She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)




Director:     John Ford.

Starring:     John Wayne (Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles),  Joanne Dru (Olivia Dandridge),  John Agar (Lt. Flint Cohill),  Ben Johnson (Sgt. Tyree),  Harry Carey Jr. (2nd Lt. Ross Pennell),  Victor McLaglen (Top Sgt. Quincannon),  Mildred Natwick (Abby Allshard aka Old Iron Pants),  George O'Brien (Major Mac Allshard, Commanding Officer Fort Starke),  Arthur Shields (Dr. O'Laughlin),  Michael Dugan (Sgt. Hochbauer),  Chief John Big Tree (Chief Pony That Walks),  Fred Graham (Sgt. Hench),  Chief Sky Eagle (Chief Sky Eagle),  Tom Tyler (Cpl. Mike Quayne, Leader of Paradise River Patrol),  Noble Johnson (Chief Red Shirt).

bad history, but cavalry movements instructive; part of John Ford's cavalry trilogy


Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. 

1876.  Custer is dead.  The Sioux and Cheyenne are on the warpath.  10,000 Indians unite in a common war against the U.S. Cavalry.  Trooper Tyree and another trooper stop a run away stage coach.  Inside they find the paymaster, Major Cheadle, dead.  The Indians killed him.   

Top Sergeant Quincannon comes in to report to Captain Nathan Brittles.  He says that Private Mackenzie has got himself shot and is dead.  Mackenzie was a good man.  Brittles mentions that he has just six more days until he retires.  He is marking off the days on the calendar. 

The runaway stage coach is brought in to Fort Starke.  They found it near Red Butte.  Tyree says the Southern Cheyenne are in the area. 

There is a dispute inside the fort at the fort gate.  Lt. Flint Cohill is preventing 2nd Lt. Ross Pennel from taking out his girlfriend Olivia Dandridge on a picnic.  Olivia gets angry and tells Cohill that he is just stopping them because she wouldn't let him take her out on a picnic last Sunday.  She adds:  "You're harassing Lt. Pennell."  Brittles has to come over to settle the dispute.  Given that there are southern Cheyenne in the area, Miss Dandridge can't leave the fort.  But Pennell can  -- he'll just have to go alone.  The matter is settled but Olivia and Pennell are not happy. 

Brittles waters the flowers at the grave of his wife (1834-1867).  Also there are the graves of his daughter Elizabeth and his son James.  Brittles talks to his wife telling her that Custer died today.  Tomorrow he is going after the southern Cheyenne.  This will probably be his last mission.  He says it's hard to believe. 

Olivia comes out to the graves with a flower pot containing Cyclamen flowers.  She gives them to Brittles to put on his wife's grave.  Olivia then apologizes for the scene earlier. 

Brittles learns from the camp commander Major Allshard that he is sending his wife and her niece Olivia (who can't hack army life) with him as far as Sudro's Wells.  From there they will take the stage heading east.  On the day of the departure, Olivia comes out wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair.  Brittles tells her that yellow ribbon means that she has a sweetheart, but Olivia already knows that.  But who is her sweetheart?  Cohill or Pennell?  She flirts with both and with Brittles.  When Mrs. Allshard comes out she tells Olivia that she hopes Pennell will appreciate that yellow ribbon. 

The men start off on their trip to Sudro's Wells.  Tyree tells Brittles that he trailed the sutler Karl Rynders in his buckboard wagon a mile below Painted Post.  Rynders was accompanied by two other men.  Both cavalrymen wonder what Rynders is doing so far south. 

Everyone walks their horses in order to give them a rest.  When they are back on their horses Olivia tells Cohill that she is going to the back to speak with Pennell.  Cohill doesn't like this and the couple starts arguing.  Brittles has to intervene.  He sends Cohill to the back and has Pennell brought up with Olivia.  The troop comes upon Arapahos moving their entire village to another location.  Brittles wants to stay out of their way so he is going to go around them which will cost them a half day delay. 

Next time Cohill sees Olivia he asks her:  "Why don't you take your hooks out of Pennell?"  Pennell has the makings of a good officer.  He adds:  "If you can't handle the army then leave him alone."  After Cohill rides on Olivia start to cry. 

Brittles sends Tyree to Sudro's Wells to delay the stage coach from leaving.  The men hear firing up ahead.  Brittles orders the women to the rear.  He and a group of troopers goes to check it out.  They find out that it is Quayne's Patrol.  He is being chased by Arapahos.  Quayne gets to safety with Brittles.  He tells Brittles that it was Red Shirt himself after him

Meanwhile Cheyenne Indians try to catch Tyree.  He gets away by jumping over a narrow gorge.  Back at the troop the doctor operates on Corporal Quayne and saves him.  When the troop finally reaches Sudro's Wells the Cheyenne and Arapaho are just leaving.  Ma and Pa Sudro are both dead.  Trooper Smith dies after a brief talk in which he praised Tyree for helping save them from the Indians.  Olivia apologizes for her being one of the reasons they arrived too late at Sudro's Wells to save Ma and Pa Sudro.  They bury the three dead and say some words over their graves.   

Cohill apologizes to Olivia for what he said and did to Pennell.  Pennell arrives and tells Cohill to get his paws off his girl.  And once again Brittles is there to stop the quarrel.  He is losing his patience with these two guys.  He says they should be ashamed of the way they treat each other.  He needs these two officers to help him with his plans.  Brittles wants them to stoke the fires tonight and then later they will sneak out and head back to Fort Starke.  Brittles takes Olvia back to the encampment.  Cohill and Parnell apologize to each other. 

Back at the encampment it is reported that sutler Rynders is see''ng weapons to the Indians.   They ride over and then sneak up close to hear the bargaining.  Rynders wants $50.00 dollars for each repeating rifle.  Red Shirt protests that this is too much.  Rynders says he knows they recently stole the payroll of the cavalry.  They have the money.  All of a sudden Rynders is shot in the chest with an arrow.  Then the Indians kill the other two men with Rynders.  Now the Indians take the weapons for free. 

The Indians are still on the trail of the cavalry troop.  Brittles says he wants Cohill and his men to hold the Indians off at the passage over the river, the only passage over the river for 20 miles.  Olivia is worried about Cohill and now she hugs and kisses him.  When she later sees Pennell shes says:  "Guess that's how it is, Ross."  Pennel says it's okay. 

The troop arrives at the fort.  Brittles reports to his commander that he leaves the army a failure.  He left Cohill and his men behind and he didn't get the women to Sudro's Wells in time for the stagecoach east.  Allshard tells Brittles that he is way too hard on himself.  He leaves 40 years a good soldier.  They ask Brittles where's he going?  Brittles thinks he wants to go out to California. 

On the last day before his retirement at twelve midnight Brittles talks with Sgt. Quincannon.  Brittles has Quincannon try on his civilian suit.  The Captain then goes out and tells the troops under Pernell thanks.  The men give him a silver watch with a sentiment on the back:  Brittles has to take out his glasses to see it.  It says:  "To Captain Brittles, from C Troop: lest we forget."  The troop moves out.  Brtittles goes into his quarters to see Quincannon who is now all decked out in a civilian outfit.  He tells Quincannon to go get a drink on him and gives him some money.  But after Quincannon has gone, Brittles tells Sgt. Hochbauer that Quincannon is improperly dressed and to arrest him.  Hockbauer is afraid to try to arrest him, so the Captain gets him some other men to help him out. 

It turns out that the five men can't thrown Quincannon out.  Instead, he throws all of them out of the bar.  Finally, Mrs. Allshard yells at Quincannon to behave and he peacefully goes to the stockade.  (The reason for Brittles's request to put Quincannon in the stockade is that he wants Quincannon to stay there so he will stay out of trouble for three weeks so he can retire on time with a sergeant's pension. 

As Brittles leaves the fort, the Indians (Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho and Apache) are preparing for an attack on Fort Starke.  On his way out Brittles stops to hear reports from Pernell and Cohill.   The gist of it is that 800 to 900 Indians are getting ready to strike.  So Brittles goes to pow-wow with the old Indian chief Pony That Walks.  The old chief wants peace, but has to tell Brtittles that the young braves do not listen to him.  They are set on war.  War is coming and he and Brittles can't do anything to stop it.  Brittles leaves.

Back at the encampment, Brittles tells the troopers that at night they will chase all the Indian ponies away, thereby stopping the planned attack on Fort Starke.  And late at night that's just what the cavalry does.  Once that's done, Brittles takes off for California.  But Major Allshard tells Tyree to catch up with Brittles and give him a message form the War Department.  Tyree accomplishes this task.  The message says that Brittles is named Chief of Scouts with the rank of Lt. Colonel.  They both ride back to Ft. Starke.  When Brittles comes into the hall, everyone is lined up to greet him.  They all clap for him.  Olivia and Cohill are getting married.  Brittles says ah, he knew that all the time.  the only man who didn't know was Pennell.  

Brittles makes his report and then he visits the grave of his wife and children.  The next day Brittles is out with the cavalry troop once again. 



My wife and I didn't really like the movie.  First of all, the history is so bad.  It's 1876 and it's the day of Custer's Last Stand.  How could that information have traveled so fast?  The Indians bands that were together split up following the massacre.  They did not stay united in one Indian army of 10,000 braves.  The massacre made the United States of America very angry and they came after the plains Indians and soon crushed them.  After this the only major Indian group still a threat were the Apaches in the southwest (mainly in Arizona).  The film says that Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho are getting together.  If this really happened (and if there was an army of 10,000 braves) how could a small troop of cavalry out of a fictitious Fort Starke be any threat to them at all.  Instead, it would have been another Custer's massacre for Captain Brittles (John Wayne). 

The only good thing, historically speaking, are the presentations of horse cavalry movements of the US Cavalry.    I liked the idea that every hour they would have to walk the horses not to overexert them.

A love story where either the male of the female character  is morally suspect, kind of  takes the empathy factor down a notch or two for the couple.  This is true of Joanne Dru's character Olivia Dandridge who is leading on two cavalry officers at once.  The officers almost come to blows and that's not good for an army's performance and morale.  Olivia Dandridge was pretty much a bitch through most of the film, so why should we think marrying her would be good for any cavalry man?  Also the two male rivals just looked like two fools/jerks, being manipulated by a conniving woman.  So who really cared what happened between the three of them? 

There wasn't much  action in the film.  There was a lot of riding and walking of horses.  (Although I did like watching those horses galloping like bats out of hell!) Captain Brittles was mostly avoiding conflict with the Indians rather than trying to fight them.  Peace is always a good thing, but in an action movie it doesn't make for a great film.  We expect a cavalry unit to fight. 

Another complaint. Several times I thought the film was over, just to have it continue. And for what purpose?  Captain Brittles could have gone to California without the troops really being harmed by his absence.  The retirement phase was just too long and drawn out.   

Oh, Monument Valley, the setting for the photography, is great

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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