Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is a great leader of men, an example for all military commanders to emulate — the opening narration all but tells us so. Brittles is nearing retirement; escorting the flirtatious Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) and Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick), the wife of the fort’s commanding officer, to a nearby town and putting them on a stagecoach is set to be his final mission.
Not all goes smoothly. A united force of various American Indian tribes attacks Brittles’s cavalry unit, forcing Brittles to abandon a small number of his men and return the women to the fort, where his commander orders him to leave the rescue to a younger officer and go ahead with his retirement. Brittles goes ahead with his retirement ceremony, then sneaks away from the fort to aid in the rescue of his men before riding off into the sunset. Before he quite gets over the horizon, a rider catches him and delivers some good news: the Army has re-commissioned Brittles as chief scout and promoted him to the rank of Lt. Colonel. A large-scale war with the Indians has been averted, Brittles has dodged retirement, Miss Dandridge has chosen her sweetheart, and when the final fade-out comes, all is right with the world.
Undeniably, the film is packed with pro-military sentiments and ultra-patriotism. Wayne’s Capt. Brittles is a tough, brave, wise old soldier who still finds time for his sensitive side, such as when he advises his younger officers on matters of love (“Haul off and kiss her!”) or brings flowers to the grave of his dead wife. The men of the cavalry are noble and courageous to the last man, even when personal conflicts pit them (temporarily) against one another. The unit is comprised of veterans of the American Civil War, concluded for about ten years at the time the film takes place, men who fought for the Union and the Confederacy, but have now joined together to form one army, united against the Indians.
The real message to audiences of 1949, my esteemed professors suggested during the post-film discussion, was that Americans (the cavalry) must unite in order to defeat their worthy Soviet adversaries (the Indians); only through strength — and obedience, for the Indians eventually lost the battle because the young braves had rebelled against their wise old chiefs — and solidarity could the communist menace be thwarted. Profs. Clemens and Harsh aren’t the only ones to read the film this way; Gary Wills put forward the same theory in 1997 in his book, John Wayne’s America. In her critique, “Propaganda and American Values in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” which views the film through Wills’s lens, Laurel Westbrook writes, “ was the year that the Communist party came to power in China and the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb. America was no longer the sole world leader . . . One way to strengthen the nation against communism was through national unity.”
Westbrook goes on to point out the intelligence of Capt. Brittles, citing this as anti-communist propaganda — we’re smarter than they are, another key to victory. It’s an interesting discussion, but not a convincing one for me.
Certainly one can read the film this way. Comb through looking for anti-Soviet metaphors and you’ll find the movie brimming over with them. But that doesn’t necessarily make them intentional on the part of the filmmakers. The “rah-rah U.S.A.” patriotism, the strident pro-military themes? Absolutely, they were intentional. “Let’s drive these Injuns back to the reservation and get this Manifest Destiny movin’!” The messages about what it takes to be a hero and how to be a “real man” were not accidental either. And I suppose once you go that far, finding specific allusions to the Cold War isn’t too far fetched.
Some people may gaze into an abstract painting and see a hundred different images, none of which the artist meant to put there. Some may view She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and see an obvious Cold War allegory. I look at it, and all I see is a mediocre western. It’s not John Wayne’s best work, and it’s not even close to John Ford’s best (see My Darling Clementine or The Searchers, both future Movies That Kick My Ass subjects). It’s full of beautiful exteriors of the plains, and Capt. Brittles is allowed a bit of depth, but the story is a masterpiece of shitty pacing; especially in the final act, where we see the lengthy retirement ceremony of Capt. Brittles, followed by an even more interminable drunk/fight scene for Victor McLaglen, followed by the revelation that Brittles isn’t retiring afterall.
By the time the end titles faded in, I was just glad the fucking thing was finally over. Perhaps that’s why some have chosen to cast it as such a calculated piece of anti-Soviet propaganda — on its own, it’s just not a very interesting film.