It's immediately after the defeat at the Little Big Horn. The words, "Custer is Dead" are the first heard from reassuring narrator Irving Pichel. All the tribes of the plains are forgetting their petty differences and banding together under Chief Sitting Bull. Although they are seldom seen in hostile action, the Indian menace is constantly reinforced. Brittles' family was killed by Indians, and we see the aftermath of several raids. Large groups of unapproachable warriors are on the move. The Indian Wars are in full swing because 'the nations have declared war on the U.S. Cavalry', and that's all the politics we're offered. The ongoing struggle is a given and there are no issues to be debated. The warrior society that Ford celebrates in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a never-ending fight against forces that there's little point in understanding. The film is more about the gearing up of the cold war, than it is about Indians.
Ford sees the Cavalry as a social Utopia for Army officers. A class of faceless soldiers do all the work and most of the dying, while we enjoy the adventures and problems of the privileged stars. John Agar's Lt. Cohill character is a clear enlistment poster boy, and his personal campaign to make spoiled rich kid Lt. Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) see the true Army spirit is a slight at civilian values.
The enlisted men are divided between comedy relief and savvy professionalism. Sergeant Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) goes in for the usual barroom fights and Irish jokes. Sergeant Tyree (rodeo star Ben Johnson) is a Southerner who is not only the best rider, but knows more about Indians than anyone. Brittles gives him his due, indulging smart sass like, "That ain't my department", and "My Ma didn't raise any sons to second-guess no Yankee Captains". Brittles also allows the aged Trooper Smith, in actuality a Confederate General who joined the Cavalry anonymously to serve the Union, to be buried with Confederate honors. Thus the Army is shown to be a noble institution that tolerates all points of view and brings all Americans together in a consensus of common purpose.
The main subplot is the minor rivalry between Cohill and Pennell for the affections of the commander's daughter, this time played not by Shirley Temple, but by young Howard Hawks discovery Joanne Dru, who stole big pieces of the previous year's Red River. Along with Mildred Natwick, Dru accompanies the troop on the show's major journey, providing both a chance to show the Army's limitless gallantry, and also an excuse for avoiding any major battles. The film advances the idea that the military provides a welcome home for the soldier's wife, a situation which may have changed in the last 40 years, but certainly wasn't the case then (See The Right Stuff and Sayonara.
Since the emphasis is on relationships, and not fighting, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon has a number of charming touches. Nathan Brittles is given a watch by his troop in a sentimental scene. His exchanges with McLaglen's broadly drawn Quincannon character have Ford's fondness for Irish relationships, that sometimes become the entire content of a film, as in The Long Gray Line.
The best scene in the movie is Brittles' visit to a hostile tribe, to float a peace overture with old friend Pony Who Walks. On the way in, he's insulted by an arrow shot into the ground by a younger brave: Wayne yanks the arrow out, spits on it, and throws it in the brave's face. Audiences invariably cheer this gesture, as it promises some kind of confrontation, but the movie studiously sidesteps any showdowns. Pony Who Walks turns out to be played by actor Chief John Big Tree, using the same comedy character schtick he showed in Drums Along the Mowhawk ten years earlier ("Hallelujah!"). Both sides lament the fact that wise old men are pushed aside so younger hotheads can have their say, which would be a great statement if it applied to both sides. The renegades are all Indians, and Pony Who Walks is an authority figure only for a bunch of infantile savages. It's assumed that the U.S. or the Cavalry have no need to reassess their position.
The movie moves through several false climaxes until Brittles finally leaves, a civilian at last. Little else in the story has been resolved, except one Lieutenant gets the girl, and the other has a total change of character and now wants to continue his army career. With the country in the hands of a new generation of properly-initiated officers, the endless War can continue.
John Wayne is fine, building on his elderly Tom Dunson of the year before with this portrait of an even older man. The rest of the cast go through their familiar John Ford stock company moves without any surprises. Joanne Dru is expressive and efficient in her by-the-numbers role. The standout is Ben Johnson, who has a natural line delivery to go with his great horse riding. Being part of the Ford stock company seems to have been a privilege and some kind of duty; few actors graduated to better roles, although most had careers. Ford gave Johnson and the son of silent star Harry Carey a fairly big push (Harry Carey Jr. was 'introduced' at least twice, maybe three times) but Johnson didn't find stardom until Peter Bogdanovich and The Last Picture Show, 23 years later. Even Joanne Dru, after a few big parts, spent most of the rest of her career in 2nd-rate Westerns.
Warner's DVD of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a fine Technicolor restoration, which is so good-looking, it may have been done from original Technicolor separations. The color is excellent throughout and has the chroma and density of real I.B. Tech, and Savant only saw one brief shot where the colors weren't well aligned. A beautiful job on a picture that needed restoration to be appreciated. Until the middle '90s, all that circulated were miserable faded prints.
There's a trailer, and some so-so home movies of Ford and Wayne taking a plane trip to Mexico, sometime in the 1940s. They seem relaxed (Ford actually smiles), and Wayne looks his proper age. Its a nice treat.
One noteworthy detail - this was originally an RKO film, and very few RKOs have made it to DVD - no Astaire/Rogers musicals, for example. Whether this represents the beginning of a trend is unclear, because RKO is listed nowhere on the packaging credits. It's entirely possible that this title reverted to Argosy Pictures, and its appearance doesn't augur more forays into the library of Radio-Keith-Orpheum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,