Westerns. John Ford was the master of Westerns. He was THE guy when it came to depicting gunfights and chases on horseback. Sergio Leone might be the director you’d like to think invented the Western genre, but he didn’t. He improved the Spaghetti Western one. The Western genre was all John Ford’s. Westerns at the time (we’re talking about 1930s and 1940s) were rather easy (financially cheap) films to make and they often revolved around the same story. The prominent themes were those of family, friendship, trust. The Wild West was just a stage for it. That’s why we should never forget Ford’s brilliance. He reinvented the genre and added a huge chunk of value to it. The settings mattered, the surroundings mattered, the characters felt more real than ever and of course, the action (at the time) was incredibly modern in its presentation. Ford began in the silent movie era and as time went by he grew to become one of the most famous directors in Golden Hollywood. He was notorious for his bad temper, rough words and sometimes, arrogance. While for quite some time Henry Fonda was his number one actor, the man he collaborated with the most, their relationship began to deteriorate in the late 40s and the two eventually fell apart during the shooting of a movie in the mid 50s, when Ford socked Fonda in the mouth. As Fonda swore he’d never work with the director again, Ford brushed these remarks right off his shirt and remembered that he had directed another bright kid in a big movie back in 1939. His name was John Wayne and the movie was Stagecoach. Now, ten later years later John Wayne was a big bright star shining all over the world of cinema. He had been nominated for his work in Sands of Iwo Jima and had become a ‘serious’ actor giving memorable performances in Fort Apache and Red River. It had been the latter, Howard Hawks’ Red River that convinced Ford to offer Wayne, what the actor would call, his favorite and most valuable role. That of Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Brittles is an essential character when speaking of Westerns. He wasn’t the conventional macho man of the West, as most would expect from John Wayne. He embodied the essence of a man of the Wild West. And that’s why She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can be interpreted as the ultimate love letter from Ford to the West. It is also why this was one of the first movies directed by Ford in color. His aim was to translate the beauty and the fascination of this magnificent world of desert, dirt, sunsets, buffalo, canyons, woods presented in the paintings of the great Frederic Remington onto the moving screen. And as I sat a couple days ago and watched this movie for a second time, I noticed how accurate the translation from the canvass to the screen truly is. The images in Ford’s film are brilliantly structured and staged. The actors are scattered around the frame in a way that allows us to really grasp the dimension of the settings, be it a vast open range or a tiny cemetery at sunset. Many directors forget the importance of composition. Ford doesn’t. He clearly understands that to achieve a peace within a shot of film you need balance. Balance, like in most paintings, is found in color and composition, two prominent features of this particular movie. The contrast is between the visual balance and thematic balance. The story is that of an impending war between the different tribes of Native Americans and the US Calvary after the massacre at Little Bighorn, and yes, John Wayne’s character is there to try to and prevent it from happening. So, as you can see, the turmoil and chaos of the story, of what happened and what could happen, is evidently contrasted by these beautiful images that evoke a feeling of calmness, harmony and… balance.
Aside from the theme of war and danger, Ford’s love letter contains also the theme of time. The passing of time to be precise. In fact, John Ford said of John Wayne’s performance (who at the time was 40 years old) as the 60 year old Captain who’s facing retirement: “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” And indeed, if you’re not convinced of Wayne’s ability to act after seeing Red River then here you have further proof. Wayne’s task in this particular role was to deliver a performance that was meant to tell the stories of all the men who lived their entire lives in the middle of nowhere. He was supposed to show a man’s weakness, strength, character and inner loneliness and conflict, and here you get all of it. As I said before, there is absolutely no macho feel to Captain Brittles. He is just an ordinary man whose time is unfortunately coming to an end. He has to face reality and let the younger generation take his place and again, Ford’s choice to shoot this film with the use of an experimental color palette, allows the viewer to fully grasp each movement, each look that appears on Wayne’s face, and yeah, you bet; the son of a bitch can act!
Don’t believe me? Here you go;
Another note on the cinematography and direction this movie takes. This could have been an absolute failure since it’s marketed and labeled as a Western but in truth very little happens in this movie. Don’t expect gunfights, standoffs, chases and hangings like in Ford’s other Westerns like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a romantic drama that talks about the struggle between man and the land of the West. Shot composition proves this. There is always a presence of landscape in every single frame and very often, the characters are extremely small compared to it. It feels like nature, the clouds, the dust, the rocks, the canyons, loom over these tiny human beings. It may be a warning, a sign of impending doom. Perhaps it means humans can fight all the wars they want but at the end they’re not the ones making the ultimate choice. Captain Brittles is just an officer at the end of the day. He is not God. He’s a mortal man. One of us. And Ford doesn’t hold back in underlining it. Many critics failed to understand his movies. He didn’t preach the grandeur of cowboys nor the courage of soldiers. All he did was tell stories of a land he so deeply admired and loved. By using Remington’s paintings as a visual inspiration, the love glows more than ever in each color frame. The beauty and the cruelty merge and create a stunning portrayal of what the Wild West truly looked like once upon a time, far and far away…