As the final stand of General Custer took place, the impact spread through the valleys and fields of cavalry outposts. America had its ethics and social standings changed once more with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and its impact on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a surprising, lingering after-effect. Perhaps the century-long ripples of defeat were enough to convince John Ford into retiring his leading man from the front lines, reserving him as a father figure rather than an active soldier. This change to the presence of John Wayne presents She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with a fighting chance. A shake-up that would see The Duke fall into a role that presents his acting talents, those verbal cues and biting lines that hid underneath a thick remit of gun-toting excellence and talent for troublemaking.
It is no real shock that Ford had considered replacing Wayne. For the better part of two decades, Wayne had played the role of Captain Nathan Brittles in some form or another. He was the steady hand of the law for a generation, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon sees him, to an extent, hang up his hat. He would go on to make some of his greatest westerns after this point, in fact, his time in the genre was only just beginning to take flight. But it is no coincidence that his move toward acting, rather than action, has affected the style he presented. He still has scenes of tension up his sleeve, but they are the medium shots that Ford presents, where Wayne is on horseback, brandishing a moustache and firing stern talk at the new recruits.
He is the flag bearing hero yet again, and as Joan Didion once wrote of him, “he determined forever the shape of our dreams”. But it is the darker blues of the cavalry uniform and the stern, understanding nature that audiences remember, not the fusion of American propaganda for events of years gone by. A faceless enemy is lingering in the background, never offering anything more than a force to endure and fight against. Their lack of humanity is common for the genre, but reflecting upon it, echoes a gross attitude of the time. Patriotism is, to an extent, the key theme that lingers through the dusty base of operations and strict regimentation. Not just in the can-do attitude of the brave soldier, but of the conditions this production ended on. Under budget, ahead of schedule, the true American way. To finish efficiently and briskly, at less cost than expected. It is more a testament to the timekeeping of Ford than to the quality of the film, which could have used those extra hours to craft a big blowout worthy of the Wayne western experience.
While it is not the finest hour for either John, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon has within it the filmmaking mishaps that audiences love to hear of. Scenes that have since ingrained themselves in the minds of western fans born out of accidents, horses riding through sandstorms. Wayne entered the project a one-note gunslinger, and exits as a man with gusto and character. He would never shake free from the macho movement he mustered up in his work, but he instead revels in it, pairing these key character traits with a knack for the screen and a knowing wink at his audience. He is clear and cutting, the man who gives the orders when unity is nigh on impossible. The rallying cry of Wayne is heard often in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and it is to the chagrin of the cast around them that he outshines them in every way.