John Ford was one of the great directors of the studio system, winner of four Oscars, a tyrant on the set, and maker of many classic Westerns – but he also made dozens of films in other genres including comedies, war films, political dramas (about the IRA and religious persecution), biopics, police procedurals, gangster movies, costume epics and even a Shirley Temple vehicle! Sergeant Rutledge is both a Western and a courtroom whodunit but is more significant as a story of race relations that features a trailblazing performance from Woody Strode in the title role. It didn’t do very well at the box office and perhaps its mixing of genres may be to blame – does it deserve to be re-evaluated?
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“He’ll march all night an he’ll march all day
And he’ll wear out a twenty mule team along the way
With a hoot and a holler and a ring-a-dang do
Hup-two-thee-fo’ – Captain Buffalo” – title song
The elaborate and somewhat episodic narrative is told primarily as a series of interlinking flashbacks during the course of the court-martial for murder. The accused is Sergeant Braxton Rutledge of the Ninth Cavalry, who for six years served with Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), who now acts as his defence. It is now 1881 and he has been stationed at Fort Linton in Arizona. The film teases viewers by withholding the main details about the murder for nearly half the film, the initial flashback instead detailing a related but basically separate plot about what happened to Rutledge when he ran into a white woman at a secluded railway station during an Apache attack.
Mary Beecher (Constance Towers, wasted in a marginal romantic subplot) is returning home after 12 years and meets Cantrell on the train. After being dropped off she discovers that she is all alone, her father hasn’t come to collect her and the station master has been shot with an arrow – she runs away in fear and is grabbed by a stranger, who it transpires is Rutledge, wounded by gunfire. He keeps her safe from Mescaleros who have broken out of the San Rosario Reservation but eventually his wounds mean that she has to look after him. This is a nice touch and softens the initially near-Gothic set-up, which plays on presenting the large black stranger as some kind of unknown threat before he is revealed as a soldier. The following morning Cantrell arrives and arrests Rutledge – we discover he is wanted for the double murder of his commanding officer Major Dabney and his teenage daughter Lucy, who was raped and strangled.
It is here that we finally get a real taste of what the film is getting at when Rutledge is overcome by the other soldiers and clapped in irons. He is searched but all that is found is the document that had given him his freedom from slavery twenty years before – this isn’t perhaps very subtle but is certainly powerful, the putting of Rutledge once again in chains a cruel but effective juxtaposition. Again the film teases us a little as Cantrell won’t say why he was searching Rutledge’s meagre belongings – we eventually discover that Lucy’s gold cross and necklace had been ripped from her neck and is the one piece of physical evidence that might really help clinch matters.
“You forget, sir. We been haunted a long time. Too much to worry. Yeah, it was all right for Mr. Lincoln to say we were free. But that ain’t so! Not yet! Maybe some day, but not yet!”
Mary is appalled that Tom would arrest ‘Brax’ and makes him look bad in front of his men, which creates a quasi-romantic tension. After she leaves, Tom speaks to Brax alone and it becomes clear that he considers him a great soldier and a friend but is frustrated by the man’s refusal to talk – it is clear that Brax feels he will never get a fair trial in a white court.
Which brings us to the members of the court, and they are a pretty comical bunch actually despite the seriousness of the situation, completely undermining any sense we might have in its effectiveness. Willis Bouchey, in a role crying out for Ward Bond, plays the excitable Colonel Otis Thornton Fosgate, who may be presiding over the court-martial but is henpecked by his featherbrained wife (played, perhaps inevitably, by Hollywood’s favourite fluttery female, the lovely Billie Burke). When told she is due to come into court to give testimony as a witness just after he has flung her and all her gossiping friends out, he pointedly ask for a drink from his lieutenant adding, “Mulqueen the water. I said the water“, which is presumably about 70% proof from his gasping after taking a swig.
“This is a court-martial. It is not a quilting bee!”
All the members of the court are in fact presented very broadly – some also take an occasional swig and when they retire to deliberate they go to play a round of poker!
The courtroom theatrics are certainly very creaky, a fact driven home by the hammy playing from Ford regular Carleton Young as prosecutor Captain Shattuck, who gives a performance straight out of a Victorian melodrama, underlining every point with declamatory gestures and much in the way of snide asides and loud protestations. We sneer and boo at him almost from the beginning and he does nothing to change our attitude to him as the film continues, his lame and obvious attempts to misguide the court proving always highly transparent, though there is a nice bit when he seems to truly and sincerely lose his temper with Cantrell as he attempts to thwart what he genuinely believes to be a foregone conclusion.
“A soldier’s life is at stake and this man is playing cheap legal tricks!”
That he is such a hissable villain does unbalance the courtroom scenes, which are either played for laughs or in a very over-the-top manner. Ford’s own staging often harks back to his early days in silent cinema, with flashbacks signposted by having the lights go down before the camera tracks in and we dissolve to scenes from the past. While enjoyable in a solid, old-fashioned way, this must have seemed very creaky in 1960 in the era of the much zippier Perry Mason TV show. But this does further give credence to Rutledge’s belief that he cannot get a fair trial.
Like that other more successful 1960s race relations movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), this is an original screenplay that oddly comes across as a stage play transposed to the screen, the action being mostly relegated to a small number of obvious studio sets, though there was some location shooting at Ford’s beloved Monument Valley for the scenes dealing with the Apache subplot. What distinguishes it is its theme and playing from Woody Strode, who like Sydney Poitier in the social comedy from a few years later, is actually presented as a man of quite impeccable virtue.
“White women only spell trouble for any of us.”
In a notable scene when Brax is being escorted back, the rest of the cavalrymen sing ‘Captain Buffalo’, the song about an ideal soldier which we associate immediately with Rutledge – even Tom admits that they are probably laying it on a bit thick to give Brax some confidence. It’s a smart scene, one in which the attempted deification of the character is slightly undercut, though the visuals tell another story as we see him standing lookout with the moon in the background – it’s certainly a rousing moment and helps take the sting out of the undoubted racism that the character has to face from many of the other characters in court.
The locations serve as the backdrop for some actions scene involving the Apache (who certainly get a much less nuanced depiction than the African-American characters) and the discovery of the body of Chris Hubble, who was in love with Lucy and who headed out in search of vengeance after the murder. At this point Rutledge loses a smidgen of sympathy by apparently deserting. In flashback we saw that he left the Dabney house after being shot and once again he seems to be running away – but when he realises that the Apache lie in wait he returns to save his men. What this does is drive home the idea that Rutledge, a brave and honourable man, is so convinced that he can’t possibly get a fair hearing that he considers running away from the only family he has left. Eventually we return to the courtroom for the final showdown. Goaded beyond endurance by the cheap tricks and racist insinuation of the prosecution, Sergeant breaks down on the stand, explaining his return after attempting to run away, his voice cracking with a swelling of emotion:
“It was because the Ninth Cavalry was my home, my real freedom, and my self-respect, and the way I was desertin’ it, I wasn’t nuthin’ worse than a swamp-runnin’ nigger, and I ain’t that! Do you hear me? I’m a man! I’m a man”
Strode, enormously impressive with his physique, was not a well practised actor but this is his moment to shine and it still brings chills.
If truth be told this is not otherwise a movie of great performances, with the ever-impressive Juano Hernández as the veteran sergeant left as usual to mop up all the acting honours. Jeffrey Hunter is perfectly capable as the other main lead but his romance with Towers is perfunctory, their roles barely shaded – indeed all the characters are a bit one note once you get past the ambiguity of the mystery story. One could argue I think that while the whodunit is fun, it tends to muddy the waters and weaken the drama because we never for a moment think Brax could be guilty – after all, what would be the point of that? And yet his motivation is presented ambiguously to keep the momentum of the mystery going, whereas actually one would much rather spend more time getting to know the real man. In the original script Rutledge’s guilt or innocence was to be left undecided but Ford quickly changed that and here we get a surprise confession under questioning – not a surprise in the sense that every other legal drama does that but in the sense that we do get something truly unexpected with Cantrell bashing the witness on the side of the head twice he’s so angry – bet you never saw Perry Mason do that to a witness!
This is a film of small but very definite virtues including an important role for Strode that pretty much for the first time brought the experience of black soldiers to the fore. In its iconography it powerfully renders a statement against the overt racism that was still present at the time (it was filmed in the Summer of 1959). On can however certainly criticise it for playing safe, by using a mystery plot to soften its more important social message; and perhaps more egregiously for keeping us at a distance from the title character, who is thus neutered slightly as anything other that a totemic presence, though it is clear that this is a film fielding a progressive agenda. One wishes it were even better, but this is where one has to try and keep the historical context in mind. Not a great movie then, but certainly a worthy one. Well worth catching up with.
DVD Availability: Warners released this on a bare-boned DVD several years ago, sporting a very good anamorphic transfer with very decent colours (the screen grabs I’ve included here are pretty representative).
Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
Director: John Ford
Producer: Pat Ford and Willis Goldbeck
Screenplay: James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Art Direction: Eddie Imazu
Music: Howard Jackson
Cast: Woody Strode, Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Towers, Juano Hernández, Billie Burke