Red-Haired Sunset - She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
While some may say that John Ford was--for much of his time--a reactionary right-wing Nixon-supporter Irish son-of-a-bitch1, we can't argue he wasn't a man with romance, ideals and, for the sake of truth, poetry in his eyes and soul. He had carried this soul--a macho character-- through his life and career and the heroes of his films always were like that. Take, for instance, The Quiet Man, the candy-colored picture starring John Wayne. Isn't it a film about the burden of being an Irishman? If Powell's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film about the burden of being an Englishman--an upper-class Englishman, for what it is worth (i.e. this phlegmatic, overly polite lad)--, Ford's film is about the burden of, once in a while, having to do what you must do. And, in this case, it is to be a man with balls. And if for that you need to push the love of your life's red hair for over five miles and be involved in an epic fight with her brother and get home drunk, screaming "Woman of the house! Where is my tea?!" no-one will ever say you're wrong because, you see, you acted correctly and that will get you respect--even if it doesn't fit today's politics of "correctness." (And for that, I believe, alongside The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Judge Priest and its remake/rethinking The Sun Shines Bright, The Quiet Man is Ford's most ideological picture.)
Having said that, this ideology in Ford's philosophy and thematic is essentially pointed in his 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. All roads Ford took up to that point merge in one single scene, one single shot. And, apart from the prostitute's funeral in Sun Shines Bright, this is the scene that moves me the most in his films. It is beautiful to see, it has a sense of loss, responsibility and respect. It is not only a turning point in this film, but also in Ford's oeuvre.
Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) arrives in a little graveyard, not far from his platoon's regiment and his home, which is, of course, set in the Monument Valley. At this graveyard his wife and children are buried. Wayne starts a moving monologue (as a matter of fact, it is actually a dialogue, because Ford leaves the spectator the opportunity to fill the spaces left in Wayne's lines to his departed wife). The scene starts with a short tracking shot following Wayne as he enters the graveyard. Then it cuts to a medium wide shot. Wayne picks up a watering can, starts to talk and to wash the flowers around the graves. Here the scene cuts to a medium shot of Wayne alone with some gravestones in the background.
And now comes the most important moment in the scene and in the film. Wayne moves his arm in the air and pours waters over the flowers. The water that is falling is hit by light reflecting outside of the frame. This water reflection illuminates the scene with a bold, inflamed red light emulating a sunset.
It is widely reminded to us that Yellow Ribbon was shot under the most aggressive location conditions--it was primitive, as Harry Carey Jr. described and Victor McLaglen who said that Ford was "a fucking sadist."2 But this particular scene was obviously filmed in a studio--the Culver Studios, 9336 West Washington Blvd., Hollywood, if IMDb is correct. Even if in the middle of nature everything is more prominent (and in the middle of the nothingness of the desert every ray of life and/or beauty is emphasised), we know that a sunset could never, ever, be red-haired like that.
But why, then, did Ford make this particular scene in a studio, even though we know he loved locations? Why did he set up the lighting in such an artificial way? And why is this scene so good? What strikes me in this scene is the ray of light hitting the water pouring. It is beautiful--and completely necessary.
This is the one and only time we see Wayne alone in a scene--the only time he can be the sensitive and thoughtful man he is on the inside. Throughout the film, he is surrounded by people. When they are not approaching him for questioning or to tell him about an unpredictable turning of the status quo, he is yelling at them. This is the only time he is, at least momentarily, at peace. This is also an evocative scene because it is when the shadows and loves of his past merge--in a spiritual rendering of reality (and realities)--with the man he is now. By shooting it in a studio, Ford sets this scene apart from the context of the entire movie, a context that is characterised by brutality and fear. There is the brutality of the war of the settler against the native. And then there is the fear--fear of death, fear of not being loved (something incarnated by Joanne Dru here), fear of failure in the proverbial Last Mission. So, if this scene is so apart from the broader context of the picture, it is natural that Ford chose a studio to shoot it, because it is so evocatively different from the rest.
This evocation of the merging of spirits, memories and harsh reality is also pointed by the red light I mentioned above. This red light is not the real light--it can't be. One of the most praised aspects of the film is Winton Hoch's Technicolor cinematography (as you may know, Hoch also photographed The Quiet Man and The Searchers-two great Technicolor pictures). Everybody is keen to notice that-scene-with-the-troop-riding-through-a-lighting-storm. But that scene is not the soul of the movie (it is a part--an important one--of the context of the Ford's Man, but not the movie). The soul of the movie is to take a red-light and with it symbolize a sunset. The Technicolor saturates reality, the reality of color. It is important to detach the natural reality from the idyllic reality--and the idyllic nature of this Ford fantasy--that the scene is pursuing. When the ray of light hits the water, Ford and Hoch are almost stating to you: This is not reality. This is a fantasy. This is a dream world. They're saying: This is the ideal man.
And this ideal man is a flawed man. Sometimes (and in the film this is the case) he can't accomplish what he wants, for he is just like me and you. But when he enters a studio, reflects his past and then turns to see his wife reincarnated in a young lady, all he can attest is: I must do what a man needs to do. And what he must do is ride--for ride is all he knows.