Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Another Look: SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (1960 movie)

This widely unheralded, underrated film deserves to be ranked much higher than it generally is on any list of fine Westerns. Hell, a start would be to see it included at all on such lists. The fact that it was directed by the legendary John Ford, filmed in Monument Valley, and included in its cast a number of actors from Ford's famous "stock company" make it all the more curious why it gets so overlooked. What's more, for it's time it was quite a courageous movie to make --- featuring a black man in the title role, and dealing with issues of race and rape and recognizing the presence of black cavalrymen ("buffalo soldiers" they were called) on the Western frontier.
Despite its story being told against the backdrop of a frontier fort in Arizona (manned by the aforementioned 9th Cavalry "buffalo soldiers"), SERGEANT RUTLEDGE is not part of Ford's famous "cavalry trilogy" (FORT APACHE, RIO GRANDE, and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON). Highly regarded as those films are --- a bit more so than they deserve, if you ask me --- in my humble opinion RUTLEDGE is superior to any of them.

Woody Strode plays the title character, First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, who is accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman, daughter of the fort's commanding officer, as well as killing the major himself. The story is told mostly in a series of flashbacks cutting away from the sergeant's military trial. Circumstantial evidence (i.e., the fact he was seen fleeing the scene of the crime and then subsequently deserted the fort), has Rutledge all but convicted even before the trial starts.
His only hope lies in the hands of Lt. Cantrell (played by Jeffrey Hunter), the officer who tracked Rutledge down and then assumed the role of his defense lawyer for the trial. At first, even Cantrell has some doubts about his client's innocence. But then, after Rutledge has been captured and is being returned to stand trial, he escapes once more only to turn around and warn Cantrell and the rest of the patrol of an awaiting Apache ambush, effectively saving their lives even though it puts him back in chains after the Indian attack is successfully repelled.
Gradually, the case against Rutledge is chipped away and his acquittal is ultimately gained when the fort's sutler breaks down on the stand and admits to the rape and double murder.

As we expect from a John Ford film, the staging and cinematography is wonderfully done, with the rich colors and textures of Monument Valley beautifully presented. And the acting of the players is above average at every level.

Unfortunately, some other things we've come to expect from Ford are there, too --- the almost religious devotion to strong drink; the awkward comedy moments, specifically in this case the annoying, high-pitched silliness of Billie Barnes, who incredibly receives third billing! (still, thankfully, there are some bits that do work); and the bold, booming outbursts of song often at odd moments.  And although the strength and nobility of the Sergeant Rutledge character --- even in the face of the prejudice against his skin color --- carries much of the movie's power, it also is somewhat diminished by Ford's tendency to be a bit overly sentimental and heavy-handed at times. Nevertheless, the Ford touch works far more often than not and the end result, as I said at the start, is a fine piece of work.

Final note on Woody Strode: Aside from his impressive overall body of work in films and the particularly strong acting job in SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (he also did noteworthy work in SPARTACUS this same year, 1960), Strode was quite an interesting man who in many ways (largely without being given proper credit) was on the cutting edge of breaking racial barriers. He served in the army during WWII; became a world-class decathlete; was an all-star football player at UCLA (along with Jackie Robinson, who would go on to break the color barrier in major league baseball); played pro ball for the Los Angeles Rams; and worked the pro wrestling circuit for a number of years in the era of Gorgeous George. He also practiced martial arts most of his adult life.
The son of a Creek-Blackfoot-black father and black-Cherokee mother, his first wife (until her death in 1980) was Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa, a descendant of Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii.
If any of this sounds interesting, I urge you to explore and learn more about this fascinating man.

As for SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, if you've never seen it or haven't seen it in a while, I likewise urge you to check it out. You'll be glad you did.


Ron Scheer said...

Nicely observed and well summed up. Thanks, bud. Race is an awkward fit in the western, which is chiefly about white settlement and domination of the West. Ford tries to make this story of racial hysteria palatable for his audience by portraying Strode as superhuman. It's an honorable effort in an often dishonest medium.

David Cranmer said...

Always liked Strode and have started an article on his contribution to westerns.

Cap'n Bob said...

I liked it on two counts--the cavalry setting and the courtroom action. Both are favorites of mine. I'm also a big admirer of Strode. Remember him in The Professionals?

But wait! You gave away the ending without a SPOILER ALERT. For shame. :)