She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949). It’s a beautiful film to look at (Winton C. Hoch won an Oscar for Best Color Cinematography), Ben Johnson shows some of the charisma that led to a long acting career in one of his first credited roles (he was a rodeo champion who got into movies as a stuntman), and John Wayne does a good job of playing a character a couple of decades older than he is. (Wayne isn’t helped much by his makeup, but the acting is fine, as is usually the case.) The movie features the good and bad of John Ford, which is also usually the case in his films. There are peerless elements, but the “let’s get Victor McLaglen drunk” scene is as boring as always, and the movie seems more than once to be over. But the good outweighs the bad, and if this isn’t an all-time classic Ford, it’s more than good enough. Joanne Dru (and her role) raise an interesting point. A year earlier, in Red River, she played a typical Howard Hawks woman (not the best example by far, to be honest). I’ve always loved the scene where she takes an arrow in the shoulder and keeps jabbering away like nothing happened. In Yellow Ribbon, she plays a much more traditional woman who rides side-saddle. Ironic side note: the thunderstorm with lightning bolts that likely did a lot of win Hoch his Oscar wouldn’t have happened if Ford hadn’t told Hoch to keep working during the storm. #605 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. Best companion pieces would be Fort Apache and Rio Grande, the other parts of Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy”.
They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1942). Nonsense about Custer that is almost entirely fictional, yet presented as fact. In fairness, I’m not sure anyone was ever expected to believe the film was “true” … the New York Times review at the time referred to “factual inaccuracies liberally sprinkled throughout”, with “a viewpoint in variance with certain historical accounts of the tragedy”. The best argument seems to be no argument at all; we are just supposed to take the film for its value as an action picture with Errol Flynn. Given the continued controversies surrounding Custer’s actions, I suppose that’s OK, although it’s pretty hard to watch without thinking of “facts”. Some of the problems are just reflective of the times, such as Anthony Quinn playing Crazy Horse. Ultimately, I think the film fails, regardless of its take on Custer, because it tries to be too much: the epic story of a great historical figure, the drama of a flawed man, an enduring romance between two actors who had worked together so many times before (Flynn and Olivia de Havilland), and more. I admit to liking the part where the big villains are greedy businessmen. But at 140 minutes, the movie is at least 40 minutes too long, even if it keeps your attention because you know Little Big Horn awaits you. #993 on the TSPDT list. 6/10. If you want to see the best Flynn-de Havilland movie, watch The Adventures of Robin Hood.
They Were Expendable (John Ford, 1945). I admit I had misgivings about this one: a movie about PT boats with John Wayne second-billed to Robert Montgomery. Once again, I was wrong. They Were Expendable is actually a fairly dark, even personal Ford film. The trick is that the film tells the story of the U.S. mission in Asia during WWII before that mission turned in the Americans’ favor. So much of the movie is about defeat and loss. It wasn’t released until the war was over, though, and its dark mood didn’t match with the post-war relief felt by audiences. Even the obligatory love interest is downbeat: Donna Reed (always good) plays a nurse who cares for Wayne when he is hospitalized with blood poisoning. They come close to falling in love, he goes back on duty, and though there is still half a movie to go, we never see Reed again. #571 on the TSPDT list. 8/10. Companion piece? From Here to Eternity, also with Donna Reed and also featuring Pearl Harbor.