After Custer and the 7th Cavalry are wiped out by Indians, everyone expects the worst. Capt. Nathan Brittles is ordered out on patrol but he's also required to take along Abby Allshard, wife of the Fort's commanding officer, and her niece, the pretty Olivia Dandridge, who are being evacuated for their own safety. Brittles is only a few days away from retirement and Olivia has caught the eye of two of the young officers in the Company, Lt. Flint Cohill and 2nd Lt. Ross Pennell. She's taken to wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair, a sign that she has a beau in the Cavalry, but refuses to say for whom she is wearing it.
The army is always the same. The sun and the moon change, but the army knows no seasons.
The second instalment of the acclaimed John Ford cavalry trilogy had a lot to live up to after Fort Apache (1948). So it may not be too controversial to state that "Yellow Ribbon" doesn't quite achieve the potential promise that Fort Apache's foundation building had provided. However, here is still a mighty Western of many joys.
The lead theme here is the passing of time, of time and love lost, lest we forget indeed. These themes give the film a strong emotional heartbeat from which to work from - even if on proviso it's noted that elsewhere there is not much in the way of an adrenalin pumping action extravaganza. Accepting it as an affecting character piece is something of a requisite if you want to get the most out of the viewing experience, and of course simultaneously getting wrapped up in the gifted art of film making in the process.
John Wayne gives a top notch performance in what is obviously one of the first out and out serious roles that Ford gave him. His ageing Captain Nathan Brittles requires him to put in a very fallible human type of performance, something that he achieves in spades. He's a believable leader who is ruing the calling of time on his career in the service. Yet even Wayne's affecting turn is trumped by some of the most gorgeous cinematography you could wish to see from the 1940s.
Winton Hoch clashed with Ford on the shoot about various perfections (both parties equally to blame of course), but the final result is incredible. Witness a scene as Brittles visits his dead wife's grave, the backdrop is all purple and red, a storm is imminent, metaphorically and in reality. Has shooting in the desert ever been so colourfully lush? The locations are breath takingly brought to vivid life, Monument Valley in all its glory.
Picture leaves an indelible mark on the conscious for the art and performances (Joanne Dru, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen & Harry Carey Jr bring their "A" game), but temper that slightly for as a story it just about gets by for dramatic purpose. Yet of course John Ford knows his onions and structures it accordingly, bringing precision and a genuine love of the genre and the material to hand. 8/10
RKO Radio Pictures by John Ford, James Warner Bellah, Frank S. Nugent, Laurence Stallings.
Stars: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar.
Keywords: captain fort retirement attack cavalry
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