Movie Night with Urbaniak: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

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So urbaniak and I have been watching some of the classic John Ford-John Wayne movies. We started with The Searchers, because everyone does, and then moved to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, then Fort Apache. The result: Urbaniak feels that this Wayne guy could really be going places. "He’s my new favorite actor," quoth the thespian, who apparently had never really sat down and watched a John Wayne movie before. Not even True Grit.

Myself? I watched The Searchers a few years ago and didn’t "get" it — I liked the tortured, haunting "looking for the girl" parts, but the broad slapsticky parts I found loud and coarse. What I didn’t know was that there are broad, slapsticky parts in all of John Ford’s movies, it’s kind of what he does. To object to the broad, slapsticky parts of a John Ford movie is like objecting to the parts of the Tarantino movie where the characters stand around and discuss pop-culture minutiae. And tonight it occurred to me that, well, Shakespeare, for one, routinely interrupts the darkest of tragedies in order to inject scenes of broad slapstick.

Anyway, so I didn’t "get" The Searchers right away, but the very next Ford/Wayne movie I watched, Liberty Valence, completely blew my mind and fried my brain. It was my "Ford Moment," when I suddenly connected with the artist and his work in a startling and life-changing way, and I wanted to run out into the streets telling people to watch more John Ford movies.

Then something came along, kids maybe, and I kind of forgot about John Ford for a while.

Along comes blu-ray, and I find a copy of The Searchers on eBay for $10, and I think "Well, hell, that’s worth it," and I buy it and I invite Urbaniak over to watch it and he says okay. And I "get" The Searchers a lot more this time, although the broad slapsticky parts still kind of grate, butat least now I can see how they fit in thematically with the rest of the movie. And Urbaniak is impressed with Wayne and he says he wants to see more, and I suggest Liberty Valence and he says he hasn’t seen it and I reel backwards and my eyebrows shoot up and I say "You haven’t seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence?!" Which I apparently do at least once a week when I’m talking to Urbaniak: reel backwards and shoot up my eyebrows and say "You haven’t seen _____?!"

So next we watch Liberty Valence, and for some reason the movie doesn’t quite launch for Urbaniak. The broad slapstick in Valence is quite broad indeed, and there are some performances in it that just drive Urbaniak the actor potty. Still, Wayne is pretty freakin’ incredible in Valence, which is pretty great since he’s opposite James Stewart, and Urbaniak wants to see more.

So I buy the big John Ford-John Wayne box on eBay and next we watch Fort Apache, which has Henry Fonda as a stick-up-the-ass martinet put in charge of a small outpost cavalry fort, and Wayne as the younger, savvier officer who understands how things are done on the frontier. Fonda is doing a "character part" and Wayne is playing a supporting role and the slapstick runs rampant, but it’s still good enough that Urbaniak wants to see more.

So tonight we watch She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Urbaniak has his "Ford Moment." Wayne is playing older, about twenty-five, thirty years older really, but he does it with such naturalism and grace that it doesn’t feel forced at all. Wayne, who is, yes, five days short of retirement, has one last patrol to execute. And he goes out on his patrol, and he takes his troop and is escorting a couple of women to civilization. Well and good. There’s some broad slapstick, but instead of having a whole chorus of clowns stealing focus, Ford gives all the slapstick to one actor and focuses it — and employs it to a narrative purpose instead of merely a thematic purpose, which automatically makes it 100% better. And there’s some light romantic comedy about a young couple and their thorny frontier relationship, and for a while I’m wondering if this whole movie is going to be about a couple of actors I don’t really have very much interest in watching go through their comedic spats. Then, at the end of the first act, some Bad Indians attack and, good lord, the hooks go in and I suddenly realize that this movie kicks Fort Apache‘s ass. Out of nowhere, the anxiety I feel about Wayne’s responsibilities towards his troops and these women he’s been forced to escort back to civilization becomes thrilling and palpable, and when they reach civilization and find it’s not there any more the impact is devastating, and the movie isn’t at the end of Act II yet. And I realize, wow, John Ford really wants us to feel these characters’ lives, as much as Scorsese wants us to feel the lives of his gangsters, as much as Kurosawa wants us to feel the lives of his samurais. He actually wants us to think "Holy shit, there really were once people called cavalry men, and their lives were scary and weird and thrilling." (There’s a moment in Ribbon where Wayne and his lieutenants watch some Indians massacre and torture some rifle salesmen, and it’s rather incredibly violent for 1949, and Ford keeps cutting back to Wayne and his men as they watch the massacre and discuss the merits of chewing tobacco.
(I was brought up in the time of "revisionist westerns," movies like Butch Cassidy and A Fistful of Dollars and The Outlaw Josey Wales. I always assumed that John Ford movies were the "regular westerns," the kind of movie "revisionist westerns" revise. Well, of the handful Urbaniak and I have watched, as far as we can tell, they’re all "revisionist westerns," every one of them presents a complex, multi-faceted picture of a strange time, portraits of people living on a precarious edge of civilization, a land of ever-shifting alliances and questionable morality, with dark, haunted people driven to do self-destructive, desperate things for reasons they barely understand.)

Watching good movies leads to discussion of other good movies, and we hang out for an hour after Yellow Ribbon to talk about Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Jean-Luc Godard and the 1962 Cape Fear, which, when watched in the proper context, is one of the creepiest, more horrifying movies ever made.


12 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”
  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m a big fan of BIG JAKE, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it … it’s not perfect (Wayne’s son plays his son and he’s a bit forced) but I think it’s pretty frigging awesome … Richard Boone is the villain and pretty cool …

    Joshua James

  2. perich says:


    they’re all “revisionist westerns,” every one of them presents a complex, multi-faceted picture of a strange time, portraits of people living on a precarious edge of civilization, a land of ever-shifting alliances and questionable morality

    Ethan: I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands. I thought it best to keep it from ya.
    Brad: Did they…? Was she…?
    Ethan: What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me more.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    I seem to have an odd habit of seeing just one movie by major actors/directors and in the case of Wayne/Ford, it was The Searchers. And thinking back, I should probably see it again because I was likely far too young to have the slightest clue what was going on. I must have somehow dropped the slapstick parts from my memory, since the only thing resembling humor I can recall from the film is “Ha, ha, he thought he was buying a hat but he bought a wife instead and….oh, now she’s dead.”

    I think “reel backwards and shoot up my eyebrows and say ‘You haven’t seen _____?!'” is how most of your faithful readers reacted when you revealed that you haven’t seen The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

    Out of curiousity, what is the proper context for watching Cape Fear? Is it one of those films where you kind of have to put yourself mentally into the time whe it was originally released, keeping in mind what films had preceded it and – perhaps more importantly – what films had not? My husband occasionally tells me to think what my reaction would be f I were six years old when I’m seeing a cartoon from the 80s that he’s fond of for the first time and the context generally does help me to appreciate the material more.

    • Todd says:

      The first time I watched Cape Fear it was in relation to the Scorsese remake. In comparison to that, it seems a little staid and old-fashioned. But in the context of its time, it is one of the most freakishly unpleasant movies ever made.

  4. antiotter says:

    As a former cavalry trooper, I really do need to go back and watch some of those goofy movies about the cavalry. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Todd says:

      As a preview, there’s a lot of sand, which you’ll likely find familiar, but there’s a lack of tanks. There are Apaches, but they’re Indians, not helicopters.

      • Anonymous says:

        Do you know the story of Wayne/Ford and company making “Yellow Ribbon” to finance “The Quiet Man?”–(My personal Wayne favorite)

        And really, you should watch “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”–my Eastwood Fav.


  5. craigjclark says:

    One of these decades I need to see more John Ford films. To date I’ve seen Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath and that’s it. I was going to add Rio Bravo when I realized that that was Howard Hawks.

    • Anonymous says:

      Rio Bravo

      You’ve gotta see it! Dean Martin and Rick Nelson sing a duet, ‘Rifle, Pony and Me’, that’s excellent. Stops the movie dead in it’s tracks for 2 1/2 minutes, but we’re not talking modern blockbuster pacing. Angie Dickinson before ‘Police Woman’! (Hint: no great swaths of blue eyeshadow on her; you have to TRUST THE END CREDITS.) Walter Brennan adds toothless, one-legged comic relief.

      Oh yeah, it’s got John Wayne. He’s good, too. Nice hat.

      Rockie Bee

  6. faroffstar says:

    Quiet Man is one of my favorite John Wayne movies. Also Rio Bravo, McClintock, and The Sons of Katie Elder