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Film / She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

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Captain Nathan Brittles: I don't know where you got your brains, Sergeant - God must have given you that pair of eyes. They're Arapahos, alright. Headin' the same way we are. Now why would they be movin' on Sudrow's Wells, Sergeant? Answer me that.
Sgt. Tyree: My mother didn't raise any sons to be makin' guesses in front of Yankee captains.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a 1949 RKO Western film, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. The film is considered the second installment in Ford's so-called "Cavalry Trilogy," which also includes Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950). It is the only color film of the trilogy.

The film takes place in 1876 during the Indian Wars, detailing the last mission of the retiring career cavalry captain, Nathan Brittles, who must neutralize the threat of the would-be Indian messiah Red Shirt (Noble Johnson), in which Brittles is aided by Sergeants Quincannon (Victor McGlaglen) and Tyree (Ben Johnson). Meanwhile, pretty Eastern tourist Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), niece of the wife (Mildred Natwick) of the fort's commander, Major Allshard (George O'Brien), has been setting the younger officers of the fort by the heels, particularly Lieutenants Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.).

Set against the backdrop of Ford's favorite setting, Monument Valley, Utah, the film was deliberately designed to emulate the paintings of Western artist Frederic Remington. The 41-year-old Wayne's performance as the 60-year-old Captain Brittles impressed critics, and Patrick Wayne reported that this film remained his father's favorite of the many he had made.

Tropes associated with this film include:

  • 10-Minute Retirement: Nathan Brittles has to leave the cavalry because he has reached the age of retirement, but at the end of the film the government returns him to service as a (nominally civilian) scout.
  • The Alcoholic: Quincannon always drinks whiskey.
  • Almost Dead Guy: John Smith survives long enough to tell Brittles that Tyree acted bravely.
  • Anti-Climax: The film builds up to a war between the US Army and a large coalition of Plains Indians, only for Brittles to scatter their horse herd and avert a war (this effect was probably intentional, given no such war happened after the Great Sioux War).
  • Artistic License – History: The opening narration states that another defeat such as Custer's would have meant that it would be 100 years before another wagon train crossed the plains, which is nonsense, as by 1876 the Transcontinental Railroad had been in operation for seven years and the cross-country wagon train was on its way out. The narration also states that the Sioux and Cheyenne were uniting in war, while in real life the Indian concentration that had led to Custer's defeat broke up almost immediately after the battle.
  • Bar Brawl: Quincannon is in the bar when Brittles orders to arrest him. A brawl ensues.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Sergeant Quincannon
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Nathan Brittles to Quincannon.
  • Character Catchphrase: "Never apologize; it's a sign of weakness"; " ten or twelve years."
  • Chekhov's Gag: In his first scene, Quincannon drinks whiskey from a bottle hidden in Brittles' barrack. Brittles guesses that he has drunk, but Quincannon swears that he quitted drinking. Brittles wonders where he hides his bottle. In the end, Brittles reveals that he knew all along that Quincannon had hidden a bottle in his barrack.
  • Cock Fight: Cohill and Pennel are going to fight for the love of Miss Dandridge. Subverted because Brittles shows up and chews them out.
  • Drinking on Duty: Quincannon often does this and Brittles knows it.
    Brittles: You've got a breath on you like a hot mince pie!
    Quincannon: Ah, Captain darlin', as you well know I took "the pledge" after Chapultepec.
    Brittles: And Bull Run, and Gettysburg, and Shiloh. And St. Patrick's Day. And the Fourth of July! Beats me where you hide the stuff.
  • Due to the Dead: Brittles buries those killed in a massacre.
    I also commend to your keeping, Sir, the soul of Rome Clay, late Brigadier General, Confederate States Army. Known to his comrades here, Sir, as Trooper John Smith, United States Cavalry...a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.
  • A Father to His Men: Describes Brittles' relationship to his command.
  • Fighting Irish: They get into fights with fellow rankers from another immigrant group, German-Americans.
  • Grammar Nazi: Sergeant Quincannon is drilling his troops and orders them to "Fix them bandoliers!" or something to that effect. Immediately someone yells out from the ranks: "Fix them grammar!"
  • Grave-Marking Scene: Captain Brittles regularly visits his family's graves with flowers, sits on a stool and talks to his wife. This somewhat sad as he's due to retire and they are buried on the post, so if it hadn't turned into a 10-Minute Retirement at the last minute, he likely would never have been able to do so again. Upon returning, his friends hand him the flowers and stool, so he may continue his ritual.
  • Hollywood Darkness: It's 12 minutes to midnight when Brittles and the cavalry drive off the Comanche horses. It isn't dark. One might imagine a full moon, but the sky is still light!
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: One scene shows the burial of one of the older enlisted men of the regiment. He is revealed to be a former Confederate general.
  • Improbable Age: Averted. The 1870s cavalry unit depicted is officered primarily by 30 and 40 year old Lieutenants and Captains.
  • Injun Country: Comanche, Arapahoe, and other tribes are on the warpath, inspired by the defeat of Custer at the Little Bighorn.
  • Mr. Smith: Rome Clay was a Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army. He uses the pseudonym of John Smith in the United States Cavalry.
  • Musical Gag: The cavalry blacksmith is named Wagner; when he appears, the soundtrack plays the smithying Leitmotif from Der Ring des Nibelungen.
  • Noble Confederate Soldier:
    • Rome Clay was a Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army. After the war, he joined the United States Cavalry as a trooper under the name of John Smith. Brittles pays homage to him after his death.
    • Tyree is a heroic character (for example he fights during the siege of Sudro's Wells) and he was a captain in the Confederate States Army.
    • When Brittles receives his nomination letter, Tyree, a Southerner, regrets that the signature of Robert E. Lee is missing on the letter, which was signed by Phil Sheridan, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. Brittles agrees with him.
  • Oireland: Sgt Quincanon is the drinking & brawling variety. A half dozen soldiers couldn't force him into the guard house, but a stern scolding from the CO's wife could.
  • Older Hero vs. Younger Villain: The ageing Nathan Brittles - about to be retired from the army - is up against young chief Red Shirt, while bonding with his contemporary, chief Pony That Walks.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Sergeant Quincannon. In his first scene, he drinks whiskey from a bottle hidden in Brittles's barracks, then pretends that he does not drink any more. In another funny scene, he pretends that he is drinking medicine.
  • Prevent the War: Not wanting a bloody war with the Indians, Brittles comes up with a plan to scare off their horses, preventing them from mounting an attack and effectively ending the war without a single casualty on either side.
  • Rank Up: The film ends with Brittles being recalled to duty as Chief of Scouts with the rank of Lt. Colonel (a U.S. War Department order endorsed, he is pleased to see, by Gens. Phil Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman, and by President Ulysses S. Grant).
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Karl Rynders, a cavalry sutler, decides to sell Winchester rifles to the Indians. When he tries to negotiate a good price, the Indians kill him and seize the rifles.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Miss Dandridge has two suitors: Pennell and Cohill. Unlike Cohill, Pennell was born with a silver spoon.
  • Riding into the Sunset: Subverted. After the main conflict of the film is resolved, the narrator describes Nathan Brittle as going where old men go, west, with a vivid image of him riding towards the Sunset (a John Ford Image), until a soldier catches up with him and he is informed that his career is not over, so the movie does not end with him riding into the sunset.
  • The Savage Indian: The Indians (Chef Red Shirt in particular) are bloodthirsty antagonists and they have no positive traits.
    • It is noted, though, that Pony That Walks and some of the older members of the tribes are against war, but have been shouted down by the younger, angrier warriors.
  • Scenery Porn: The cinematographer, Winton Hoch, won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography in this movie.
  • Secondary Character Title: The title refers to Olivia Dandridge, a secondary character. Captain Brittles is the protagonist.
  • So Proud of You: Brittles tells his men this during his retirement speech:
    Men...I won't be going out with you. I won't be here when you return. Wish I could. But I know your performance...under your new commander...will make me proud of I've always been proud of you
  • Somewhere, an Equestrian Is Crying: Averted and Lampshaded, when Olivia Dandridge complains about having to walk instead of riding, saying she might as well be with the Infantry; Lt. Cohill tartly replies, "We soon would be, if we didn't ease these horses."
  • Sound Off: The title comes from an old marching song (Civil War/Wild West era). Some versions are quite a bit racier than the movie's version.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: During the operation performed on a moving wagon, the colonel's wife sings the cheerful song of the title to help the patient to take his mind off the pain.
  • Surrogate Soliloquy: Captain Brittles uses the graveside variant.
  • Take a Third Option: Not wanting a bloody war with the Indians, Brittles comes up with a plan to scare off their horses, preventing them from mounting an attack and effectively ending the war without a single casualty on either side.
  • Talking to the Dead: Brittles has a chat with his dead wife at her grave, telling her that he'll soon be retiring.
  • Threat Backfire: When Brittles arrives at the camp to negotiate with Pony That Walks, Red Shirt brazenly rides past Brittles, shooting an arrow at his feet. Brittles picks up the arrow, breaks it in half, spits on it, and throws it back at Red Shirt.
  • Titled After the Song: An old cavalry song supplies the title.
  • Title Drop: The traditional song which begins and ends the film contains the titles, both of the film itself, and of the trilogy as a whole. The "Cavalry! cavalry!" refrain in particular sounds like a signature for the trilogy.
    • Alas, the men's chorus performing the piece loudly sings "CAL-varee" instead.
  • Tuckerization: In the graveyard, one of the crosses carries the name "DeVoto", this is likely an homage to Bernard DeVoto, a prominent historian of the American West.
  • The Unapologetic: Brittles never apologises, as he believes it's a sign of weakness.
  • War Was Beginning: The opening narration tells that Custer was defeated and that the Indians are now united and going to war.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Brittle angrily calls out Cohill and Pennell for getting into a brawl immediately after Smith's funeral.
    • Brittles gets a mild one himself from Major Alshard when he says he'll volunteer as a civilian scout after his retirement in order to continue helping his troop. The major points out his presence and status as A Father to His Men would undermine Cohill's command of the troop.