know that one more such defeat as Custer's and it would be a hundred years before another wagon train dared to cross the plains. And from the Canadian border to the Rio Bravo, 10,000 Indians - Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, Sioux and Apache, under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Gall and Crow King, are uniting in a common war against the United States Cavalry...And wherever the flag rises over some lonely Army post, there may be one man, one captain, fated to wield the sword of destiny"
  • in the film's first sequence, a government stagecoach crossing the remote Southwest desert was robbed of its payroll and the Paymaster was killed by Cheyenne Indians who had ventured farther south than usual
  • aging, soon-to-be-retired 7th Cavalry captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) was serving at Fort Starke, a one-troop cavalry post; he had only six days of service left; the entire area was threatened with a large-scale Native-American Indian uprising, threatening stagecoaches, settlements, and others crossing through the territory
  • in an early sunset scene, Capt. Brittles sat at the gravestone of his deceased 33 year-old wife Mary Cutting Brittles, who died in 1867; he spoke to her while he watered the flowers about his future: "I've been thinking l'd maybe push on West. New settlements, California"
  • the fort was commanded by Major "Mac" Allshard (George O'Brien), who ordered Brittles (on his last patrol mission) to protectively accompany two women: his own no-nonsense wife Abby 'Old Iron Pants' Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Mrs. Allshard's niece - attractive, genteel single lady Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru); they were being evacuated for their own safety to an awaiting stagecoach station at Sudro's Well to take an eastbound stagecoach
  • Olivia was being pursued by two rival lieutenants in the fort: Brittles' pending replacement Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and arrogant 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.); she wore a 'yellow ribbon' in her hair signifying that she had chosen a "sweetheart" - although the two fought over her affections

Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru)

Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar)

Olivia (Wearing a Yellow Ribbon) with Cohill
  • Captain Brittles was joined on the trip by Major Allshard, shrewd chief scout Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson), and often-drunk and comical First Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen); the women and the wagons slowed down their trip, and so did a detour when they had to give a "wide berth" to a group of migrating Arapahos; along the way, Captain Brittles learned from wounded Cpl. Mike Quayne (Tom Tyler) that warring Indians (led by radical Arapaho Chief Red Shirt (Noble Johnson)) had attacked one of the cavalry patrols near their destination; meanwhile, scout Sgt. Tyree was pursued by a mounted group of Cheyenne Indians ("Same ones that killed them Yankee soldiers with General Custer") and was able to escape unharmed by jumping across a canyon gap
  • there was a remarkable, cinematographically-beautiful dark line of clouds and lightning in a thunderstorm as the cavalry patrol passed through director Ford's favorite scenic locale - Monument Valley; at the same time, Cpl. Quayne was successfully operated upon to remove an arrow in his chest in the back of a wagon
Remarkable Cinematography
  • as the regiment approached the Sudro stage depot, they discovered that the Indians (a mixed group of Cheyenne and Arapaho) had massacred the stage master John Sudro and his wife Martha (leaving their two young children Palmer and Carey Sue orphaned), and lethally-wounded, brave trooper Pvt. John Smith/Rome Clay (Rudy Bowman) who had helped to defend the depot; Olivia apologized to Capt. Brittles for her part in causing the disaster and for missing the stagecoach: ("I know all this is because of me. Because I wanted to see the West. Because I wasn't Army enough to stay the winter"); a funeral service was held for the deceased
  • the patrol was forced to make an arduous, return march to the Fort, planned for the middle of the night; while departing, Brittles and others watched from afar as corrupt Indian agent Mr. Karl Rynders (Harry Woods) and his interpreter were selling $50 rifles to Chief Red Shirt; after making demands of the Indian chief, the two white men were both killed with arrows; the Indians opened crates of guns to steal the weapons
  • in order to cross the Paradise River unharmed and to keep the defenses strong against the resurgence of many allied Indian tribes, Lt. Cohill was ordered to stay behind with two squads of troops, and as Olivia departed from him, she kissed him - revealing her romantic choice of sweetheart
  • back at the Fort, Captain Brittles told Maj. Allshard that he considered the mission that he had been leading a complete failure: "Failed at Sudro's. Failed to keep Rynders' rifles from the tribes. Failed at everything. I leave the Army a failure"; he expressed his regret that as an "old soldier" - he was retiring and would lose all respect and recognition: "Someday, you'll learn how they hate to give up. Captain of a troop one day, every man's face turned towards ya. Lieutenants jump when I growl. Now tomorrow, I'll be glad if the blacksmith asks me to shoe a horse"
  • on the next day, his last day before retirement in a farewell scene, Brittles' C Troop awarded him with a solid silver pocketwatch with the inscription: "To Captain Brittles. From C Troop Lest we forget" that he tearfully and proudly read with his glasses
  • after Captain Brittles rode off from the Fort, the Narrator described the imminent bloody war between the white and red men: "Signal smokes. War drums. Feathered bonnets against the Western sky. New Messiahs. Young leaders are ready to hurl the finest light cavalry in the world against Fort Starke. In the Kiowa village, the beat of the drums echoes in the pulse of the young braves. Fighters under a common banner, old quarrels forgotten, Comanche rides with Arapaho, Apache with Cheyenne. All chant of war. War to drive the white man forever from the red man's hunting ground. Only the old men stand silent. Even Pony That Walks has been howled down at the council fires"

Cheyenne Indian Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree)

Brittles with Tyree in Indian Camp

Speaking to Chief Pony That Walks
  • with only four hours left before his retirement officially began, Capt. Brittles chose to intervene by meeting (with Sgt. Tyree) under a truce flag with his elderly friend - Cheyenne Indian Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree); he tried to dissuade the Indians from war: "My heart is sad at what I see. Your young men painted for war. Their scalp knives red. The medicine drums talking. It is a bad thing"; Brittles agreed with the Chief: "Yes, we are too old for war, but old men should stop wars," but the Chief felt powerless to do anything against the young war-seeking braves: "You come with me. We hunt buffalo, get drunk together"
  • Brittles chose a risky strategy of stampeding the Indians' horses out of their camp just before midnight (and just before his civilian life officially began), to prevent battle in an inevitable war against US troops, and to force them to return to their reservation on foot; he felt he had succeeded: "No casualties, no Indian war, no court-martial"
  • then, although officially retired and heading westward ("Westward toward the setting sun, which is the end of the trail for all old men"), Brittles was recalled back to duty ("But the Army hadn't fiinished with Brittles") by the Yankee War Department - with a promotion as Lieutenant Colonel and appointment as Chief of the Civilian Scouts - all endorsed by Phil Sheridan, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses Simpson Grant, President of the USA
  • the film ended with Brittles receiving praise from everyone at the Fort; as a celebratory dance commenced, Brittles walked to the gravesite of his wife to quietly sit
  • the Narrator praised the cavalrymen in the film's epilogue: "So here they are: the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty-cents-a-day professionals riding the outposts of a nation. From Fort Reno to Fort Apache - from Sheridan to Startle - they were all the same: men in dirty-shirt blue and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing. But wherever they rode - and whatever they fought for - that place became the United States"

Soon-to-Retire Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne)

Capt. Brittles at the Grave of His Wife

Capt. Brittles' Last Mission - To Take Women to Stagecoach Depot

Olivia's Apology to Capt. Brittles

Arapaho Chief Red Shirt On the Warpath

Olivia's Kiss for Cohill, Revealing Her Choice of a Beau

Brittles: "Failed at Everything. I Leave the Army A Failure"

Farewell Scene: A Gift to Brittles of a Silver Pocketwatch

Brittles' Strategy to Prevent War: Stampeding Indians' Horses

Brittles' Promotion and Return to the Fort After His Retirement

Olivia and Cohill - Now A Romantic Couple

Film's Concluding Epilogue


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