Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 3, 2016)
With 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, we get one of the many collaborations between director John Ford and actor John Wayne. After General George Custer’s defeat in 1876, the US Cavalry braces for even more warfare against the Indians.
Close to retirement, Calvary Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) receives one last assignment: to patrol for Indians near Fort Starke. As a complication, Brittles needs to escort his commanding officer’s wife Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) to safety. The film follows this task as well as related complications.
The “she” in the movie’s title refers to Olivia, a young woman who dons a ribbon to signal her affection for a particular man. This seems like a pointless plot area, mainly because it’s a gratuitous stab at romance in a tale that doesn’t need it. I get that many Westerns added facets such as this to entice “the female audience”, but these moments almost always feel forced and phony.
It doesn’t help that the sporadic romantic moments don’t really go anywhere. They become an occasional distraction and not much else. Other than the fact the film would need a different title, the bits with Olivia and suitors could be lost from the movie and not missed at all.
Otherwise, Ribbon provides a reasonable Western – though not one I think excels. With Ford and Wayne, it comes with a fine pedigree, and it seems wholly professional, but it never rises above the level of basic watchability.
Part of the issue stems from the narrative, as it simply lacks much heft. The characters move on their mission in a surprisingly lethargic manner, so we welcome action as a respite from the sluggishness more than anything else.
The exception comes from the banter between Wayne and Victor McLaglen’s Sgt. Quincannon. Two old pros, they sparkle when they work together – their moments should be cliché but they add fun to the flick.
Wayne also seems better than usual as the nearly-retired soldier. Wayne played a role about 20 years past his actual age at the time, and he pulls off the demeanor of the older man well. He gives the part good gravitas and acts as one of the movie’s strengths.
Wayne can’t carry the entire film, though, and this leaves Ribbon as a pretty average effort. It does enough right to keep us with it, but it doesn’t turn into anything memorable.