“Sergeant Rutledge” is a John Ford Western / court room drama / war movie. It was filmed in Monument Valley and in a court room. Sergeant Rutledge (Woody Strode) is a member of the 9th Cavalry – the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Ford cast Strode in the title role because they were good friends. (When Ford was dying, Strode slept on his floor for four months as his caretaker.) But when you think about it, who else could have played the role? Jim Brown was still playing football and Sidney Poitier would have been miscast. Point is, there were not that many black actors that could anchor a war movie in 1960. Woody deserved this role and it came during the greatest streak of his career. “Pork Chop Hill” was released the year before and “Spartacus” came out the same year. Those were supporting roles, whereas “Sergeant Rutledge” is more meaty. However, he still does not get top billing. Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Tower appear above him in the billing. (Check out the poster and then push your jaw back up.) Shame on you, Hollywood marketing!
The movie opens with the rousing song “Captain Buffalo” (also the title of the novel the movie is based on and the working title of the movie). We jump straight into the trial. Flashback alert! It’s the young lawyer Lt. Cantrell (Hunter) vs. the veteran Capt. Shattuck (Carleton Young) with the crusty judge, Lt. Col. Fosgate (Willis Bouchey). Don’t recognize the actors’ names? If you’re of my generation or you like John Ford Westerns, you’ll recognize the faces. (And the stereotyped characters.) Throw in the obligatory romance between Cantrell and Mary (Tower) which begins with a bumpy stagecoach throwing them into each other’s arms, naturally. We have no clue what the trial is all about at first. We just know it has brought the entire local busybody society which makes for a very colorful courtroom until Fosgate evicts the women, including the head hen – his wife (played by Billie Burke in her last role). In a neat trick of cinematography, the first flashback comes via a fade around the person testifying.
|Sergeant Rutledge reporting for railroading|
It turns out that the trial involves Rutledge raping and murdering his commanding officer’s daughter Lucy and then killing him before escaping. The flashbacks occur as each witness adds to the story. Mary is not only romantically involved with Cantrell, but also is a witness because she encountered the on-the-lam Rutledge at a deserted railway station. Will he rape the white woman? Shame on you, 1960s audience, for even considering that! In fact, he saves her from Indians. Take that, racists! Mrs. Fosgate is called to remind us of how it was a male dominated society except for the fact that after you shut your wife up in public, you could expect to pay for it.
The plot manages to get some Indian fighting in. Cantrell takes a squad to the station to arrest Rutledge and they run into trouble on the return. Rutledge saves another’s life so even if you are moronic enough to think he’s guilty, he’s a hero. As far as why he was fighting for the same whites who would assume he committed a heinous crime, he says “it ain’t the white man’s war, we’re fighting to make us proud”. Rutledge takes the opportunity offered by the skirmish to escape, but returns to warn of an Indian ambush. Why did you come back? I ain’t a “swamp runnin’ nigger”. (Sergeant Major Rawlins used that phrase when he reamed Tripp in “Glory”.) I won’t give away the too pat conclusion, but I will tell you that Cantrell is a better lawyer than Atticus Finch.
|Cantrell and his mother - oops, his love interest.|
“Sergeant Rutledge” has its flaws. You’ve seen all the characters before. The setting is a John Ford fort with its denizens. But kudos to the black skin of some. The film is Ford’s commendable effort to bring some recognition to the Buffalo Soldiers and to throw in a civil rights theme as well. As a history lesson it is shaky. For some reason, the screenwriter decided to use the 9th Cavalry when it was the 10th that was stationed in Arizona. That is just nitpicking, however. A bit more puzzling is Cantrell’s explanation that the Indians called the blacks “buffalo soldiers” because of their coats when most historians feel the name was a reference to their buffalo-like nappy hair. In spite of this and the fact that is not meant to be a documentary, the movie is still better than the terrible “Buffalo Soldiers” (1997). Speaking of which, that Danny Glover made-for-TV movie, had the African-Americans having empathy for their dark skinned foes. “Sergeant Rutledge” has been criticized by some for depicting Rutledge and his comrades as being just like the white soldiers in their attitude toward the savages. This is actually accurate as the Buffalo Soldiers showed no enlightened attitude.
The movie is a forgotten gem mainly because of Woody Strode. This is probably his best role and it plays to his minimalist acting style. It was the role he was proudest of. He is stoically charismatic as Rutledge. He behaves as you would expect a black sergeant in a white army to behave. When asked why he ran away from the murder scene, he responds that he had “walked into something none of us can handle – white woman business.” As you can see, he gets some cracking dialogue. Being a courtroom drama, the movie is dialogue driven, but there is some well-placed action to keep fans of Indian-killing happy. The rest of the cast is adequate. Hunter does well in a stock role, but Bloom is too old for Mary. There is some nice humor – part of it from the drinking habits of Army officers and part from Mrs. Fosgate. The cinematography by Bert Glennon (who did “Stagecoach” and “Rio Grande” for Ford) is excellent. Lots of through the doorway shots and effective use of Monument Valley. The fade to flashback is a neat effect. The flashbacks work as a device and the plot is unpredictable until a shocking, but pat ending.
Watch it for Woody.
GRADE = B+