Tag Archives: Joanne Dru

Vengeance Valley

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2016

Vengeance Valley—Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Hugh O’Brian, Sally Forrest, Ted de Corsia, Ray Collins (1951; Dir:  Richard Thorpe)

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If you were making a western in the 1940s or 1950s, you could do worse than start with a story from western writer Luke Short, as was done here.  This was Burt Lancaster’s first western, and its brother-gone-bad story is fueled by the excellent actors Lancaster and Robert Walker, who was nearing the end of his career and short life.

Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster) is the foster son of range baron Arch Strobie (Ray Collins).  In addition to being Strobie’s foreman, part of his responsibilities includes training Strobie’s real son Lee (Robert Walker).  Although relations are apparently good between the foster brothers, it’s unclear how much real tension might be there.  As the movie starts, the two are returning from an extended period caring for the herds during the winter.  In town, they hear that Lily Fasken (Sally Forrest), who formerly worked at a restaurant, has borne a baby out of wedlock.  Mostly shunned by the respectable people in town, Owen finds her being cared for by Lee’s new wife Jen (Joanne Dru).  He gives her some supplies and $500, leading her brother Dick (Hugh O’Brian) to suppose that Owen is the father and send for brother Hub (John Ireland, then married to Joanne Dru).

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Good brother Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster) tries to talk bad brother Lee Strobie (Robert Walker) into doing the right thing.

We soon see that Lee is the real father of Lily’s child, and that Owen has feelings for Jen that he’s mostly hiding.  As the Fasken brothers try to take action against Owen, they are thrown in jail, and Owen and Lee head off to the spring roundup.  Lee is looking for a way out of his situation, and he tries to focus more of the blame for his own actions on Owen.  After Owen has a fight with a small-time rustler (Ted de Corsia), Lee arranges for the Faskens to be allowed into the roundup, where they can ambush Owen.

Meanwhile, Lee gets his father to make him a full partner in the ranch, and during the roundup he arranges to seel the Strobie stock for $40,000.  He hopes to make off with the money and use it to start anew in another location.  His marriage with Jen is falling apart because Jen has seen his selfish behavior for what it is.  But Owen crosses paths with Lee’s new buyer and confronts Lee, who then tries to lead him into the Fasken ambush.  Owen is wounded, but gets the Faskens, and Lee escapes.  Owen intercepts Lee, and there is a final confrontation between the two.

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The nefarious Fasken brothers Dick (Hugh O’Brian) and Hub (John Ireland) are convinced that Owen ruined their sister Lily.

Despite the good performances by Lancaster and Walker, and Dru’s usual attractiveness, this is somehow lacking a spark.  Dru is mostly underused.  The subplot involving Dru falling out with Lee and Owen falling for her is underplayed, although a still from the studio (below) would seem to make it more overt.  One is mostly inclined to attribute the lackluster results to journeyman director Richard Thorpe, who had been directing movies for almost thirty years.  Lancaster would go on to better westerns (Vera Cruz, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Professionals, Valdez Is Coming, Ulzana’s Raid) over his long career.  Walker would soon be dead of alcohol and a broken heart, with Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick having stolen his wife Jennifer Jones.  He could be an excellent actor in roles like the one he has here, as we have seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

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Lancaster, Dru and Walker in a studio still. Their situation never became this overt in the movie.

Shot in color in various Colorado location, at 83 minutes.  At a time when movies, including upscale westerns, were moving to widescreen forms of presentation, this is still in what is called “academy aspect,” the ratio in which movies had been shown for the previous decades.

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Southwest Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 26, 2015

Southwest Passage—John Ireland, Joanne Dru, Rod Cameron, John Dehner, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Darryl Hickman (1954; Dir: Ray Nazarro) SWPassagePosterSWPassageTall

Joanne Dru (the former Joanne Letitia LaCock) was unusually effective in westerns in a time when the casting of most female roles was usually a secondary consideration at best.  Even now, her performances shine in such classics as Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Wagon Master.  Like Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, she was excellent at portraying a bad girl who showed signs of turning out well if given half a chance (Red River, Wagon Master).  This particular expertise resulted in her being somewhat typecast in westerns, which was fine when they were at their peak but stalled out her career as they lost popularity by 1960.  She married John Ireland in 1947, and one result was their collaboration in this cavalry and camels vs. Apaches story.

Gunman Clint McDonald (John Ireland), Jeb (Darryl Hickman, a child star of the 1940s) and Jeb’s sister Lilly (Joanne Dru) are escaping with $20,000 taken in a bank robbery, pursued by a posse.  Jeb is shot, and Lilly returns to town looking for a doctor.  The one she finds turns out to be a veterinarian on his way to join a cavalry patrol heading into the desert with camels to survey a new route to California.  McDonald pays the vet for his kit and takes his place, claiming to be the doctor.

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Fake doctor Clint McDonald (John Ireland) patches up suspicious muleskinner Matt Carroll (John Dehner).

The head of the patrol is Edward Fitzpatrick Beale (Rod Cameron), experimenting with the camels and mapping the Arizona desert.  He is accompanied by three Arab camel drivers led by High Jolly (Hadji Ali, played by Mark Hanna), nasty-tempered head mule teamster Matt Carroll (John Dehner), colorful scout Tall Tale (Guinn Williams) and several cavalrymen, led by Lt. Owens.  Lilly joins them, claiming to have gotten lost from a wagon train; Jeb didn’t survive his wound. Clint is unusually good with a gun for a doctor, and Matt Carroll distrusts Clint, dislikes the Arabs and lusts after Lilly.  Lilly is coming to admire the ambitious but seemingly selfless Beale.

The party is followed by Apaches, who believe the camels are gods, until one of the beasts breaks a leg and has to be shot.  Lilly tries to persuade Clint to go straight, but the lure of $20,000 is too great.  When Tall Tale is bitten by a gila monster, Clint treats the wound but it gets infected.  Although he’s not qualified to do so, he prepares to amputate Tall Tale’s arm, until Lilly speaks up and Clint’s real identity becomes known.  After a fight with Beale, he is exiled from the group, looking for a town 80 miles south, and is joined by Carroll, who wants half the loot.  They find a water hole in the rocks, and Carroll gets the jump on Clint, intending to take both canteens, both horses and all the loot.  But Clint’s non-medical skill with a gun comes in handy, and Carroll ends up face down in the pool.

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Lilly (Joanne Dru), Beale (Rod Cameron) and Tall Tale (Guinn Williams) fight off Apaches.

Clint rides back to the patrol with news of water only 30 miles distant, but the Apaches now know that the camels are mortal and attack the party from the rocks around the water.  Clint redeems himself by drawing off the Indians with the remaining camel so the rest of the patrol can make a dash for the water and the protection of the rocks.  When it’s over, he’s wounded but asks Beale to give back the loot to the bank, and he and Lilly are together again.

Although Rod Cameron seems to get top billing, Joanne Dru is the best thing in the movie.  Ultimately Lilly finds Cameron’s character Beale more interesting than we do.  John Ireland was an intriguing mix of hard-edged tough guy with an ability to learn, but he’s never very convincing as the doctor.  John Dehner makes an excellent villain as dastardly muleskinner Matt Carroll..

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Lilly (Joanne Dru) can defend herself if she needs to.

This was made in the 3-D fad of the early 1950s (like Hondo, Gun Fury, The Stranger Wore a Gun and The Moonlighter), which faded out almost as soon as it began.  There are a couple of things that show a lack of careful direction.  As the patrol drives its wagons along the side of some dunes, Clint and Lilly are riding downhill from them, where they’ll be crushed if the wagons tip over, as it seems they might.  And as Clint rides back to the patrol from the water hole, he leaves Carroll’s body in the water.  With the desert heat and decomposition of the corpse, that will leave the water hole fouled and unusable by the time the patrol gets there. Filmed on location in southern Utah, near Kanab.  The direction is by journeyman Ray Nazarro.  The unexceptional screenplay by Harry Essex has some clunky dialogue, especially Lilly’s lines to Clint about going straight.  In color, at only 75 minutes.

SWPassageBelgKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Dru was good in westerns, but she didn’t always enjoy them.  “I simply hated horses,” she said in a 1957 interview with Hedda Hopper.  “And those long gingham dresses with boned bodices are miserable things to wear.”  By the end of the 1950s she had drifted almost entirely into television work, and she and Ireland were divorced in 1957.

Edward Fitzpatrick Beale and his involvement with camels in the American southwest are based on actual history.  In 1857, Lt. Beale, with the support of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, used 25 camels to survey a route for a wagon road from Fort Defiance in Arizona to the Colorado River, then took the camels on to California.  The Santa Fe Railroad and U. S. Highway 66 subsequently followed this route.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Camel Corps was largely forgotten, although there were reports of feral camels in the southwest well into the 1900s—even as late as 1975 in Baja California.  Hadji Ali, an Ottoman citizen, was the lead camel driver of the Camel Corps beginning around 1856 and lived in this country until his death in 1902 in Arizona.  There was even a folk song about him, recorded by the New Christy Minstrels in the 1960s.

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Wagon Master

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 17, 2013

Wagon Master—Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Jane Darwell, Alan Mowbray, Charles Kemper, James Arness, Francis Ford, Hank Worden, Jim Thorpe (1950; Dir:  John Ford)

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The title of this movie is sometimes written in one word, but in the movie titles it’s two.  Even lesser John Ford westerns, like this and 3 Godfathers, are better than average westerns.  This one, although well cast, is lacking in star power, with leads going to actors who usually played supporting roles in Ford’s westerns.  It is normally thought that the title refers to Ward Bond’s character, who went on to play the role of the wagon master in the television series Wagon Train before his death in 1960 at the age of 57.  But in the film Bond refers to Ben Johnson’s character as the wagon master.

Here Bond plays the role of Elder Wiggs, leader of a band of Mormons stranded in Crystal City, a town that doesn’t like them, as they try to make their way toward the San Juan River country, not too far from the Monument Valley and Moab locations where this was filmed.  Wiggs encounters the horse trading Blue brothers Travis (Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey, Jr.) who are familiar with the desolate country and hires them to guide the beleaguered Mormons. 

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The Blue brothers and Elder Wiggs (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr. and Ward Bond).

The first problem encountered is a medicine show (or “hoochie-coochie show,” as Wiggs refers to it) wagon, also kicked out of Crystal City and now stranded in the desert when its team of mules took off.  They’re consoling themselves with Dr. A. Locksley Hall’s elixir.  Hall (Alan Mowbray, who played the alcoholic Shakespearean actor in Ford’s My Darling Clementine) and his troupe reluctantly join the Mormons, who with equal reluctance are willing to give them replacement stock and take them as far as the cutoff to California.  Travis is drawn to Denver (a woman with a past, and named after a city, like Dallas in Stagecoach), the most attractive of Hall’s entourage.  (John Ford’s older brother Francis plays Mr. Peachtree, a minor member of the Hall group.) 

The next problem is water, scarce in this dry part of the southwest.  Third, they encounter the Cleggs, a Deliverance-style band of related outlaws led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper), wounded in their most recent holdup—in Crystal City, as it happens.  He needs medical attention and decides not to leave the train after he gets it.  The Cleggs’ willingness to resort to violence and gunplay seems to put them in charge, to the dismay of the non-violent Mormons.

WagonmasterCleggs Shiloh and Floyd Clegg.

Next up, Indian trouble:  they encounter what seem to be hostile Navajos, played by the actual Navajos Ford normally used as Apaches or Comanches in his Monument Valley epics—except for Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox, in his last film appearance.  However, the Navajos actually seem inclined to trust Mormons more than normal white men, and the two groups bond over a campfire dance.  Reese Clegg attacks a Navajo woman, and in order to prevent bloodshed Wiggs orders him whipped.

A posse from Crystal City, where the Cleggs robbed the bank and which evicted both Hall’s wagon and the Mormons, catches up with them, seeking the Cleggs.  The Cleggs won’t let Hall’s wagon leave at the appointed place, and it looks like the Mormons are in for it from the Cleggs as well.  They come to a place where the Mormons have to dig a track for their wagons, including their unwieldy wagon with seed grain needed for their colony on the San Juan.  Still resentful at Reese’s whipping, Uncle Shiloh is on the verge of making Wiggs take the seed grain wagon on the track at full speed, insuring both Wiggs’ death and the destruction of the Mormons’ vital seed grain.  But Sandy, attracted to one of the Mormon girls (Kathleen O’Malley), is slipped a gun by her younger brother and starts shooting.  His brother Travis grabs a gun from a downed Clegg and together the two of them finish off the nasty Cleggs.  Wiggs’ comment to Travis:  “I thought you said you never got involved in gunplay.”  “I said, only shootin’ snakes.”

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The medicine wagon and a prominent occupant:  Joanne Dru as Denver.

As far as we know, Sandy ends up with Prudence and Travis with Denver, although Denver is rather uncooperative through most of the movie, even when Travis tempts her with the prospect of joining him at a ranch in a special valley he knows (reminiscent of Ringo’s pitch to Dallas in Stagecoach). 

Historically, the story seems grounded in the actual story of the Mormon pioneers’ grueling journey to the San Juan River country in far southeastern Utah.  A couple of times they sing “Come, Come Ye Saints,” the Mormon signature hymn, although there is also a rendition of the inevitable “Shall We Gather at the River.”  There’s some actual familiarity with Mormons behind all this, although there are stereotypical elements in the portrayal of the Mormons, too.

Bond and the young Johnson are excellent, as are Mowbray (with a whiff of W.C. Fields about him) and Kemper in lesser roles.  Ben Johnson, with his cowboy background, did his own stunts and was one of the best riders in westerns (along with perhaps Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott).  Carey is fine in a slighter role.  Joanne Dru (married to actor John Ireland at the time) here reminds one of her role in Red River, although that was directed by Howard Hawks; she’s good at playing an attractive semi-bad girl.  James Arness shows up in an early role as Floyd Clegg; Hank Worden is a mentally-impaired Clegg.  Charles Kemper is very good as the slimy Uncle Shiloh Clegg; he was killed in an automobile accident not too long after making the movie.  Jane Darwell is Sister Ledyard, who blows a horn to get attention or to get things moving.

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Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) calls for attention.

The movie is short, at less than 90 minutes, but well put together.  It is one of the better wagon train westerns; it would make a good double feature with Westward the Women, from about the same time.  There’s a fair amount of music from the Sons of the Pioneers, as in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande.  This was made between those two cavalry movies.  Ford was clearly enamored of the singing group during this period, although they’re an element that hasn’t aged particularly well for the tastes of modern audiences.  There’s a strong strain of Fordian nostalgia here, as in many of his westerns.  Ford is said to have claimed this was his favorite of his movies, and it’s quite good, if more modest than some others.  In black and white.

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Red River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 27, 2013

Red River–John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr. (1948; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

This is the first of the two brilliant westerns (1959’s Rio Bravo is the other) on which Hawks’ reputation as a director of westerns rests.  Hawks was not particularly known for westerns, although most everybody in Hollywood who had worked in the industry as long as Hawks had some kind of experience with westerns.

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What makes this one brilliant?  It marks the bringing of serious themes from other genres into westerns—the father-son conflict between Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), for example; the nature of leadership and its moral boundaries; competition between two young men with similar skills but different principles; and a complex relationship between a strong man and an assertive female.  It’s a great trail drive story, with overtones of obsession (Wayne’s character, foreshadowing the obsessiveness of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers).  The other relationships in the movie are not simple, especially when it seems the characters have to take sides between Dunson and Garth:  Loyal family retainer Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan), who loves them both; gunhand Cherry Valance (John Ireland), who competes with Garth but respects him nevertheless; and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who is attracted to Garth romantically but like Groot has to mediate between Garth and the vengeful Dunson, while we try to figure out what kind of woman she is.

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Young Dunson (John Wayne) and his doomed love.

Dunson is a hard man from the start of the movie.  We first see him in 1851 with a wagon train heading from St. Louis toward California.  As Dunson and Groot leave the wagon train to head south into Texas across the Red River, Dunson’s girl in another wagon begs to go along.  He says he’ll send for her, and they part ways.  Comanches attack the train after Dunson leaves, and he sees the smoke from a distance.  Several attack Dunson and Groot, too; he fights them off, but they kill one of his two cattle.  They find the boy Matthew Garth wandering through the brush, a survivor of the attack who’d been chasing his cow when the Comanches came.   Dunson and Groot take him with them, farther south into Texas.  When Dunson finds the land he wants, it’s part of a huge Spanish land grant whose owner lives south of the Rio Grande.  Dunson figures he can take it, and he starts his ranch there with the brand Red River D.

Fast forward to the end of the Civil War, in 1865.  Garth returns from service in the war (presumably with the Confederacy), and Dunson has developed a huge herd for which there are no buyers in Texas.  Dunson wants to trail the herd a thousand miles north over the Chisholm Trail to the railroad in Missouri, something which has never been done successfully.  The rest of the movie is the epic story is of that first cattle drive north from Texas. 

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Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) test each other.

It takes somebody as obsessive as Dunson to drive the herd (and his men).  They take off with the famous “Yee-haw” scene, and it’s not a smooth trip.  There is a night stampede, resulting in deaths both human and bovine.  Some of the men can’t take it and want to quit; Dunson becomes increasingly unreasonable, with his megalomania out of control.  When he plans to hang two deserters, Garth steps in and stops him.  Garth takes control of the herd, moving it north across the Red River and into Kansas, heading for Abilene rather than Sedalia, Missouri, as Dunson had insisted.  None of them know whether the railroad is really in Abilene, although with our modern point of view we have a pretty good idea that it is.

As they move into Kansas, they’re harassed by marauding Indians and wary of the pursuing Dunson.  The cowboys temporarily leave the herd to rescue a bunch of traveling gamblers and loose women from Indian attack, and Garth meets Tess Millay, who is wounded in the attack.  They are taken with each other, but Garth has his drive to finish and Dunson to deal with, and the herd moves on to the north.

redriverIndianAttack Tess attacked by Indians.

Dunson and his new men reach the gamblers’ camp and learn of the Indian attack and the herd’s movements.  Dunson wants to replace Garth as his son, and offers Tess half his ranch if she’ll bear him a son; she says she’ll do it if he gives up his plan to kill Garth¸ and she accompanies him toward Abilene.  Meanwhile, Garth and the herd make it there first, and Garth gets a top price for the herd, about $50,000.  This sets up the final scene, where all the characters sort out their loyalties and the means they’ll use to defend them.  The resolution of the father-son fight is abrupt and a little silly, but the rest of the movie is so good we can put up with that.

The movie was made in 1946 but sat on the shelf for two years before its release because of a dispute with Howard Hughes.  It features more adult and complex relationships than most previous westerns. It has a superb cast, and excellent direction.  This was Montgomery Clift’s first film, and he manages to be persuasive, if not entirely convincing, next to the overpowering physicality of John Wayne.  The women are unusually assertive for a western, both Joanne Dru (Mrs. John Ireland) and Coleen Gray, although Gray in her first film role gets just a couple of minutes of screen time.  The numerous supporting characters are well-written and well-acted, and they include, in addition to Dru, Ireland and Brennan, Noah Beery, Jr., Harry Carey (Sr. and Jr.), Chief Yowlachie as an Indian trail hand, Hank Worden, Coleen Gray and many others.  Appearing uncredited are Richard Farnsworth as a Dunson rider and Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl with the gamblers.

John_Wayne - red river The final confrontation.

Excellent management of all these supporting roles gives them each differentiation and development while not impeding the overall pacing of the movie.  It adds to the large-scale feel of the film.  There’s so much going on that it rewards re-watching.  It’s ambitious and long for the year it was released, especially for a western—about two and a quarter hours.  After more than 60 years, this remains the greatest of the trail drive movies except for Lonesome Dove, which was not really playing by the same rules. 

There are some excellent visual touches, like the shadow that passes over the sun during the funeral of the young cowboy killed during the stampede.  Russell Harlan was the cinematographer.  The music is by Oscar-winning movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who also did the music for Hawks’ Rio Bravo more than ten years later as well as numerous other movies.  The tune for “Settle Down,” the theme for Red River, gets recycled in Rio Bravo when sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin.

RedRiverDruHawksDru and Hawks light up behind the scenes.

Wayne considered this film his second breakthrough, after Stagecoach.  (Maybe his third, if you consider his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, which nobody saw.)  Playing much older than he really was, as the megalomaniacal Tom Dunson, gave him a chance to demonstrate his acting chops in a film that a lot of people did see.  Even John Ford, who had cast him in Stagecoach almost ten years previously, was rumored to have said after seeing Red River, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!”  And the most productive period of their collaboration was coming up, with the cavalry trilogy and The Searchers.  Both Wayne and Hawks wore their Red River D belt buckles from this film for many years when dressed in jeans.  You sometimes see it popping up on Wayne in other westerns–nine of them in total.

Director Howard Hawks had initially wanted Jack Beutel (who had played Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) for the role of Matthew Garth.  But he got lucky when Beutel was still under contract to Howard Hughes, who was nursing a grudge against Hawks for their falling-out over The Outlaw a few years earlier.  Clift turned out to be a much better actor.  Wayne had misgivings about the difference in their sizes during the climactic fight, but Hawks was known for his ability to block and stage fights convincingly on film.  Wayne ultimately conceded that Hawks knew what he was doing.  Clift had never been in a western before, and never would be again.  Hawks advised him to watch and imitate stuntman Richard Farnsworth.  “Montgomery, you walk along behind him and watch him carefully.  If he scratches his butt, you scratch yours.  He’s a real cowboy.”  Red River made Clift a star.  Meanwhile, Farnsworth worked in westerns as a stuntman and in bit parts and waited more than 35 years for his own breakthrough role in The Grey Fox.

As of May 2014, Red River is now available on an excellent DVD set from Criterion Collection.

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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 26, 2013

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, John Agar, Joanne Dru, Mildred Natwick (1949; Dir:  John Ford)

“… Wherever they rode, whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.”  Obviously, Ford’s own Rio Grande and Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee hadn’t been made yet, since they both involve cavalry expeditions into Mexico (still not part of the United States).  Maybe Ford would have said it anyway. 

Of Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this one gives the best feel for cavalry life.  John Wayne is Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, a widower at Fort Stark about to retire from the military in 1876 with some reluctance after 40 years’ service.  He’s good with his men—authoritarian enough but pragmatic when he has to be.  His repeated advice, including to a young woman:  “Never apologize.  It’s a sign of weakness.”  But he also means for those so instructed to take responsibility for what’s happened.  He’s experienced in dealing with Indians and has long-term relationships with some of them.  His unit’s job of keeping the peace will be a lot harder without his experience and judgment.   

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Contrary to what the Italian poster suggests, Joanne Dru does not wear pants with her military  costume.

To make matters worse, as the day for his retirement approaches there are new Indian hostilities to cope with.  The news of the Little Bighorn is fresh (placing this in 1876), and it makes the entire frontier military jumpy, as well as the Indians (Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kiowas and Apaches are said to be among them here, an unlikely mix of tribes).  The local fort sutler might be running guns to the Indians.  (Sutlers and Indian agents are often venal, bad characters in John Ford and other westerns; see, for example, Fort Apache and They Died With Their Boots On.A beautiful visiting young lady from the East (Olivia Dandridge, played by Joanne Dru) has the young lieutenants at each other’s throats.  And Brittles is keeping a lid on it all in the face of his imminent retirement from the army and departure for California. 

Brittles is sent out on a last patrol, taking along two women against his objections so they can be delivered to a stagecoach stop.  On the way they encounter hostile Indians and have to take military action against much greater numbers.  We get a sense of how decisions had to be made with incomplete information, and what it was like to deal with long distances with only horseflesh to depend on for transportation and communication.  In the end, Brittles is not banished from his military family and is given appropriate honors. 

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Joanne Dru: Looking good in her military garb.

This has the usual John Ford characters:  the experienced, wise, and sometimes inspirational field leader in Brittles; the Irish sergeants (McLaglen in this case) who drink a lot; the immature lieutenants (John Agar and Harry Carey, Jr.) who embody the future of the cavalry; former Confederates who are respected for their military abilities (Sgt. Tyree, played by a young Ben Johnson); idealized young women who don’t understand the West or the military—yet (Joanne Dru); military wives as sage and experienced as their men (Mildred Natwick as the post commander’s wife).  Ford makes these familiar characters all work, even if we now feel like we’ve seen them before.  Ford’s work here is also marked by a certain sentimentality; sometimes heavy-handed manipulation with music, especially the title song; and the brilliant visuals and use of the desert locations that is one of Ford’s trademarks.  Unlike Fort Apache a year earlier and Rio Grande a year afterward, this one’s in color; it won Winton C. Hoch the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.  (Hoch also did 3 Godfathers with Ford the year before and The Searchers a few years later.)

This is the most striking visually of Ford’s cavalry trilogy.  Although Winton Hoch, the cinematographer, won an Academy Award for his work here, filming was not a smooth creative process because of Hoch’s conflicts with Ford.  One of the most iconic scenes from the film was created during a dispute.  As a line of cavalry rides through the desert, a real thunderstorm grows on the horizon.  Hoch began to pack up the cameras as the weather worsened, only to have Ford to order him to keep shooting.  Hoch argued that there was not enough natural light for the scene and, more importantly, the cameras could become potential lightning rods if the storm swept over them.  Ford ignored Hoch’s complaints, completing the scene as the thunderstorm rolled in, soaking the cast and crew with rain.  Hoch later had filed a letter of complaint against Ford with his trade union over the filming of this scene, but it’s a masterful sequence visually.  Hoch was still willing to work with Ford on The Searchers a few years later, however.

The dialogue is well-written and this film does an excellent job of depicting some of the logistics of cavalry life—what it was like to depend on horses and be out in all weather, and the need to walk periodically to rest the horses, for example.  There’s a real affection for the military and an elegiac feel.  However, the story seems a little like a bunch of incidents strung together, without a strong enough major story arc to it.  The parts may be greater than the whole, story-wise.

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Nathan Brittles negotiates with an old friend (John Big Bear) among the Cheyennes.

The performances are good.  As in Red River, Wayne in his prime (at age 42) is called upon to play much older than he is, and he can do it, complete with an occasional touch of world-weariness here and there.  Ben Johnson has one of his better early roles here, as an ex-confederate captain now a sergeant in the western U.S. cavalry, providing a competent counterpoint to Brittles.  He can really ride, having come to Hollywood as a stunt man fresh from ranch work.  Joanne Dru is well-cast and does an excellent job as the romantic distraction to the young officers, and she looks good in a military hat and cloak.  (She was also in the Hawks classic Red River about the same time, in a rather different and more demanding role.  Compare her here with the beautiful Linda Darnell wearing a cavalry hat in Two Flags West.)  Mildred Natwick is very good as well.  McLaglen as Sgt. Quincannon seems broadly stereotypical and over-the-top, and one can get tired of the romantic squabbles of the young lieutenants.  Both Johnson and McLaglen show up again as characters named Tyree and Quincannon in the following year’s Rio Grande, although Wayne’s character is back to being named York in that one, as he was in Fort Apache.  And the commanding officer at Fort Stark, Major Mac Allshard, is played well by silent film star George O’Brien.  This was one of his last movies, although he would show up again 15 years later as another major in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.  The bartender in a scene in which Sgt. Quincannon is arrested is Ford’s brother Francis, a long-time character actor who pops up in small roles in many Ford films.

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Production Still:  Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Ben Johnson, John Agar and George O’Brien

The cavalry is idealized in the post-World War II period when this was made, and the soldiers look cleaner than they probably could have in real life.  But it’s still stirring stuff to watch.  In Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this one is not as dark as the preceding Fort Apache nor as sentimental as the subsequent Rio Grande.

Although Ford’s sentimentality can occasionally seem heavy-handed to a current audience, he has qualities that more than compensate if you watch (and listen) for them.  This is especially true in the framing of shots and other visual touches.  For example, look for the thunderstorm in the background while the troop is out on patrol (the subject of the Ford-Hoch dispute referred to above), in the days before such things could be conjured up by special effects.  But it also reaches the use of music as well.  As Wagner, the regiment’s blacksmith, is working at his forge and anvil, the music playing is the “Nibelung” motif from Richard Wagner’s famous opera “Siegfried.”   In the opera that motif is connected with the forging of Siegfried’s sword, appropriate in this military setting but easy to miss.  Richard Hagerman provided the score.

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