Tuesday, March 31, 2009

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Last Friday night I had the opportunity to see She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at a film forum ran by the Long Beach School for Adults. Generally I enjoy going to the film forum when I can, because they show classics on the 'big screen' (actually an auditorium). In addition to the movie, you get to see trailers for the next week's film, a cartoon from the 1930s, and sometimes a Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges short before the feature. Presently we are following a serial (those who went to the movies in the 1930s and 1940s will remember these - when you went to the movies on a Saturday, they would have not only a double feature but a serial as well.) The serial that we've been watching for the past seven or eight weeks is "Jungle Girl," based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. You get all of this for the huge fee of one American dollar.

Now, "Jungle Girl" is a treat unto itself. But last Friday night we were also treated to a wonderful showing of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon . As I watched it, two elements stood out that I, I'm ashamed to say, have taken for granted up until now. One is John Wayne; the other is Monument Valley and its role in the Western movie.

Now most of us have taken the John Wayne movies for granted and some people even consider him a cliche, an icon of an America that's long passed. Yellow Ribbon isn't necessarily one of Wayne's best pictures; many people think of The Shootist or True Grit or Red River (one of my favorites) and on and on. But I thoroughly enjoyed this film, for it reintroduced me to Wayne in a way that makes me want to revisit his movies. There are many that I haven't even seen.

I read somewhere that his role in this movie -- a Calvary captain on the verge of retiring who is forced to take two women along on his final detail -- was his favorite. And it shows. He's easy to watch here: fresh, not affected in any way, able to just have some fun with it. He was only 42 when he made this movie, but he plays a man close to retirement. And he does it very well. He is very convincing as a 60 year old.

Wayne is just one of an outstanding cast: a very young Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey jr. and John Agar. They are all complimented by the talents and power of the extraordinary director John Ford, the cinematographer Winton C. Hoch (who won an Academy Award for his work on this), and last, but certainly not least, the magnificent Monument Valley. Actors, directors, crew and landscape are all balanced perfectly. Oh yes, and the tradition of the Cavalry and that song -- that wonderful song -- are additions that create a perfect tribute to the Western genre.

Seeing the Monument Valley on the big screen was the other thing that made watching this movie an extraordinary event. Because this is probably one of the few times, if not the ONLY time, that I have seen the Monument Valley, in a Western, on the big screen. Yes, I know - there have been plenty of other movies that have shown the Valley: Thelma and Louise; Forrest Gump first come to mind. But they aren't Westerns. And, as we all know, the Monument Valley was MADE for Westerns.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, a time when the Western was fading from the movie houses and most could only be seen on television. So my only experience with Monument Valley has been for the most part from a 20" screen. Other exposure has been from photgraphs or from books about John Ford and the history of the Western. And it now can even be the wallpaper on my computer screen. But last Friday, seeing it in a Western, as large as life with the exception of being there in person, was a revelation.

The colors are striking, but so is the vastness of the valley, which plays tricks on your eyes because you don't know how big it is except for a few fleeting moments. These soldiers live, eat, fight, love and die without never leaving the valley. You get sucked in to their small world, but the mountains are always there.

I almost wept when a large herd of buffalo filled the screen. Two characters sit atop their horses and watch in wonder as the herd flows by. I remember when they were even more plentiful, one of them says wistfully. Those were the days, the other sighs. How prophetic.

Any review of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in print will no doubt talk about the landscape. One story is how the cinematographer wanted to stop shooting one day when a thunderstorm rolled in. This was a Calvary picture, and there was plenty of metal on the uniforms, saddles, and bridles, not to mention the camera equipment. Lightning could make things quite electrifying, so to speak. No way, John Ford told him. We continue the shoot. And they did, to the serious consternation of the crew. They shot through lightning and thunder, and actual lightning can be seen in some of the scenes.

It was shot in 1949, before the anti-hero became popular and before gratuitious violence became a staple of Westerns in the 1960s. Yes, it's nostalgic and sentimental and Indians are treated no more than like movie props in this. But for me, it was a big wake-up call. Don't take Wayne, Monument Valley or the Western for granted. They are special unto themselves; combined, they make for one damn incredible movie.


I.J. Parnham said...

Nice review. I've always liked that one and Ford's other Cavalry movies. I've read only a couple of the original stories that Ribbon and the others were based on by James Warner Bellah, but if you can track any down they're worth trying as you can see Ford did a great job of transferring the imagery and the interplay between the characters into the film.

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks, Ian. I plan on seeing The Searchers next.

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