ECW welcomes guest author Tom Elmore
Few men in the history of American cinema have been more acclaimed than John Ford. The six-time Oscar-winning director has been a major influence on a who’s who of filmmakers including Orson Wells, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
Among Ford’s major cinematic achievements are the three films commonly referred to as his “Cavalry Trilogy”: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. All were based on stories by James Warner Bellah that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Because the stories had poor dialogue and racist views of Native Americans, Ford, wisely, pared each tale down to the bone, had the dialogue re-written, diluted the racism and retold them in his own unique style.
At first glance, the plot in all three films seems alike; the U.S. Cavalry battles Native Americans in order to keep peace in the region. In addition, all the films are centered on veterans of the Civil War. While the war is over, its lingering effects on those soldiers are still present, though how the men handled their post-war lives is quite different. 
There are no African-Americans depicted in any of these films. Nor is there any mention of the racial strife that was happening back east. These stories exist in their own little universe.
Fort Apache (1948)
The film centers on Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), who served as a general in the Civil War and was previously posted in Europe. He views his assignment to the remote Arizona outpost, Fort Apache, as punishment. Upon taking command, he immediately offends and angers his entire senior staff, many of them Civil War veterans. Thursday demands that the entire fort dress like soldiers and not like “cowboys.” He also openly tells them that none of them can expect any glory, though Thursday is determined to make some for himself. As the film progresses, it is clear that Thursday is a soldier who trusts in theory and history and not in the present when it comes to warfare. If someone opened up his chest they would see an army manual instead of a heart.
The officers initially greet their new commander with open arms and offer him advice about the region’s Native Americans, notably, Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), an experienced officer who understands and respects the local native population. Though not mentioned in the film, according to an early treatment of its script, York was a colonel in the Civil War, but in contrast to Thursday he shows no resentment to his demotion nor his posting.
Thursday, however, rejects almost all of York’s suggestions leading to conflict between the two men, and ultimately the destruction of Thursday’s command, though he is able to make peace with those whom he had offended before his end.
Thursday’s and York’s situations were not unique. After the Civil War many officers who held high ranks by commissions in the United States Volunteer Army or by brevet (or honorary) rank were dropped to their regular army rank. And like Thursday, many of them were angry and bitter, looking for ways to get their higher ranks restored. Perhaps the most notable was George Custer, on whom Thursday is loosely based.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
This is the only film of the three shot in color. Ford studied the paintings of Fredric Remington and successfully brought the artist’s romanticized vision of the west to film. Still, he delivered a rather gritty view of the cavalry. For his stunning cinematography, William C. Hoch won an Oscar.
The film is set at a small, remote outpost named, appropriately, Fort Starke, where the pay is low and promotions are slow. The troopers seem to walk as much as they ride and they return from patrols with dirty uniforms, to an often cold and muddy fort. Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne playing a character 20 years older than he was) is a decorated career U.S. Army officer and a Civil War veteran just days away from his retirement. Before he reluctantly leaves the army, about the only life he has ever known, he leads one last patrol. His aide is First Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaughlin), another career soldier who served with Brittles in the war and who is also about to retire.
Brittle’s go-to man for tough and dangerous missions is Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson), a likable, easy going trooper with a deep Southern accent. Tyree, who is very knowledgeable about the region’s Native Americans, was a captain in the Confederate cavalry, and often makes references to the “Yankee War Department.” Although he and Brittles were on opposing sides the two have great respect and admiration for each other.
Another ex-Confederate is a private known as “Trooper John Smith” (Rudy Bowman-uncredited). His real name is Rome Clay, a former Confederate cavalry general under whom Tyree served.
Smith is mortally wounded in an Indian ambush. Prior to the burial, Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick), the wife of the commander of Fort Starke, makes a small Confederate flag to be place on the grave of “Trooper Smith.” When Tyree and two other soldiers thank her, she says “I was proud to do it.” At the graveside service, Brittles calls Smith “a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman;” and gives permission for the small flag to be placed on Gen. Clay’s coffin, while an honor guard gives him a military salute.
While the Civil War is often referred to in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, there is little, if any, bitterness or animosity between former combatants. Tyree’s pro-Southern outlook is viewed with amusement and not anger. Working together they are able to prevent an Indian war. Thus Ford shows an idealized version of the North and the South coming together.
Rio Grande (1950)
Ford made this film as part of a deal. He could do his dream project, a film adaptation of Maurice Walsh’s The Quiet Man, provided he made a hit western. Ford needed only five weeks of filming to deliver his end of the bargain.
The Civil War looms larger in Rio Grande than in the two previous films. A quasi-sequel to Fort Apache, the film centers on Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne) who rode with Lt. Gen. Phillip Sheridan during the Shenandoah campaign of the Civil War. Currently he is stationed in Texas near the Rio Grande River, where the Apaches are a threat.
During the war, under a directive from Sheridan, Yorke gave orders to burn the house of the family of his wife, Kathleen Yorke (Maureen O’Hara), causing a 15-year rift in their marriage. The person who did the deed was Sgt. Maj. Quincannon (McLaughlin), a longtime aide to Yorke, who still has guilty feelings about it.
The two lives get complicated when Yorke’s son, Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom the colonel has not seen in fifteen years, is assigned to Yorke’s command after flunking out of West Point and joining the army as a private. Adding to the colonel’s difficulties is the surprise appearance of his estranged wife to buy out her son’s enlistment. To say that relations between Mrs. Yorke, her husband, her son, and Sgt. Quincannon (who crosses himself when he first sees her) are far from ideal, is an understatement.
Then as if Col. Yorke did not have enough on his hands, Sheridan (J. Carol Naish) arrives and tells him, “I sacrificed the happiness of your home once Kirby to the needs of war. Now I’ll probably ruin your army career. I’m going to issue you an order, and give it to you personally. I want you to cross the Rio Grande. Hit the Apache and burn him out.”
Sheridan also adds that if the mission fails, Yorke will be court-martialed, but promises that “the members of the court will be the men who rode down the Shenandoah with us. I’ll hand pick ‘em myself.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, Yorke’s efforts to put down the Apaches and rescue children the Indians have taken to Mexico, Yorke is reconciled with his wife and son. At the end of the film, as the troops march in formation, Dixie is played, suggesting that the Yorkes are reunited, just like the nation.
Though the film shows how the war affected some families, here the often mentioned “brother against brother” theme is replaced by duty versus family. We also see how former commanders looked after those who served under them during the war. Gen. William T. Sherman, in particular, was known for this.
In the cavalry trilogy we see varying effects of the Civil War on the lives of the characters. For Lt. Col. Thursday and the Yorkes, it left bitterness and deep and profound scars. For others, it was just a chapter in their lives. The common theme in all the films is that those who were affected by the Civil War, both veterans and civilians, can put past differences aside, often for the common good.
This notion of reconciliation, in a much subtler way, was present in The Quiet Man (1952), where the people of the fictional Irish town of Innisfree ignore their religious differences, which tore Ireland apart for centuries, to bring lovers Sean Thornton (Wayne) and Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara) together.
This of course, was John Ford’s stylized and idealized view of the world. Ironically, Ford could be difficult to work with and often held long grudges. Yet, either in spite of it, or because of it, Ford made some of the greatest films in Hollywood history, while leaving a mark on how people view history.
 Eyman, Scott. 1999. Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. New York: Simon & Schuster. Pg.16, 243, 565. (Henceforth Print)
 Print, Pgs. 327-329 According to his son, Bellah was “a fascist, a racist and a world-class bigot.”
 Cast and crew information for all these films comes from their listings in the Internet Movie Data Base www.idmb.com
 Matheson, Sue. 2016. The Westerns and War Films of John Ford. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, Pgs. 147-153.
 Prater, Maj. Jeffery C., 1989. John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy: Myth or Reality? Unpublished Thesis for the U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Ks. Pg. 32 Ford had biographies of the principal characters written out.
 Print, Pgs. 350, 357. Ford considered making a biopic about Remington, but negotiations with the artist’s estate failed.
 Eyman, Scott. 2014. John Wayne the Life and Legend. New York: Simon & Schuster. Pg. 189 (Henceforth Wayne) Wayne considered this one of his best and favorite roles.
 Gallagher, Tag, John Ford-The Man and His Films. 1986 University of California Press, Berkley, Ca. Pg. 26. This plot twist was inspired by the destruction of the South Carolina plantation home of C.E.W. Smith, Ford’s father-in-law, by forces under the command of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in 1865.
 Print, Pgs. 564, 565, Matheson, Pg.290