“Never apologize, Mister! It’s a sign of weakness.” – Captain Nathan Brittles
If I had to sum up the basic differences between films before vs. films after 1972, it’s that films before practiced the art of subtle non-subtlety, while films after it tend to practice non-subtle subtlety.
The difference looks a bit like this: acting in older movies is grand, showy, rehearsed, and theatrical. Watch an old musical; even the unsung parts feel like song and dance numbers. The songs, dances, and epic performances the camera is lucky enough to be catching feel like they were sprung straight out of the exciting lives of the characters. Old dramas largely work the same way. In terms of cinematography, older films tended to keep greater distance and show more of the room as characters interact within it. With longer, more robust takes, cuts were also more abrupt and dramatic. What these unsubtle films did was invite you to live in their worlds, present emotion and feeling with clarity, but subtly change the details of scenery, character, sound, and sometimes color to enrich the experience. Sometimes those changes are within a film. Other times they are changes you only see when you see “the next one.”
To put that another way, there’s a reason John Ford, despite having made many wonderful technicolor films (including the one I’m going to discuss), believed to the end that black and white was the best type of photography.
Films today are sometimes painful in how they do the opposite, with “narrative” often overwhelming character. So desperate many of them are to be “subtle” that they clumsily shotgun blast their kneecaps, or manifest their intentions in so brazen and sheepish a fashion that effect is ruined. The camera hugs the faces of actors so closely that their heads look like hot air balloons. You get the sense that actors aren’t even doing half the work they used to do to make themselves and their characters real to the audience. The cutting is so choppy and routine, half the time in an effort to conceal the cheap graphics, green screens, and awful digitalization, that we often don’t even have an environment for drama. Even low-budget films or on-location epics by capable filmmakers like David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, or literally anything by Alejandro González Iñárritu or Alfonso Cuarón tire these techniques out, and often infuse so much nihilism and postmodern sexuality into them that they just make for silly, thoughtless, sometimes utterly inhumane experiences.
The counterculture is our new culture. And one of the casualties of that new reality is the American western.
Without the benefit of history, very few modern audiences are capable of understanding, therefore, a film like John Ford’s The Searchers, which in a certain sense was the first counterculture Western film. The “anti-Western” would become much more pronounced in the future with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973). We are much more used to that model today. Yet over a decade before any of those overwrought films, John Ford and John Wayne together subverted the western genre to depths far beyond what any of them were capable of. You just wouldn’t know that if you’re only used to seeing the genre portrayed cynically.
Related to all of the above, before I saw a western with him, the John Wayne I grew up with was the on-screen war hero. That was how I knew him; how I recognized him. And even today, before I associate him with any of the frontiersmen, cattle barons, captains, sheriffs, marshals, and gunslingers he’s better known for having played, or the gentle, individualistic Irish-American romancer of Maureen O’Hara, my John Wayne fought bravely in every theater of World War II.
So here is an incomplete list of John Wayne movies, made both before and after The Searchers, that you should see before you watch The Searchers.
The Big Trail (1930) (Dir. Raoul Walsh)
Stagecoach (1939) (Dir. John Ford)
They Were Expendable (1945) (Dir. John Ford)
Red River (1948) (Dir. Howard Hawks)
3 Godfathers (1948) (Dir. John Ford)
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) (Dir. Allan Dwan)
The Cavalry Trilogy (1948-50) (Dir. John Ford)
Flying Leathernecks (1951) (Dir. Nicholas Ray)
The Quiet Man (1952) (Dir. John Ford)
Rio Bravo (1959) (Dir. Howard Hawks)
El Dorado (1966) (Dir. Howard Hawks)
The Longest Day (1962) (Dir. Ken Annakin, Andrew Morton, Bernhard Wicki)
Right at the center of that career is the Cavalry Trilogy, which Wayne made with Ford. The films are: (1) Fort Apache (1948); (2) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); and (3) Rio Grande (1950). So why did I pick the middle film in a trilogy made dead in the middle of his career?
I’m not really sure. Peter Bogdanovic recommended watching it last in the trilogy for reasons I’m not sure I understand. Fort Apache has both John Wayne and Henry Fonda, and when the two of them are together in the room, you can feel their combined star power emanating from the scene. It was also one of the last films to feature Shirley Temple in a romance with her then first husband John Agar. Notable also for being one of the first mainstream pro-Indian westerns, it has pretty much all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of an old western epic.
Yellow Ribbon, on the other hand, is full of imperfections. It’s not as well paced. The plot is far thinner than Fort Apache and the movie sometimes feels like it needs one. And the star power isn’t nearly as strong as it was in both Fort Apache and Rio Grande.
But it stands out to me all the same because it was the first time John Ford demonstrated awareness of his age in contrast with the aging of America. It has some of the most gorgeous technicolor photography I have ever seen out of any movie, and certainly the best shots of Monument Valley on par with those in The Searchers. The Valley never feels more realized and vivid than it does here. The best sequence in the film, apart from that final battle, is the trek through the storm. Most old films featured either nearly cloudless skies or rain so violent it’s like the cast is being rocked in the ocean. But Yellow Ribbon has a scene in the middle during an otherwise ordinary march where God drew lightning across the sky, and it enhances every detail in it all the way down to a patient asking the nurse to take a shot of the whiskey she’s about to give him, and her downing it like it’s holy water. That was a real storm with real thunder and lightning, entirely unplanned, and filmed with audacity.
Yellow Ribbon is more of a hangout movie with John Wayne as an old retiring cavalryman than it is a beat-for-beat story. The only reason Wayne starred as Nathan Brittles in the first place is because Ford saw him in Howard Hawks’s Red River and said “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” Makes you wonder just what Ford thought he could do in the five previous films where Wayne starred. But this was probably Ford’s most Hawksian film too. There’s even a stampede!
The aftermath of the Civil War hangs over the entire trilogy like a shadow, but the themes of it here are almost subversive. John Wayne is playing both the lead actor and the supporting actor to the meaty drama, which has almost nothing to do with him. His character Brittles is looking forward to retiring with honor when, after General Custer’s defeat at Little BigHorn, he is assigned to deter the breakout and militant advance of the Cheyanne and Arapaho, and return them (ideally safely) to their reservation. Despite the awesome and imposing presence of cavalry, his mission is to prevent war and use his diplomacy skills. But this story is itself just background noise that paves the way for the events that mark the real story – the love triangle between Lieutenants Cohill (John Agar) and Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.) with Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), and the foolish attempts by both to win her heart by their bravado. She is wearing a yellow ribbon, which implies that she is taken by someone serving in the U.S. cavalry, but she does not reveal who. The title of the film is taken from a famous cavalry song, which the men sing as they ride.
In this way, the lack of star power is a benefit to Yellow Ribbon because John Wayne moves between them and interrupts them like an overly aware father figure. Meanwhile, as the story opens and progresses, we get hints and suggestions time and again that the Indians are having similar conflicts among themselves. So the pace of the film is about an old man trying to keep his men and his “enemies” in line, and herd people like cattle. Keep in mind as well that some of the people under his command had previously fought on opposite sides of the War.
The imparted messages, therefore, stated plainly, have a healing, reconciliatory effect. Wars are fought by young men with unpolished eagerness, while old men work to prevent war because they had the fortune to survive it when they were young. And one of the reasons the young are so foolish is because of their desire to impress those who brought them up. Brittles, being on the precipice of retiring, doesn’t need to impress anyone, so everything he does he simply does out of love for his unit and the Indians. He is unabashedly himself. And one of the more interesting wrinkles to his character comes at the end where he gets a commendation he’s quietly always wanted from Generals Sheridan and Sherman, and from President Grant, and when he’s asked if he’s disappointed that he did not get one from Robert E. Lee, he brushes it off.
Trying hard to impress is also a sign of weakness. And that was the only subtlety you need.
V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#2: “Battle Royale” (2000)
#4: “Rope” (1948)
#5: “Malcolm X” (1992)
#6: “6 Underground” (2019)
#7: “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
#8: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
#9: “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)
#10: “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)