Propaganda and American Values in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
by Laurel Westbrook


Fifty years ago pro-American propaganda was common in Hollywood produced movies, as were films deeply rooted in American values such as manliness, independence, and intelligence. Films starring John Wayne are exceptional examples of propaganda films that embody these American values. In his book, John Wayne's America, Garry Wills touches on aspects of anti-communist propaganda in the film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and discusses how Wayne's characters embody American virtues. But Wills fails to fully flesh out these two main arguments because he does not evaluate the roles of minorities and he fails to analyze the character traits that are presented as desirable. He argues that "Wayne became the pattern of manly American virtue" (30), but he misses a major aspect of American virtue presented in the film - intelligence. Had Wills dealt with intelligence and minorities in his evaluation this film, he could have strengthened his argument that it embodies American values and is an anti-communist propaganda piece.

In the movie, Wayne plays Captain Nathan Brittles, an old father figure about to retire from the U.S. Cavalry. But, given confidence from their victory at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the Indians are on the war path. Brittles has to defeat the Native Americans to save the frontier. If the "Indian uprising" is not stopped then "it would be one hundred years before another wagon train dared to cross the plains" claims the narrator during the opening scenes. However, the cavalry has orders not to attack the Native Americans, so Brittles must come up with a clever way to evade these instructions and defeat the Native Americans. To do that, he orders his men to chase away the enemy's horses (instead of directly attacking the Native Americans), thereby eliminating their strength. The mission is successful and the frontier is saved - the cavalry continues to protect the nation and "wherever they [ride] and whatever they [fight] for, that place [becomes] the United States," the narrator concludes.

According to Wills, "the most interesting, and politically the most important" (180), theme in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is unity. This is primarily because he sees this film as a propaganda piece aimed at motivating Americans to forget their differences and join together to fight the Communists. But Wills only notes one side of unity in the movie and so fails to see all of the propaganda in the film. Wills only discusses the solidarity of the many fractions within the United States as shown through the "reconciliation between the veterans of the Civil War" (180). In the film, some of the men in the United States Cavalry fought for the North and some fought for the South, but now they have allied together to fight the Native Americans. Because of his blindness to the roles of minorities, Wills does not notice that the theme of unity also runs through the actions of the Native Americans. Their solidarity is clearly shown in the opening of the movie when the narrator says, "From the Canadian border to the Rio Bravo 10,000 Indians - Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, Sioux and Apache under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Gall and Crow King - are uniting in a common war against the United States Cavalry."

In this movie, the Civil War veterans unite in the cavalry in a common war against the Native Americans. The parallel to that, which Wills misses, are the groups of Native Americans who united in a common war against the United States Cavalry. The idea being pushed in this film is that unity is strength and that dissenting groups within the nation should join together to fight against groups threatening the nation. What makes the war between Native Americans and the cavalry interesting in this movie is that they are worthy opponents. What makes both groups strong is their unity. This film uses two different groups to make its point doubly clear that solidarity equals strength. This message was especially important at the time because the U.S. was beginning to fight the Cold War and needed Americans to put up a solid front against communism.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was released in 1949 and at that time, "national unity for the great Cold War effort was a theme of growing insistence" (180). It was the year that the Communist party came to power in China and the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb. America was no longer the sole world leader because the communists had the same deadly power to destroy nations in nuclear war. One way to strengthen the nation against communism was through national unity. And though Wills does see that this film is clearly a propaganda piece aimed towards that goal, he fails to observe all of the anti-communist propaganda in the movie.

The key to deciphering director John Ford's message is what causes the Native Americans to lose. In the film, there are two worthy opponents of equal strength, just like the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. But, the Native American defenses have one major flaw that allow the Americans to win: the young braves refuse to listen to the chiefs. In contrast, the young cavalry members always listen to Wayne's wisdom. In the movie, Wayne goes into the Native American's camp to speak to an old friend, a chief. While there he and Lieutenant Tyree (Ben Johnson) have an opportunity to observe where the horses are kept and to discover the best approach to drive them off. Because the Native Americans are not united under one strong and experienced leader they allow a spy into their camp and this leads to their downfall.

This movie is an example of media propaganda attempting to manipulate U.S. citizens into uniting against communism. There are two main messages that appear when one looks at the defeat of the Native Americans. One is that in order to be strong and to protect our country, Americans must follow an experienced leader. The Native Americans were defeated because the young braves ignored the chief. This film tells the youth of America to either listen to their elders or suffer the consequences of the defeat of the nation. The second message is a map on how to defeat the communists. If one replaces the Native Americans in this film with communists and the horses with the atom bomb, one can see that Ford is saying that spying on the enemy and removing their strength is the way to protect the U.S.

Wills' second main argument is that "the Wayne idea drew ... deeply upon the largest myths of [the American] past - of the frontier, of a purifying landscape, of American exceptionalism, of discipline as the condition of rule" (30). But, Wills forgets one of the great themes of American history - intelligence. Americans are told that they won the American Revolution because they outwitted the British. It was not strength that gave them freedom, but intelligence. This virtue of intelligence has been imbedded into the idea of ideal manliness. The ideal American man, as Wayne embodies him, is not "book smart" but has an intelligence more like "street smarts" that allows him to outwit stronger opponents.

This intelligence is presented as a virtue in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Because Captain Brittles is intelligent enough to think of a way to circumvent his orders, he is able to weaken the Native Americans and save the frontier without actually breaking any rules. Intelligence is also presented as a virtue in a comic scene early in the movie. In the film, there are two lieutenants fighting for the affection of the only young woman at Fort Starke, played by Joanne Dru. One of them wants to take Dru on a picnic and the other is not allowing the couple to leave the fort. Wayne walks up, hears each side of the argument and says that the lieutenant may leave the fort to go on the picnic. As Dru smiles happily, Wayne looks at her and says that she may not leave, though, because it is too dangerous. The lieutenant is forced to go on the picnic by himself. This humorous scene serves to introduce Brittles' intelligence. Wayne also uses his wit in the film to help protect a fellow Cavalry member from himself (he is an alcoholic). Wayne looked out for Sergeant Quincannon the whole movie but when it is time for him to retire, he knows he must keep the sergeant away from alcohol until it is Quincannon's time to retire (about two weeks away) so that he does not get in trouble and lose his pension. To do that, Brittles tells the sergeant to try on his civilian suit to see if the sergeant should get one also. He then gives him some money and tells him to go get a drink. Wayne then goes and tells some men to arrest the sergeant for being out of uniform and under the influence and to lock him up for two weeks as a punishment. Brittles' wit helped protect a loyal friend. Brittles's strengths as a strong leader and a good person come from his intelligence.

In fact, this theme of intelligence as an American virtue is so strong that is persists even in more modern films. Today one often sees movies that reflect the same values or have the same themes as John Wayne's movies. There are many action movies where the main character outwits his opponent in order to save the day, just as Wayne did in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. An example of this would be the movie Speed. In this film, an angry ex-cop wires a bus so that it will explode if it goes under 50 miles per hour and puts a video camera into the bus so that he can make sure that the police do not try and remove passengers. The "bad guy" is in control, so the hero, played by Keanu Reeves, has to outwit him to save the passengers, reinforcing intelligence as an American virtue. To do this, he makes the video loop an image of the passengers just sitting on the bus so that he can remove the passengers without the ex-cop seeing.

There are also many movies today filled with pro-American propaganda, just like Wayne's movies. Often these films use the plot of America versus an equal opponent where a spy must go into enemy territory to weaken the adversary and gain American victory. In the movie Independence Day, Americans are forced to fight aliens that threaten to destroy the planet, just like Americans had to fight Native Americans trying to take over the frontier in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. In Independence Day, both the U.S. and the aliens are strong, so the Americans need a special advantage to win. To defeat the aliens, the U.S. sends a hacker into the alien mother ship in a small alien space ship that had crashed to Earth. The hacker makes it so that the shields of the alien's ships drop so that the Americans can shoot and destroy them. There is a clear parallel: in both movies spies are sent into enemy territory to weaken the enemy and help the Americans save their country.

When looking at movies today, it becomes clear that many of the same basic values and themes present in movies from the 1940's and 1950's are still quite popular today. One might ask why those same ideas have survived for over 50 years. The answer can be found in an analysis of the basic nature of these ideas. Pro-American propaganda has continually surfaced in Hollywood films because Americans are making the films. American values of intelligence and manliness are essential parts of the American psyche that grew out of our history and our belief systems. They are so entrenched in the American mind that they will probably still be present in media in another 50 years. Since these ideas are so established we often do not notice them and so do not realize that we are promoting them. By failing to notice the extent that these ideas permeated She Wore a Yellow Ribbon even while looking for these themes, Wills demonstrates how entrenched they are.

UC Berkeley - Mass Communications 10, Fall 1999
Copyright (C) 1999 Laurel Westbrook

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