I don't tend to gravitate towards westerns, but I'm always game for John Ford's take on the genre. In films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, he invests the grit and grime of the open country with a kind of poetry that gives the rough and tumble life of his characters great poignancy.
There needs to be a term for the particular spell that John Ford weaves as a director, something like the Lubitsch Touch, an appeal you can only partially describe, but essentially understand. He sets a particular tone in his films, and especially his westerns: an uncannily balanced mixture of light humor, feisty romance, gut-wrenching emotions and deathly serious tension. Even more astonishing is the way the director films this mash of moods with the grace of a man who is overwhelmed by the beauty he sees. On one hand, it's hard to believe this is the same guy who shared his sketches of penises with Maureen O'Hara; on the other it is perfectly plausible.
This Ford aura makes me question my own film preferences. He so clearly illuminates what makes the western loveable that he makes me want to dig deeper into the genre, and sometimes a viewing of one of his films does lead me to further exploration. Ford makes his landscapes breathe, so you feel the presence of the hills, the rumble of horses' hooves and the determination of his characters to conquer a wild territory. I felt this pull the most in his 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach, but it is also strong in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Though years younger in reality (True Grit  was two decades away), John Wayne is aged effectively to play a cavalry officer who is nearing retirement. He faces this life change reluctantly, uncertain of his future as the death of a family he still grieves leaves him adrift in the world. Though he seems weary in some respects, you get the impression he'd like to die in his boots.
Wayne throws himself into his last mission, forging forward with his men through the stunning Monument Valley, trying to negotiate with the Indians through a tribal elder instead of witnessing more bloodshed. He keeps himself busy with the personal aspects of outpost life as well, watching over his alcoholic first sergeant (played by the comfortingly reliable Victor McLaglen) and occasionally intervening in the rather uneven love triangle between the commanding officer's niece (Joanne Dru) and two soldiers (the hapless Harry Carey Jr. and the more viral John Agar).
These dramas and others, among a cast that also includes sturdy Ford regulars Ben Johnson and Mildred Natwick, are essentially approached with a sure pace and light spirit. When there is a moment of contrast: the tension of battle or the weary sadness of Wayne's grief, it is all the more heartbreaking because you know tragedy always lingers close by.
The look of the film is distinct enough to have its own powerful presence, with the bright, clear daytime shots of the valley and the softer, glowing orange and pink compositions of the quieter evening moments. Cinematographer Winton Hoch earned an Academy Award for his work, though he fought so frequently with Ford during filming that he was ready to quit. The beauty of his work is especially striking in this Blu-ray edition.
Special features on the disc include a trailer and a brief clip of John Ford's home movies around the time of the film's production in which he is traveling to scout for locations.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.