“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” It’s among the most quoted statements associated with the westerns of director John Ford and the actor John Wayne. It’s tough and brusque, but it’s spoken by the character of Capt. Nathan Brittle, who is having fun at the expense of his young officers arguing over a picnic.
“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness” first appears in James Bellah’s story “The War Party,” when Capt. Brittles is in battle and he means it, seriously. Bellah’s story is about war between the U.S. and the Native American tribes of the Southwest in 1868. It has no picnic episode. But for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Ford and his screenwriters use “Never apologize” in a jokey episode about a conflict of rivals and botched picnic.
The conflict is that the fickle Miss Olivia Dandridge is flirting with two officers. She wears a yellow ribbon signifying that she has a beau, but wont let on who it is. For the present, she expects to a pleasant picnic off post with Lt. Pennell and she’s packed a basket to have lunch at a waterfall nearby. But Lt. Cohill, Pennell’s rival, denies them permission to leave Fort Starke, partly because he’s jealous and partly because there is a threat of combat with the local Native Americans.
The picnic argument is settled by Capt. Nathan Brittles, who like King Solomon divides and conquers. At first, Brittles is incredulous that anyone would consider picnicking at all when there is a threat of violence. But then, aware of the rivalry, he shifts his demeanor, and pretending to be serious, agrees to the picnic –but only for Pennell. Miss Dandridge, much to her displeasure, is escorted to her quarters while Pennell is order to picnic alone. Memorably, Miss Dandridge looses her cool and as Brittles prepares to lead her away, she sticks out her tongue.
The screenplay dialog for this scene is a among the funniest in film and in picnic lore:
Lt. Cohill: I have denied Mr. Pennell permission to leave the post.
Capt. Brittles: For what purpose did you wish to leave the post, Mr. Pennell.
Lt. Pennell: Picnicking, sir.
Capt. Brittles: Picnicking? Picnicking, Miss Dandridge? Where, in St. Louis?
Lt. Pennell: The waterfall. I’m sorry…
Mr. Cohill, I see no reason why Mr. Pennell should not go picnicking.
Lt. Cohill: Very good, sir.
Lt. Pennell: Thank you, captain.
Lt. Cohill: But he was right in denying you permission to leave…
…under the present emergency. So may I escort you [Miss Dandridge] to your quarters?
You may proceed with your picnic, Mr. Pennell.
– You may pass Lt. Pennell, sergeant. – Pass Lt. Pennell! Pass Lt. Pennell!
Lt. Cohill: Where are you holding your picnic?
Lt. Pennell: At Delmonico’s in New York in two months with Olivia on my arm! And I won’t be wearing any blue suit either, bub!
Harry Carey, the actor who played Lt. Pennell, remembered the scene vividly, especially that it left him looking like an “ass.” Actress Joanne Dru , however, has the last word in the episode.
Featured Image: John Ford. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stalling based on James Warner Bellah’s short stories “The Big Hunt” and “War Party.” RKO Pictures, Inc. Miss Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) reaction to Capt. Brittles’ refusal to let her picnic with Lt. Pennell.
See: Harry Carey, Jr. Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1994.