Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Middle Installment of Ford's Cavalry Trilogy

Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne): Were you ever scared, "Captain" Tyree?

Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson): Yes, sir. Up to and includin' now.

John Ford's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," which premiered nationwide on this day in 1949, took home the Oscar for Best Color Cinematography.

And why shouldn't it? It was filmed against the backdrop of the awe–inspiring Monument Valley along the Utah–Arizona border. Nature gave Ford the perfect set, and it cost him nothing to make — which was good because, as it was, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" was one of the most expensive westerns ever made — at the time.

(Ford and Wayne had worked in Monument Valley before — when they made "Stagecoach" 10 years earlier.)

In hindsight, it is viewed as the middle installment in Ford's so–called cavalry trilogy — sandwiched in between "Fort Apache" and "Rio Grande" — although they weren't successive chapters of the same story. John Wayne, however, did star in all three.

Now, when you read your history (as most folks don't seem to do these days), you'll find many accounts of Gen. George Armstrong Custer's last stand. But, other than occasional references to what Custer's widow did, I have seen little about what happened after the massacre at the Little Bighorn.

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" tried to fill that gap — albeit with what I assume was a fictional story. Wayne's character, a cavalry captain, was close to his mandatory retirement when he was given his final assignment — to deal with some renegade Indians who had broken out of a reservation.

Wayne's character also had to escort his commanding officer's wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) to an eastbound stage. Dru caused quite a stir, as a young, attractive woman is apt to do when surrounded by soldiers who have been assigned to a remote outpost.

Wayne gave one of the greatest performances of his career — some will tell you it was his greatest performance, and I won't argue that. I can live with it — although there are other roles for which I could make a pretty good case.

Although they had worked together before, Ford supposedly said he didn't know Wayne could act until he saw him in "Red River."

The Academy didn't agree. Wayne didn't receive an Oscar nomination for "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." He was nominated the year before ("Sands of Iwo Jima"), but the only nomination he ever received for a role in a western was the one he received for playing Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit" 20 years later.

And he won that one.