The famous John Wayne movie scene was captured despite crew members being seriously at risk of death.
Having starred in the first outing of John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy in 1948’s Fort Apache, John Wayne returned to lead the director’s follow-up in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon a year later. Given a budget of $1.6 million made the movie one of the most expensive Westerns at that point in Hollywood history. Named after the US military song of the same name, once again the two collaborators shot the film in the iconic Monument Valley along the Arizona-Utah state line – but production was far from always easy.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon saw Wayne portray Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles on his last job before retirement. The old soldier’s mission was to soothe tensions between the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians following Custer’s Last Stand aka the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
Meanwhile, Brittles had to transport the wife and niece of his commanding officer to safety. But when both of these objectives stalled, he pursued a meeting with a Native American chief to prevent the outbreak of war. Western fans will know one of the movie’s most memorable moments took place during a real-life thunderstorm, a scene that came about after an alleged conflict between Ford and his cinematographer Winton Hoch.
Hoch, who based much of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’s imagery on the cowboy paintings and sculptures of Frederic Remington, won the Best Cinematography Oscar for the movie in 1950. But this came at a cost when the weather turned for the worse while shooting in Monument Valley.
Ford and the DP had already been feuding throughout production, but allegedly none more so when ironically capturing the movie’s best scene. They were filming a line of cavalry riding through the desert when a real thunderstorm appeared upon the horizon.
The story goes that Hoch started packing away his cameras to protect them from the rain, but Ford – who was notoriously bad-tempered and ruthless – ordered the cinematographer to keep shooting. The DP wasn’t happy about this, pointing out there wasn’t enough natural light for filming, but of much more concern was the fact that the cameras could potentially end up as lightning rods that would fry the crew.
The director ignored all this and insisted filming continue with the thunderstorm raging in the heavens above, as rain soaked everyone on the production. Hoch would later file a letter of complaint against Ford with the American Society of Cinematographers over the incident, although an eyewitness disputes the severity of their feud that day.
Harry Carey Jr, who played Lieutenant Flint Cohill in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, remembers that day on set differently. The actor said that after Ford had completed filming, he noticed the on-coming storm and asked Hoch if they could shoot during the unique opportunity.
The cinematographer allegedly told his director: “It’s awfully dark, Jack. I’ll shoot it. I just can’t promise anything.” To which Ford replied: “Winnie, open her up [the camera lens] and let’s go for it. If it doesn’t turn out, I’ll take the rap.” The DP agreed and said: “Fair enough, Jack.”
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