October 26, 1949 [She Wore a Yellow Ribbon]

John Ford dusts John Wayne's temples with gray: Capt. Brittles, a few days away from retirement in the Centennial year of 1876, a Cavalry soldier on a last, failed patrol.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a eulogy of sorts--for the Western, for the last man standing--and how long can he stand?--for the old hard rules that Brittles (a name straight out of Dickens, both emblematic and ironic) lived by. He keeps saying, "Don't apologize; it's a sign of weakness"; but his successor apologizes to his girl. And when Brittles is given a watch, it is engraved "lest we forget"--and I will not worry too much that the phrase comes from Kipling some twenty years later, because Ford's beautiful movie, the most painterly Technicolor movie I've seen, works as a Recessional, asking us to draw away from the noise of the world--even the brutal facts of the Cavalry's presence--fighting a war against the country's original inhabitants, spreading corruption and hatred--even this somehow fades: Brittles smokes the peace pipe, fails to keep younger men from--well, being like him and his, united against an enemy--and devises a plan to scatter the Natives' horses, avoiding war. We do not even get the obligatory savage battle. It's all aftermath.

Still, Brittles retires--but becomes chief of scouts, the Boy's Adventure continuing. I'm not sure, though, that the Ford Western will ever be as much fun again--like the bit with Victor McLaglen--the perennial Oi-rishman--hornswoggled by Brittles into civilian clothes and amiably violent drunkenness, just so he can make his way toward his own impending retirement in the relative calm of the stockade. As much as the scene makes us laugh--and as much as I admired Wayne's performance--sitting on his horse, bespectacled and teary-eyed, reading his pocketwatch--or better yet, at his wife's grave, talking quietly with shy affection, watering the flowers he's planted--despite all this, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is more a film about recollection than experience: The latter is for younger men, who act, it seems, only so that they too can stock up memories.


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