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Synopsis: Braxton Rutledge, a respected sergeant in the all-black Ninth Cavalry, is brought before a court-martial on charges of rape and murder. Lieutenant Tom Cantrell arrives to defend him and calls upon a variety of witness, including Mary Beecher, a young woman whom Sergeant Rutledge saved from an Apache attack upon a train depot. Sergeant Skidmore, one of his fellow soldiers in the regiment, similarly testifies to his courage. However, Rutledge is reluctant to enlist anyone's help because he fears that the inflammatory nature of the charges--the rape of a white girl and the murder of both her and her father--will make it impossible for him to get a fair trial and will taint those associated with him. Initially, his fears appear to be realized when he is faced with a race-baiting prosecuting attorney and an angry mob of townspeople in the courtroom.
John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge (1960) uses the framework of a courtroom drama to examine a fascinating and under-represented subject: the Ninth Cavalry Regiment. Like the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments, The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments were composed of African-American enlisted men and commanded by both African-Americans and whites. They were established just after the Civil War and included many recently freed slaves. (Tellingly, when Sergeant Rutledge is searched in the film, they find a document certifying his release from slavery.) While there is widespread disagreement about the source of their nickname "buffalo soldiers," the film adopts the explanation that it comes from the buffalo furs they wore in winter. Known for their skill and courage, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments played a major role in the Indian Wars during the latter half of the 19th century. The film's working title was Captain Buffalo, which is also the title of the song played during the opening credits.
John Ford has been widely criticized for his reliance on ethnic stereotypes-especially in his representations of Native Americans. In that regard, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) are often considered Ford's late-career attempts to redress this problem in his earlier Westerns. However, his earlier films are more complexly layered than is often acknowledged, and a film like Sergeant Rutledge has its own, relatively minor limitations-especially its reliance on a white romance to frame the central narrative. Note, for instance, how Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers appear above Woody Strode in the credits. Despite this ploy to appeal to a mainstream audience, the film was not entirely successful either at the box office or with critics, though Variety praised Strode's work in the main role and Howard Thompson of the New York Times described the film as "thoughtful" and "well acted." The
Sergeant Rutledge remains notable as the first major studio Western to cast an African-American actor in the lead. It is also quite perceptive and daring for the way it links racism with fear of black male sexuality. One often-cited example of this can be found in the scene when Miss Beecher is stranded at the train station. Rutledge appears from nowhere and covers her mouth with his hand, ordering her not to scream. An extreme close-up of his hand plays upon the audience's unconscious fears, so that as the narrative unfolds they can reflect on their own prejudices as well as those of the characters in the film.
Without excusing Ford's use of ethnic stereotypes in other films, it is important to keep in mind that they were part of a broader tendency by Ford to construct his narratives out of sharply defined social types, something that Ford learned from his early days as a filmmaker in the silent era. This storytelling technique also has its roots in older narrative forms such as 19th century realist prose and the stage melodrama. (Stagecoach , for instance, is indirectly inspired by Guy de Maupassant's famous short story "Boule de suif.") Other social types commonly represented in Ford's films include the busybody "respectable" women in town, the alcoholic, and the duty-bound hero. Thus, the drama in Ford's films frequently arises from conflicts between the different and sometimes contradictory values that these various social types hold. The film scholar Charles Ramrez Berg further emphasizes Ford's identity as an Irish-American, which was in fact a widely denigrated minority during much of Ford's childhood and early adulthood. He argues that Ford's Westerns juxtapose the intolerant WASP mainstream with the protagonists, who often come from what he calls "ethnic margin" or are otherwise marginalized by society. He further maintains that in general Ford's treatment of minority groups is often more "richly textured" and "nuanced" than is often recognized.
The lead actor Woody Strode (1914-1994) received a Golden Globe nomination for his smaller role in Spartacus (1960), but it was Sergeant Rutledge which really established him as a serious actor, and it was the role of which he remained proudest throughout his life. In his autobiography Goal Dust [sic], Strode recalled that Ford guided his performance closely, literally acting out the part for him in rehearsal. At the same time, Ford pushed Strode's emotional limits in order to elicit a more visceral performance. The night before they were scheduled to shoot the big confrontation between him and the prosecuting attorney, Ford invited Strode to his son Pat's house and encouraged him to get roaring drunk. The next day on the set, Ford berated him in front of the other crew for drinking the night before until Strode reached the breaking point. The actor recalled: "He knew how to pluck me like a harp. [...] I almost had a nervous breakdown doing Sergeant Rutledge, but it helped me become an actor." At the same time, Ford photographed the Rutledge character to emphasize both his larger-than-life physical presence and his innate heroism. This is especially evident in the scene where Rutledge returns to help the Cavalry when they are attacked by Apaches. Strode recalled: "You never seen a negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before. I had the greatest Glory Hallelujah ride across the Pecos River [...] I carried the whole black race across that river." Strode subsequently became one of Ford's few very close friends and appeared in other films by the director such as Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and 7 Women (1966).
Another distinctive aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is its color cinematography by Bert Glennon (1893-1967). Perhaps best known for the luminous The Scarlet Empress (1934) and his remarkable work with John Ford during the late Thirties - including The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) - Glennon worked with Ford only rarely during the ensuing years and spent much of the Fifties working on various television series. Beyond the picturesque Monument Valley setting, Sergeant Rutledge stands out for the distinctive effects Glennon achieves in places by combining low-key lighting with color film. The best example of this is the extended scene between Constance Towers and Woody Strode in the train depot toward the beginning of the film. Another unusual effect is the deliberately stylized device of lowering the lights in the courtroom to signal the start of some flashbacks.
Director: John Ford
Producers: Willis Goldbeck, Patrick Ford
Script: James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck
Director of Photography: Bert Glennon
Art Director: Eddie Imazu
Film Editor: Jack Murray
Costume Design: Marjorie Best
Music: Howard Jackson; the song "Captain Buffalo" Mack David (lyrics) and Jerry Livingston (music).
Cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Lt. Tom Cantrell), Constance Towers (Mary Beecher), Billie Burke (Cordelia Fosgate), Woody Strode (Sergeant Braxton Rutledge), Juano Hernandez (Sgt. Matthew Luke Skidmore), Willis Bouchey (Col. Otis Thornton Fosgate), Carleton Young (Capt. Shattuck), Judson Pratt (Lt. Mulqueen), William Henry (Capt. Dwyer), Walter Reed (Capt. MacAfee), Fred Libby (Chandler Hubble), Toby Michaels (Lucy Dabney), Charles Seel (Dr. Eckner), Chuck Hayward (Capt. Dickinson), Mae Marsh (Nellie), Cliff Lyons (Sam Beecher).
C-112m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by James Steffen
Berg, Charles Ramirez. "The Margin as Center: The Multicultural Dynamics of John Ford's Westerns." In John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era, 75-101. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2001.
Eyman, Scott. Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Review of Sergeant Rutledge. New York Times, May 26, 1960.
Review of Sergeant Rutledge. Variety, April 8, 1960.
Strode, Woody and Sam Young. Goal Dust. Lanham, New York and London: Madison Books, 1990.