Skip to content

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon Analysis


Since I just wrote about my analysis of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, here it is. I realize that, while hardly obscure, this isn’t the best known of the John Wayne/John Ford collaborations, and many of you will be unfamiliar with it. You can watch it for $2 on YouTube here, or if you live near me, you can watch my DVD if you are interested. The trailer is presented after the jump. I didn’t actually get a very good grade on this. A hurried finish that kept me from proof-reading as much as I should have was part of the issue (I have made several corrections), but the main problem was that the assignment was to write about the myth of the frontier. I ignored that and did my own thing. I did far better on the more open-ended assignments later in the semester.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at first glance seems like a western war movie. The cavalry is after all, an instrument of violence under the control of civilization on a mission to fight the savage Indians. The movie itself seems to support this view at first. In the opening, the narrator seems to say war is inevitable. All the Indians tribes have joined and ten thousand of them (as opposed to mere hundred of settlements and thousand farms) have declared all out war on civilization. All of this information in fact also comes through a bit later in exposition, but the narrator tells us upfront to make sure we understand it is the central thrust of the plot. The Indians seem to be an implacable foe, massacring people everywhere and threatening the whole West “from the Canadian border to the Rio Bravo.” Custer’s last stand is essentially used to make it seem that the cavalry is losing. One more such loss would lose the West itself. Thus, the stakes of the plot are the future of the very United States.

However, they are opposed by the United States Cavalry. Even before the movie proper begins, it informs the viewer it’s a cavalry picture. The song, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” which plays over the credits and many times thereafter (large parts of the score are even adapted from it) isn’t just a theme, but a military cadence meant to help keep step during marches. During the credit sequence, the cavalry’s crossed-sword logo appears at the top of the screen and a yellow tassel hangs at the left side as the titular ribbon blows across the screen, almost as if the film itself were wearing a cavalry uniform.

After the narrator sets up the central conflict, he introduces us to the character of Captain Nathan Brittles and tells us he is “fated to wield the sword of destiny.” Thus, history is essentially thrust into his hands. However, despite the fact that the narrator said it over a shot of Brittles’s actual sword, the sword metaphor is misleading. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is not the story of how he led his brave men to destroy the merciless Indians. Quite the contrary, it’s a story about peaceful resolution to a conflict where that didn’t seem possible.

Capt. Brittles is played by John Wayne. From the way he commands the attention of everyone else on-screen and from his established screen persona, we are meant to understand he is the exemplar of a US Cavalry officer and by extension an American man. He isn’t the gun-twirling badass he was in Stagecoach here, but an older, far mellower version. When we first meet him in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, it is not an assertive, masculine moment. Rather, we see him from behind in his rather silly-looking salmon undershirt as he gets dressed. He then proceeds to banter with Sgt. Quincannon, the film’s comic relief, for several minutes. However, by the time he steps out the door, his jacket is done up and he’s a very commanding figure. It helps that the terrain by his door puts him slightly above the camera. It’s clear that for him, the army isn’t just a job, it’s his life. He later says he hasn’t worn civilian clothes since he was fourteen. His wife and daughters are dead, leaving him with his men as his family. As he says to Cohill later, he is essentially their father. In only a few days, he’s being forced into retirement and out of the only life he really knows. When we see his civilian clothes, the idea of him actually putting them on seems ridiculous. With his family and the army gone, he doesn’t seem to know where he’ll go.

The story initially misleads us the as to its nature. The Indians are shown as a dangerous, uncompromising and particularly bloodthirsty foe. They have put aside tribal differences, but rather than being a step toward putting aside their differences with the whites, this just makes all of them into a single horde. For the first hour of the movie, there aren’t even any identifiable Indian characters, just masses of dozens, nor do they any have dialogue beyond war whoops. Their leader Red Shirt’s name evokes images of being covered in blood from battle and when we finally meet him about an hour into the movie, his behavior backs this impression up. He kills Mr. Rinders, an unscrupulous trader who is selling arms to the Indians, with no hesitation when Mr. Rinders calls him out for his crimes and negotiates too hard on the price of some rifles. Notice also, that he does not wait for the translator to speak before he does this.  He apparently spoke English and was pretending not to as a negotiating tactic, so he’s untrustworthy on top of his other unsavory characteristics. While Rinders’s death is certainly karmic, (he was, after all, agitating to support his business interests,) this hardly absolves Red Shirt of guilt. He not only shoots Rinders and his translator (who hadn’t done anything) in cold blood, but throws Rinders, wounded, but still living, into the fire, making him a complete sadist.

While their deaths inspire Brittles only to have a chaw of tobacco (“It’s been known to turn a man’s stomach,” he says, clearly not about the chaw.), he’s given plenty of reasons to seek revenge on the Indians. He knew many of the dead at Little Big Horn as well as Private Smith and Ma and Pa Sudro who die in the attack on the relief point later. This is in addition to Red Shirt stealing the payroll he was supposed to receive and murdering the paymaster, Mr. Cheadle. While it isn’t explicitly stated, his late wife, Mary, was presumably also killed by Indians as her headstone shows she died at the age of thirty-two and their two daughters died within a couple days of her.

While Brittles was unable to protect the women in his life previously, for his final patrol, he is “saddled,” quite involuntary, with escorting his commanding officer’s wife and niece, Abby Allshard and Olivia Dandridge, respectively, to the stagecoach. While he seems to agree that a tiny remote Army outpost is no place for women, a cavalry patrol is hardly better. Implicitly, he fears he will be unable to protect them or that protecting them will hamper his duties as he has to avoid any skirmishes with the Indians. However, he only makes this objection to Major Allshard himself. With Abby and Olivia, he is jovial when dealing with them personally and seems glad to have them along. Clearly, he’s a level-headed man who knows when pushing an issue might do some good and when it will only do harm.

Brittles’s ultimate peaceable solution does not come as a complete surprise. Brittles has, after all, spent the whole movie managing conflicts rather than fighting them. John Ford doesn’t see the cavalry isn’t seen as a force for good because they’re an effective in combat. They presumably are, but none of the cavalry members kill anyone over the course of the film and Brittles himself isn’t even shown firing a gun. Within the story they are important because of the way they unite disparate groups under a single, American purpose.

The obvious example within the film is Lt. Flint Cohill and 2nd Lt. Ross Pennell. From the moment they are introduced, these two fight over Miss Olivia Dandridge. However, while she is ostensibly the source of the conflict, it is really about class. Cohill is about to assume Brittles’s command and, like Brittles, is an Army man through and through. Pennell is a borderline dandy. He’s a rich kid who intends to resign his commission and take Olivia back East. First, Pennell belittles Cohill for actually needing his salary. However, classism cuts both ways and later on Cohill berates Miss Dandridge for trying to draw a potentially fine officer like Pennell away from the service and accuses her of ignoring all the enlisted men. He says she came out West to get stories to tell to high society back home. Each time this conflict starts burning hot, Brittles steps in and interferes, maintaining order in the ranks. At first he does this with good humor. When Cohill won’t let Dandridge and Pennell leave the fort to go on a picnic, Brittles  merely makes her stay inside because of the danger. However, it soon becomes clear the soft touch didn’t work, and he becomes progressively sterner. He has to bark order at them to break up a potential fight on an early part of the patrol, then threatens to tan Cohill’s hide over the way he spoke to Miss Dandridge. This is perhaps the most explicit comparison of his role as a commander and a surrogate father figure. He cares for his men and when he’s hard on them it’s born out of love and his high expectations.

A conflict buried a little deeper is the idea of the North and South in the Civil War. In 1876, this wound in the public’s consciousness was still quite fresh. Brittles fought for the Union, and though most of the men under his command would have been too young to fight then, Sergeant Tyree fought for the Confederacy. He good-naturedly calls Brittles Yankee, but there’s no hint of any acrimony over the issue. When Private John Smith dies defending the relief point, Brittles’ speech at his funeral reveals he was once Rome Clay of the Confederate Army. He doesn’t begrudge him this and, in fact, praises his brave service. Abby even sacrifices her petticoats, a little piece of civilization, in order to sew him a passable Confederate flag to be buried under. Abby and Dr. O’Laughlin’s participation in the funeral show how even civilians have their part to play in the cooperative cavalry ideal.

During the funeral, Lt. Cohill apologizes to Miss Dandridge for the way he has treated her and confesses he was being petty because he’s in love with her. At this point, Pennell walks in and tells Cohill to stay away from “his girl.” (Despite his protestations, there was never any real indication she was his girl.) They are about to have a fistfight, as if that would settle the issue, when Brittles intervenes one last time to shame them for their behavior. This does actually work. Potentially losing Brittles’s respect is worse than any other punishment one could dream up. After this, they do not fight again and learn to work together as a proper unit. This is also one of the main impetuses behind Pennell deciding not to resign his commission, because now he understands what it means to be in the army.

Brittles’s catchphrase is “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” He uses this several times throughout the film whenever he hears someone starting to say they are sorry. This isn’t some macho posturing to avoid admitting fault. Brittles will readily take blame, even for situations that were apparently out of his control, like the deaths of Ma & Pa Sudro. To him, this is a statement about responsibility. If you make a mistake, you are supposed to fix it, not apologize for it. There are several apologies he does not correct. These are when Cohill apologizes to Dandridge and when Cohill and Pennell apologize to each other. In these cases, the apologies are for their treatment of others, so it is actually a part of fixing the situation.

Therefore, when Brittles returns from his mission an apparent failure, he can’t just say he’s sorry and go retire. That would be completely against his nature. It is incumbent on him to salvage the situation, even if he has to go against orders to do it. In this circumstance, he still takes full responsibility for his actions, setting on Sgt. Quincannon to get him out of danger and giving his men written orders so if his plan goes wrong, he will be the only one blamed. His men would gladly put their own reputations, careers and lives on the line for him, but he believes it would be wrong to allow this.

Much as it is important that everyone take responsibility, Brittles also understands everyone that signing up for the cavalry assumes certain risks for the greater good. He puts himself at risk when he goes to make peace, but also Tyree. He has to keep moving while Dr. O’Laughlin is operating on Cpl. Quayne even though it makes the surgery riskier because stopping puts everyone in danger. Brittles is in charge because he can deal with these hazards, even if civilians like O’Laughlin can’t. This is in large part why he resents having the women along. They haven’t signed up for anything, giving him little leeway in how to manage his men. Normally, he can manage danger by assigning it to the right people. For instance, he leaves the more experienced Cohill to guard the ford, minimizing the danger to that group while he brings the civilians, the wounded Cpl. Quayne and men with families (i.e. the people who it is less acceptable to endanger) back to Fort Stark. Since he can’t, in good conscience, put the women in any danger, his options are very limited. Since he can’t fight the Indians, they are able to attack the relief point leading to several other deaths. These decisions pain him, but he is able to make them.

In the last chapter, Brittles tries to talk things out with the Indians by appealing to Pony Walks. Contrary to Maj. Allshard’s fears, he does not usurp command, but gives orders to Cohill and Pennell and leaves them to carry them out while he goes to the camp. This ability to delegate duty, even as he retaisn responsibility goes hand-in-hand with delegating risk.

When Brittles arrives, even Red Shirt apparently has too much respect for this epitome of a man to just kill him in cold blood like his did to the lowlife Rinders. Instead, he shoots an arrow at his feet to provoke an attack. Brittles does not take the bait, but he also does not let himself be cowed by this threat. He picks up the arrow, breaks it, spits on it and throws it away. In this simple act, he essentially declares himself above Red Shirt’s thuggery and tries to resolve the situation like a civilized man. While he is unable to stop the war with words, his back-up plan, stampeding the Indian’s horses, still results in no casualties on either side. Red Shirt can only futilely fire his gun, his brutal methods rendered impotent.

The cavalry itself is an instrument of civilization, but not civilized per se. The fort itself is called Fort Stark, emphasizing that it’s out in the untamed barren desert. It’s questionable whether it’s a space for women. Brittles didn’t think so, at least at the beginning of the movie. Olivia Dandridge’s attempts to play Cohill and Pennell off each other caused a lot of problems, but she did earn her place eventually. Abby, as you would surmise from her “Old Iron Pants” nickname, does seem to belong, despite what her husband thinks. The men out in the desert are disconnected from those back East giving orders. They don’t have a military telegraph, so have to wait weeks for news to arrive by horse and sometimes have to do things that seem against their interests, like forcing Capt. Brittles to retire. However, the values of the cavalry, like level-headedness, duty and cooperation are very civilized values. At the end of the movie, Brittles is not only given a watch with a sentiment by his men, showing that they appreciate him, but given recognition by the United States as represented by President Ulysses S Grant and several generals. He also a new commission, allowing him to stay in the army and a double promotion, ranking him above his former boss, for using these values (and not violence) to solve a pressing problem. The narrator then tells s that everywhere the cavalry went became the United States, meaning that these are also the values of America and that the principles that made men and women, upper class and lower class, Yankee and Confederate (Tyree wishes Robert E. Lee had been able to endorse Brittles as well) work together to solve this crisis are the same principles that the make these groups work together to make the modern United States.

The film’s views on race are not so egalitarian, though. While Indians were toned down from the common portrayal of the horror, they certainly weren’t put on anything like equal footing with the white characters. While everyone found a peaceable solution in the end, the Indians’ solution is rather different in nature than that of the disparate white groups. As mentioned before, all the tribes are essentially one remorseless killing mass. This isn’t just a military conflict. They also kill a stage driver to rob him and a couple farmers for no apparent reason. Unlike many other Westerns, there is not an implicit threat of rape, however. Perhaps rape would have made it too hard for audiences to accept that they live at the end, which is supposed to be positive.

For a film deeply interested in character, the Indians are given rather thin motivation. Tyree theorizes that the attacks are due to Indian traders, particularly Rinders, purposely stirring up trouble so they can sell more guns. The narrator says they want to “drive the white man forever from the red man’s hunting ground.” Pony Who Walks tells Brittles tells Brittles that young men are prone to war and that Red Shirt took the return of the buffalo as a sign. None of these explanations come until fairly late in the movie and even when we get them, they hardly seem satisfactory. We are left to presume the Indians are making war because that’s what Indians do.

When we are finally introduced to the major Indian characters, this doesn’t really change. Red Shirt, despite being ostensibly the main villain of the piece, only has one line and it isn’t intelligible to the audience. When translated, it’s only a demand that Rinders lower the price on the rifles he’s selling. He doesn’t explain himself at all. Red Shirt isn’t so much a character as a plot device. Also, in keeping with many “bad” movie Indians, he isn’t played by a Native American actor.

There is, of course, also a “good” Indian, chief Pony Who Walks, who is played by a Native actor. He is explicitly offered a parallel to Brittles. Both are old men who want to keep the young men from entering a war. However, they are not really equal. Pony Who Walks has given up on society and wants to withdraw and get drunk and shoot buffalo with his friend Nathan Brittles and leave the young men to do as they may. The young men won’t listen to him, so he thinks it is too late to do anything. On the other hand, while Brittles’s men, like Pennell, are entirely too eager to get gung ho, attack and forget their responsibilities, they do still listen to Brittles which is why he is able to avert war on his own terms. Presumably, this is why the U.S. eventually won the Indian Wars.

Pony Who Walks is essentially good because he has already accepted white domination. While he keeps his Native traditions, he has converted to Christianity and given up on any sort of recognition or political power. Of course, without legitimate grievances, it’s hard to portray any sort of real conciliatory position.

Note that while the other conflicts were resolved by people learning to get along, the Indians aren’t given any credit for uniting Sioux, Arapaho, Iroquois, etc and the Indian problem is solved by essentially publicly humiliating them so they’ll learn their place. While Cohill learns about leadership, Pennell about doing something you can be proud of and Dandridge about responsibility, Red Shirt learns that white man can use red man’s hunting ground if he wants and he should stay on the reservation and leave him alone. If he learned to listen to his elders, there’s little indication of it. Presumably, if the Indians were upset about a broken treaty, even a non-violent way of putting down their rebellion would hardly be heroic.

It’s not just the treatment of Native Americans that seems odd to modern eyes. Sgt. Quincannon, the boisterous, rowdy drunk could hardly be more of an Irish stereotype. He always needs a wee bit of whiskey, is quick to get into fisticuffs, pig-headed and is played by an Englishman doing a broad stage-Irish accent. However, despite the apparent contradiction with the values of the cavalry, he isn’t destructive to unit cohesion, nor is he at all a negative character: he’s a comic relief, meaning these problems aren’t taken seriously. He’s so gregarious and loyal to his captain it outweighs any potential negatives.

This is communicated not just by Victor McLaglen’s performance and the comical music that plays whenever he is the focus of the action, but by the staging. When he gets into the bar fight, the camera stays relatively still in each shot. Panning to follow the impacts would lend them undue weight. In contrast, when Sgt. Tyree is riding away from the Indians, almost all the shots are tracking backward with Tyree’s horse galloping toward the camera and the Indians filling up the background  or panning shots, with the Indians threatening to enter the right side of the frame. The motion in these shots gives them a sense of danger and urgency.

With a cavalry movie, I’m sure it is a temptation to make our fighting men larger-than-life heroes, with their mounted height sending them towering above the camera. However, there are only a couple shots like this. The heroes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, while heroic are decidedly life-sized. The camera is generally kept at eye level and the characters, in recognition of actual cavalry procedure, often get off their horses and walk. For the most part, the movie is present almost as if you were there with Brittles. The scenes in his quarters on two successive mornings set up a routine. He does essentially the same things and the camera makes the same moves, which amount to panning back and forth as if you were standing there turning your head to watch the action. Most other interior scenes are shot the same way. Exterior scenes involving walking or riding, which is most of them, are generally also relatively long and tend to be reverse tracking shots. These are treated as essentially still shots with our frame of reference fixed to the party. For instance, in one case, Cohill leaves frame by stopping. In both cases, all parties to the conversation are generally kept in frame and average shots take lengths are fairly long with little cutting between them. Essentially, each conversation is about two people relating to each other and so we are also kept appraised of their relation in space. The love triangle makes for interesting variations on this. For instance, when Cohill confesses his love to Dandridge, they are nicely centered in frame, then Pennell bursts into the left side of the frame, wrecking the composition as he wrecked the moment and the camera has to lurch awkwardly to the left to accommodate him.

There are several exceptions to this. In the picnic argument, we do cut back and forth several times, probably because Miss Dandridge and 2nd Lt.  Pennell and in a wagon and Lt. Cohill is on the ground, so cutting is the only way to get an eyeline match. Also, they have to be placed far apart so that Brittles can ride into the frame and intervene and a wide shot like that wouldn’t have worked for an entire conversation. The other heavily edited conversations are meant to show a disconnect between characters. When Brittles is arguing with Maj. Allshard, their eyelines don’t match because the major isn’t actually looking at him. When Brittles is trying to get Pony Who Walks help him stop the war, his great intensity is reflected by the fact he is in close-up while the largely indifferent Pony Who Walks never gets any closer than a medium shot. This is in fact one of the very few scenes with a close-up of any sort. The majority of close-ups are of objects like Brittles’s sword, the burning stagecoach at the relief point. There are probably as many close-ups of Brittles’s calendar as all characters put together. This is partially the result of the general approach of keeping two characters in shot, but also because Brittles is not the sort of guy to let his feelings out easily, so there are only a very few deep, soul-piercing shots.

Outside of dialogue scenes, there is considerable use of were wide shots to emphasize that the cavalry is at the mercy of the landscape. The first establishing shot of Fort Stark shows it dwarfed by a monument twice its height and a sky that takes half the screen. As the patrol initially leaves the fort, it starts off like a parade, with the camera at ground level watch the horses go by at fairly close range. Then, we go to a wider shot showing them from the outside of the fort and get wider with each cut until they are merely small blobs on a landscape. The compositions get more threatening later in the film as they attempt to run from the Indians back to the fort. Many shots here don’t even show sky, only the party dwarfed by monuments on canyons. Indians appear in the foreground of many shots showing that they control the situation.

There is also an interesting case of cutting for associative match. When Brittles is visiting his late wife’s grave, the shadow of Miss Dandridge’s head moves into frame across her headstone, we then out to a close-up of her. This sets her up as the new Mary Brittles, not in the sense of romantic entanglement with Brittles, but more as a second chance to protect someone. She does, in fact marry Cohill, who takes his post, giving the two of them a sort of do-over of Brittles life, which thanks to the lessons Brittles imparted and the safer world he created, should work out better.

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: