“Custer is dead,” matter-of-fact voiceover declares at the outset of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the middle part of John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, written by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings from the story “War Party” by James Warner Bellah. It is an informative public voice. Six weeks before his retirement, Capt. Nathan Brittles visits his wife Mary’s grave, as is his tender custom, in this instance to give her the news, made even more intimate by his disclosure of the death of one of the men in Custer’s command: a romantic rival, with whom Mary used to waltz so well. Nathan, squatting, faces Mary’s tombstone, upon which a woman’s shadow suddenly appears. For a moment—ah, it is Olivia (Joanne Dru, heavenly), part of the company that Nathan will escort to safety through Indian territory. Out of respect, the young woman has brought flowers for Mary’s grave; like Mary in the past, she is currently being courted by two young cavalry men. After she leaves, Nathan says, “Nice girl, Mary,” and then segues to an entirely different mode of speech. Rather than saying this to Mary, he is speaking to himself aloud: “She reminds me of you.” The actor playing Nathan Brittles, John Wayne, is precise and delicate in this shift in voice, which as Nathan nears army retirement withdraws into interiority, the implication being that his life now more abundantly belongs to his mind and heart than to the world outside—a metaphor for the fate of America as its idealization of the West, a West that never really existed, passes into the exposure of myth that the reality of warfare has bloodily polluted. (Hence the shots bathed in reddish hue.) Nathan has told his Mary that, post-retirement, he may head to California, that is to say, farther west, to a new frontier.
     Wayne, who was 43 when he played the 60-year-old Nathan, gives what he always regarded as his finest performance, and today it is bewildering that he was Oscar-nominated that year for another role (in Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima). Ford contrasts Nathan’s dignity and graciousness with the impetuousness of the young men under his command. They share an appetite for violence with the young Indians, from diverse tribes, who, we are told, “are uniting in a common war against the United States Cavalry,” the “uniting”/”United” echo underscoring the tragic theme of mirror-imaged violence in America’s arsenal of history. When Chief Pony That Walks tells Nathan, “We are too old for war,” Nathan goes heart-piercingly further: “Old men should stop wars.” One may be forgiven for finding Nathan’s passion in this regard Tennysonian: “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil./ Death closes all; but something ere the end,/ Some work of noble note, may yet be done . . . .”
     How does one hold oneself together while watching this film if one is American? As Garbicz and Klinowski astutely point out, “neither side wins” in it, and the whole thing is awash in elegy. The Oscar-winning color cinematography by Winton C. Hoch and Charles P. Boyle provides essential rather than extraneous pleasure; for its evocations of Frederick Remington’s art everywhere remind us that the West, which remains at the center of American consciousness, was an idea conjured by Easterners—and in the case of Ford, weighed and tested by one. The approaching end of Nathan’s military career presages the end of the U.S. Cavalry—and of our capacity to hold onto and loll around in our myths.

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