Sunday, November 12, 2017

Surgery in a covered wagon: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”

One of the most significant and memorable scenes that takes place in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) has Tom Tyler as Corporal Mike Quayne who is injured during an Indian attack and has to undergo surgery to remove the bullet from the wound in a covered wagon during the trek through Indian territory out west. The commanding officer, Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is only a few days away from retirement yet has to guide his cavalry through one last mission – and at the same time, look after Major Mac Allshard's (George O'Brien) wife Abby (Mildred Natwick) and her niece, Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). As an installment of director John Ford's cavalry trilogy, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, the movie stresses the magnificent land of the west, and not surprisingly, won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color).

From the time we see Corporal Quayne appearing on horseback seated behind another officer over the crest of the hill, escaping a band of marauding Indians, to when he falls off and collapses onto the ground, injured, to when he is finally propped up by two men so that he could deliver his message to Captain Brittles, is dramatic in itself although not the highest point of the movie for Tom Tyler.

And with him horse and foot--and parks of artillery,
And artillery-men, the deadliest that ever fired gun.
-Whitman

Yet with his hair all astray, a bandana tied around his forehead, Quayne explains to his superior that his injury might have been preventable had his men some aid from Captain Brittles. Quayne is guided off in the direction of the covered wagon where he is about to undergo surgery to remove the bullet from his chest wound, temporarily disappearing from the story, to help build up the next scene to come, which takes place during inclement weather.

As the day progresses during the cavalry's march, the blue western skies slowly transform into dark clouds, a bolt of lightning flashing in the distance. While the simulated thunderstorm took place according to the script – at the same moment during filming, a real thunderstorm was looming over the horizon, providing just the right atmosphere for the surgery scene to take place. Laid up in the covered wagon, Abby and Dr. O'Laughlin (Arthur Shields) commence with the operation. Quayne displays a number of painful expressions, teeth gritting, sweat beading upon his forehead as Abby gets ready to administer him a shot of whiskey to help deaden the pain to come. She holds the glass before his lips, but Quayne lifts his hand to move the glass away and replies “After you Ma'am”, to which she takes a swig of the liquor before handing him the glass. Quayne drinks, and they start singing the cavalry song, right before he is finally knocked out so that Dr. O'Laughlin can remove the bullet from his chest. The cavalry continues on its trek, as the thunderstorm continues during the entire scene. Enveloped in total darkness, wrapped up as comfortably as he can be, relaxed for the doctor so the surgery is successful and recovery can be swift, the thunder of darkness along with the whisky shot, offers contentment to Quayne.

Not completely gone from the story, we see Corporal Quayne one last time, days after his surgery while he is recovering, heavily bandaged up and sitting on the end of the covered wagon and anxious to get back into action. Captain Brittles denies the request and orders Quayne back into the wagon so that his recovery is complete. This is the last we see of Quayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and as with Tom's other minor roles in A-westerns, a powerful piece of acting is delivered. What is also significant about this role is that the progressive effects of scleroderma are visible in Tom's face, a terminal disease which has no cure even in 2017.

“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” is not the first movie where Tom is in a role undergoing surgery in a covered wagon; “The Forty Niners” (1932) has a similar scene minus the actual surgery taking place. In this case, a group of men and women head out west to California to seek their wealth in the gold rush, and Tom, as Tennessee Matthews, gets into a fight with another man (Al Bridge) over a woman. Plugged from the front, Tennessee passes out, injured, and is carried into one of the covered wagons where the unseen doctor removes the bullet. Tennessee recovers, and while he is laid upon blankets, he also has mosquito netting covering him in order to prevent further infection.

Similar to his role in “Stagecoach”, Tom Tyler is onscreen only for a few minutes in the three scenes he appears in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” but makes the most of them, his experience in silent film paying off once again. Had “Stagecoach” been shot in Technicolor, it probably would be similar to this movie, since John Ford directed both, it is not difficult to imagine the vibrant pink, orange and purple colors dominating the western sky, stretching over the raw land of reds and yellows. As a supporting actor, Tom's acting talent is as fine as it comes, and as with the B-westerns of his silent film career, shows that he is perfectly suited to films of the western genre.










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