The Story: My ears have been filled with the sound of sabre-rattling this week, and it was ever thus. And the guys who are rattling the loudest are the ones whose sabres are rusty and un-oiled and long unused (if ever used at all). And it was ever thus. The young men who are sent to fight the wars are sent by the old men ensconced in the villas and suites, and for whom the battles are personal and ego-driven and with the hope that the reflected glory of the battle will bring a flush to their ashen cheeks, even though they are as far removed from the consequences as could be. And it was ever thus. It used to be that commanders were at the front of the charge at the battlefield. Now they're nowhere to be seen. One wishes that one could say "You want a battle? You want a war? You fight it."
That's why I love this scene from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the second of John Ford's Cavalry trilogy, that didn't take anything away from the efforts of the Cavalry to "tame the West," while giving the Natives their due as human beings and fellow residents, and by giving them motivations for their actions (usually at the hands of duplicitous whites), rather than relegating them to berserker "savages" as was the lazy norm for the genre.
Here, the two old men from the warring factions meet up to try and put a halt to any coming slaughter. There is no indication of the two's past relationship, whether they are friends, or respecting enemies, but the fact is they can talk and they do listen, even if the situation is untenable and reached the tipping point.
The other thing I love about this scene is in its playing. The Cheyenne chief is acted by Seneca Native "Chief John Big Tree," who'd appeared in other Ford films, but usually mutely...in non-speaking parts. One can hear why. The actor speaks in a high, wheedling, quavering voice in a halting fashion that's barely understandable—the RKO big-wigs must have been horrified to see this performance ("why couldn't Ford have used a professional white actor? This is a big scene!"). Thing is, the moment you see Big Tree and hear his first words, yelled at the top of his lungs ("Na-than! Na-than! I am a CHRISTIAN! Hall-ay-LOO-Yah!"), you can't help but like him. The performance is yelled, and mimed, just in case you can't understand him, and the sentences are short and try to convey the idea in as few words as possible, but is not your typical "pidgin" English. It must have appealed to the obstinacy in Ford to make this scene, use this actor, and not overdub it.
But, in the mean-time, old men should stop wars.
If not, what else are they good for? What else have they lived for, if not for the use of the wisdom that has been accrued over time, to use the sentiment that adorns Nathan Brittles' retirement pocket watch gifted by his troop: "Lest We Forget."
The Set-Up: Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) has only the previous day relinquished his command at Ft. Starke as commander of the 6th Cavalry Regiment. It is bittersweet as he has seemingly failed at his missions of containing Cheyenne and Arapaho raids following the events of Little Big Horn. Now, he goes with former Confederate Captain (now U.S. Cavalry Sergeant) Tyree (Ben Johnson) to palaver personally with Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) to try to end the bloodshed.
Captain Brittle and Sergeant Tyree ride into the Cheyenne camp, intercepted along the way by challenging warriors.
They are met and escorted along the way by an ever-increasing number of warriors.
As they come to a halt, the warriors press in, crowding them, restricting the movements of their horses.
Brittles wonders if Tyree has even heard him.
SERGEANT TYREE: Yes sir. Up to and including now.
As Brittles walks through the encampment, a warrior brushes in front of him and fires an arrow point-blank at his feet...
...blocking his way.
The warrior turns his horse to watch that Brittles goes no further.
Brittles yanks the arrow out of the ground and gives the warrior a withering look.
...snaps the arrow in half...
...spits on it...
...and hurls it back at the warrior...
His rebuke clear, he then proceeds to walk towards the Cheyenne Chief.CHIEF PONY THAT WALKS: Nathan! Nathan! I am a Christian!
PONY THAT WALKS: Old friend, me. Long time. Long time.
BRITTLES: I come in peace, Pony That Walks.
PONY THAT WALKS: Take salt, Nathan. Take salt.
PONY THAT WALKS: Smoke pipe. Good. Good.
BRITTLES: Pony That Walks, my heart is sad at what I see.
BRITTLES: Your young men painted for war.
BRITTLES: Their scalp knives red.
BRITTLES: The medicine drums talking. It is a bad thing.
PONY THAT WALKS: A bad thing, Nathan.
PONY THAT WALKS: Many will die. My young men. Your young men.
PONY THAT WALKS: No good. No good.
BRITTLES: We must stop this war.
PONY THAT WALKS: Too late, Nathan.
PONY THAT WALKS: Young men do not listen to me.
PONY THAT WALKS: They listen to big medicine.
PONY THAT WALKS: Yellow hair. Custer dead.
PONY THAT WALKS: Buffalo come back, great sign. Too late, Nathan.
PONY THAT WALKS: You will come with me.
PONY THAT WALKS: Hunt buffalo together. Smoke many pipes.
PONY THAT WALKS: We are too old for war.
BRITTLES: Yes. We are too old for war. But old men should stop wars.
PONY THAT WALKS: Too late. Too late. Many squaws will sing the death songs. Many lodges...
PONY THAT WALKS: ...will be empty. You come with me.
PONY THAT WALKS: We hunt buffalo.
PONY THAT WALKS: Get drunk together. Hallelujah!
PONY THAT WALKS: Hallelujah!
BRITTLES: No, old friend, I must go.
BRITTLES: I go far away.
PONY THAT WALKS: Then, Nathan, my brother...
PONY THAT WALKS: Go in peace.
PONY THAT WALKS: Eneh-washte-colah!
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Words by Frank Nugent and Laurence Stalling
Pictures by Winton Hoch and John Ford (Technicolor Consultant: Natalie Kalmus)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.