Sergeant Rutledge (1960)


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.


“Don’t scream, miss. Don’t scream!”

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

*****(2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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49 Responses to Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I can see why you didn’t give this one top marks. I’ll confess I haven’t seen this film but I know exactly what you mean about taking an important social topic and ‘playing too safe’ with it. To me anyway that dulls the impact of a film which is unfortunate in this case. Interesting how the Western and Western-themed/set films have so often been used to convey other kinds of messages. Or perhaps that’s just my perception.

    • Colin says:

      Interesting how the Western and Western-themed/set films have so often been used to convey other kinds of messages. Or perhaps that’s just my perception.

      I think that observation is spot on. The western is really the ideal blank canvas to use as the backdrop for all kinds of stories and allows filmmakers to weave in all kinds of themes that might otherwise be limited within other genres. For me anyway, this is the real beauty of the western – the way a primitive environment, largely through its open and untamed nature, can be used to highlight whatever message or idea one wants.

      • Margot Kinberg says:

        You put that very well, Colin – better than I could have. And you’re right, too. Little wonder that canvas has been used so many times.

        • I haven’t read much in the way of mystery fiction set in the West though I have been looking into of late as there seems to be a lot of great material out there, including lots of great novels by Bill Crider while Randy Johnson has lately been saying very nice things about the books of Peter Bowen.

      • I think you are right to use the word ‘primitive’ Colin – there is something potentially very primal, which here I think serves the potential of the story well.

    • Thanks Margot – the Western is of course the most ‘native’ of US genres and is perhaps the most flexible as a result. At the time the film was made it was the dominant genre on TV too of course so it was also a simple commercial lifebelt for subject that might otherwise have been deemed poor box office – which turned out to be the case here.

  2. Colin says:

    Fine piece Sergio. Sergeant Rutledge suffers in the way a lot of late period Ford movies do, meaning that there’s a kind of bluntness present that wasn’t apparent in his earlier work. If you read McBride’s biography of Ford (and it’s strongly recommended for any movie fan), he states that Ford, through a combination of growing frustration with the world around him and critics seeming to miss the points he wanted to make, decided to hammer his message home.

    The depiction of the court, in all its crudity, is part of this process – designed to show the shortcomings of the people sitting in judgement on Rutledge, and highlighting the accused’s inherent dignity at the same time. The former aspect is laid on a little thick I guess, and could likely have been achieved as well even if Ford had relied solely on Strode’s performance. This film, along with Cheyenne Autumn, saw Ford really trying to address the race issue, even if he did show the Apache less sympathetically here in order to build up the nobility of the Ninth Cavalry. However, I feel the movie succeeds best as a critique of racism – the mystery elements, while interesting enough, are very much a secondary or incidental aspect.

    Having said that, and again I refer to McBride, Ford does seem to come at the issue from an odd perspective. The film’s depiction of the Ninth parallels his earlier Cavalry trilogy by treating the black soldiers in a similar way to his Irish troops. That is, Ford sees their military service as a means they adopted to further their assimilation into American society. While this is a nice idea, it fails to take into account the significant differences in the hurdles these groups faced in trying to assimilate themselves.

    With Strode, and his key scene, Ford appears to have used the same trickery he employed to draw the performance he wanted from Victor McLaglen in The Informer – he got him roaring drunk the night before. When Strode woke up the next day with the mother of all hangovers, Ford tore him off a strip for this appalling behaviour. And then they shot the scene. The combination of feeling physically dreadful and the emotional rawness caused by his reprimand by the director meant that Strode was on edge. Add in the details of the scene in question, and Strode hit just the right note in his performance. Which illustrates Ford at his sly and manipulative best.

    • Thanks for that excellent analysis Colin – I re-read the sections in the McBride book before re-watching the film (as well as the tomes by Scott Eyman, Andrew Sinclair and Lindsay Anderson too if truth be told) and I agree, it is certainly a fascinating read, not least for what it reveals about the conservative viewpoint of co-screenwriter James Warner Bellah, which are apparently more marked in his novelisation (haven’t read that though). The descriptions of Ford’s manipulation and bullying don’t make for easy reading, do they? I hope to do a post on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance soon (got the blu-ray which looks spiffing despite a total lack of any of the extras from the previous DVD), a Westerns where I think the mystery element is better integrated (if a lot less central, at least seemingly). What struck me on re-watching was how anodyne the romantic element was, how strangely under-developed some of the characterisation, though I think Ford’s main points, the important ones, come through loud and clear. The main problem for me is the courtroom stuff actually because while I agree that the intent is satirical, it is done very crudely and robs it of any impact. I believe this was one of the first Ford movies I ever watched on TV and as a kid liked the surprise villain (and him getting smacked by Hunter too).

      • Colin says:

        Sergio, Ford’s treatment of actors on the set could sometimes be incredibly malicious. His behaviour with Strode was as nothing compared to the humiliation he heaped on Wayne – I’d need to go back and check but I think it was during the filming of They Were Expendable where it was especially marked. The thing is though, these actors came back to work for Ford, in some cases many times, and seemed to speak of him with great respect. He was a hard man with hard methods, but the results kind of speak for themselves.

        I’ve never read any of Bellah’s writing either, and it does sound like he was quite reactionary. Ford though was quite liberal and little of the apparently hardline conservatism of the source material comes through in the films which derived from Bellah’s work.

        Generally, the humour in Ford’s movies seems quite divisive. It’s always present, but it’s very broad and people either like it or loathe it. For the most part, I don’t have a problem with it, but I can understand how it can turn others off when the main thrust of a movie is quite serious.

        Going back to the point about the mystery element, not just in this film but in westerns in general. I think there’s a fairly strong connection between crime/mystery writing and westerns. Superficially, they may look like total opposites but there are many common aspects too. Many westerns contain some crime/mystery that needs to be cleared up, and there’s frequently the clash between the lawmen and the lawless – the fact that the law may not always be so well defined in westerns simply adds another interesting layer.

        • Thanks for all that, the msytery/Western nexus is a fascinating one. Most or anyway many of them do deal with crime and murder after all. I can’t really get my brain in gear at the mo but it would be nice to put together a decent list of Western mystery movies that really make the most of both genres – presumably some of the Boetticher and Delmer Daves films would count as would some of the Mann films too. Cill Crider wrote a terrific article about it here. I was always fascinated by the mixture of humour and grim drama in The Searchers – it does make the film very odd but it is a unique experience and I believe a great film, though one with clear flaws too. I’ve seen a lot of Ford’s films, even many of the more obscure ones from the 20s and 30s thanks to some extended seasons at the NFT many moons ago, and I think he made truly great and personal films. The worry about Ford’s byllying and the incessant belittling of cast and crew is that it is what today we would consider a form of abuse and the one thing we now know is that very often no one defeds the abuser more than the person who was abused – by picking on people with low esteem to begin with (it’s why he couldn’t really get away with it with the likes of Cagney or later James Stewart and Richard Widmark and was reduced to just making cracks abotu thier hairpieces). I wouldn’t want to over-empahsise this or useit to hijack the conversation though but I have to say, reading abotu that spect of things with regards to Strode was somethign I presonally found very upsetting – really made me wish someone had punched Ford’s lights out.

          • Colin says:

            I think it’s impossible to overstate the complexity of Ford’s character. he seemed to be a man continually at war with himself and that manifested itself in various ways. For me the telling thing, and this is more an observation than a defence, is the way his harsh behaviour didn’t seem to extend much beyond the movie set. He appears to have been a different man in different circumstances. Ward Bond was another whom Ford was pretty merciless with, and yet he was deeply upset at the news of Bond’s passing.
            Ford was very contradictory, and very Irish – a genuine enigma of a man.

          • I’ll bow to your superior sense of Irishness chum! I’m sure you are right though – and certainly, think what I like the most about The Searchers for instance is that sense of conrtadictory impulses at play and just how conflicted the Ethan character is (weird how Anderson didn’t really rate it).

          • Colin says:

            Nearly all Ford’s films are peppered with a fickle sense of logic, with characters frequently pulling in opposite directions. That’s part of the fascination I guess.

            It’s only relatively recently (say the last 25 years or so), or that’s the impression I get, that The Searchers has gained something like universal acceptance as a true masterpiece.

          • It may be that it finally chimed with the times by the end of the 70s (Paul Schrader says he based his Taxi Driver script partly on The Searchers and I suppose the ‘rescue’ of Iris sort of matches that of Debbie and Bickle is like a very (very) extreme version of Ethan Edcwards, though I know not every subscribes to this theory (or finds it useful). It’s brooding power and darkness is remarkable – and the bookending door shots just catch in my throat every time.

          • Colin says:

            It’s one of those movies that gets better the more you see it. It’s a real emotional roller-coaster that wrong foots and challenges viewer perceptions throughout.

          • And yet it also has these broad comic characters and even farcical elements (allegedly Ford was reading Wodehouse at the time). I keep thinking that Rutledge would have worked better with maybe James Stewart as Cantrell – and I like Hunter but perhaps an older (and better) actor might have served the story more.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I have never heard of this one. Jeffrey Hunter sure was cute but not much of an actor. He was best at playing Jesus, I think.

    • It’s definitely worth a look Patti, as it imprefect as it is. Yes, who could forget Jeffrey Hunter in “I was a teenage Jesus”! Always liked him as the original Captain Pike in the original Star Trek pilot actually (before Bruce Greenwood took over the role in the recent movie) – and another actor to die absurdly young.

  4. Nicely done. As chance would have it, I reviewed this film for today, too, and we seem to be of the same mind about it.

  5. John Ford and his films are complex and perplexing. You’re right about THE SEARCHERS gaining “classic” status by most movie critics. But even John Ford’s minor films are worth exploring.

  6. Yvette says:

    I’ve been meaning to post about this one, Sergio. I’m glad I didn’t cause you blew me out of the water. (Haven’t seen Ron’s post yet.) I have good memories of this film which I saw in the theater where it actually worked better than you might think.

    I love Woody Strode and the shots of him in that gorgeous blue shirt with that hat with the upturned flap make him look so iconic, so – dare I say it? – manly.. At least to an impressionable teen.

    Except for THE SEARCHERS and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON I was never a big fan of John Ford. In advance: I detested THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VANCE. I can never understand the affection so many people have for that movie.

    Another great post, Sergio. Well done.

    • Thanks Yvette, you are very kind – and sorry if Ron and I pipped you to the post (obviously we did this on purpose when we met at our evil lair last Thursday night). Strode is a fantastic physical presence in the film but does also get some moments to shine as an actor – I shall steel myself for brick bats when i post the review of Liberty Valance (easily the daftest name for a villain ever).

  7. Yvette says:

    P.S. I also love Jeffrey Hunter, though not in this film so much. Those eyes, those eyes!! Loved him as Captain Pike.

  8. Mike Doran says:

    I guess that you have to grow up among Irish-American relatives to really “get” John Ford.

    I grew up in such a family,and I can attest that if you were to take half the things that Irish family members say to each other at face value, you’d wonder why they all weren’t dead by each other’s hands years before.
    And that’s with or without alcoholic reinforcement.

    Ford had what James Cagney called “malice” – in that he didn’t suffer fools lightly, nor did he spare even close friends from a sometimes acid humor.

    Jimmy Stewart told the story on himself of how, during the making of Liberty Valance, Ford trapped him into saying something about Woody Strode’s performance that could be misinterpreted if quoted wrong.
    Ford finished by sayng something like “I wonder if Mr. Stewart even likes Negroes!”
    And when Ford walked away, a Ford crony said to Stewart “Thought you were going to get away this time, didn’t you?”

    Anyway, that’s my Irish-American take on this.
    Accept it as you will.
    Enjoyed the post.

    • Glad you liked the post Mike and thanks very much for all the feedback.

    • Colin says:

      Speaking as an Irishman rather than an Irish-American, can I just add that I reckon MIke’s assessment is very true. We do have a mean streak in us that comes out particularly around family and those very close. And yet, it’s not pure meanness either – that’s what I meant when I said before that Ford was very Irish. It’s hard to articulate to anyone who doesn’t have Irish blood, but there is a tendency to be toughest on those we care for most. It’s like we respect them so much we know they can take it. And yes I know, it’s complex and contrary as hell.

  9. Jeff Flugel says:

    Hey Sergio! Excellent and fair review of a deeply flawed but fascinating film (and aren’t nearly all of John Ford’s films fascinating?) I love me some Woody Strode (THE PROFESSIONALS is, after all, my favorite film) and he does good, empathic work here. He wasn’t an actor of great depth, but his physicality and expressive, soulful demeanor engender great The film is also really beautifully shot (as your screencaps attest).

    • Thanks for the kind words Jeff – I did enjoy viewing this one again, with its pluses and minuses coming through loud and clear! Stroud is certainly a bonus – not a performer of enormous range, but terrific here in a difficult role.

  10. Pingback: Top 25 Courtroom Movies | Tipping My Fedora

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