I’ve been waiting for Sergeant Rutledge (1960) for a few years now, one of John Ford’s apologetic films for past on-screen depictions, this time focusing on African-Americans who when on-screen had previously been given the role of the idiot, the butler, the naive slave, anything but up-standing citizen who can contribute to society. Ultimately the fall guy and the butt of the jokes. It wasn’t really until Sidney Poitier came along, did the depiction of Black characters start to change, or just those he depicted, given his pride and strength in each role during the 1950’s – 60’s. Sadly even here in Sergeant Rutledge their depiction isn’t that much better really. Even from Ford who was trying to right his own wrongs which go back as far as playing a member of the KKK in Birth of a Nation (1915). Guilt he was hoping to rid himself of, I can’t really see many Black characters in his past film, a white world as depicted in Ford’s West. Of course he’s not alone in his contribution to the genre.
However is showing that he’s willing to pay his dues, taking on a court-martial of a black Sergeant whose accused of rape and double murder. There is even some historical fact in there, a segregated troop of Black soldiers, however their depiction still has hints of stereotype slip through. That’s not to take away from otherwise seen as upstanding soldiers who follow the chain of command, it’s an admirable attempt for its time. Not surprisingly the main character – Rutledge (Woody Strode) is relegated to a supporting role credit, when the whole film revolves around his actions. I remember being similarly annoyed by his credit ranking in The Professionals (1966), another symptom of racism in Hollywood. It’s alright to have them on-screen but give them too much credit that would lead beyond tokenism towards fully rounded roles that rely on stronger parts, Strode’s in this film is far stronger, maybe his strongest role of his career.
Being one of Ford’s apologies, 4 if you count The Searchers (1956) which confronts the racism that can consume a man, the depiction of the other is still classical. Jumping to Two Rode Together (1961) which picks up where The Searchers left things, answering the hard questions of what happens to the returned captive, tainted by the others blood, time among them, how society reacts to the captive, do they react as the Jorgensen’s did, an open embrace, or do they fear them, reject them and leave them to return to the safety of the other. It’s a talkie heavy film that debates all these questions, whilst Ford’s last effort is a grander affair – Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which depicts the Trail of Tears, it’s a brave film from a man who defines the genre, who has seen the shape it has taken, overlooking the past, hoping to add his last page of revisionism. Only really let down by the comedy that is weirdly inserted, thought to be necessary to break up the darker themes,
Turning then to his second apology in more detail we have another talking heavy, a courtroom western, which have never been the strongest in the genre, mulling over the facts of the case before judgements delivered. Thankfully it’s broken up by the use of flashbacks, to build up not just the generals picture of what happened, but for the audience to see what Black officers are capable of. Ford’s also quite at home, returning again to Monument Valley, which validates this as part of the myth, his myth of the West, Black Westerns are rare, such as Buck and the Preacher (1972) which is more revisionist in tone yet more of a blaxploitation than a true Western.
The trial begins without even seeing Rutledge who is only spoken about, his guilt is almost a certainty in the eyes of one Captain Shattuck (Carleton Young) who sees more the colour of his skin and the negative connotations that go with it. Whereas Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) believes far different, you could say he has a personal interest in being the defence for the accused. The first evidence is given by a semi Ford regular Constance Towers as Mary Beecher whose painted as a victim at the hands of Rutledge, the lights are lowered to focus on her testimony which is soon revealed to be more enlightening when she’s allowed to continue, we see a soldier who comes to her rescue from a common enemy – the Apache who have killed already. Rutledge‘s wounded by a gunshot, needing to rest, but still carries out his duty to the civilian. Would a murderer and rapist be capable of doing that?
The evidence stacks up allowing you to builds up and picture, even doubt starts to creep in, did he really commit rape and murder, the audiences tested, more so the original intended audience of the early sixties who was very much divided, just as the civil rights movement was starting up. This film is a precursor to the thinking that a man shouldn’t be judged on the colour of his skin, the connotations that are sadly still very much alive in the States.
Ford does his best to bring this very confined Western alive. The courtroom is predominantly white, who’ve been predisposed to judge Rutledge as guilty. Whilst those in the Black troop look up to the first Sergent, the top man, top dog, he’s almost raised to a legendary status for his actions on and off the screen, respected for his ideals which comes in the form of a song that we get at the beginning and end of the film. He’s part of filmic cavalry history, this is how Ford wants to frame Rutledge and the others as heroes up their with the likes of Kirby and Yorke (John Wayne). However it’s a hard fight due to the material which does drag which is due to the restraints of legal dialogue which you have to pay attention to. Characters are strength which doesn’t fail Ford who are still rounded with their foibles, most notable between Col. Otis Fosgate (Willis Bouchey) and his wife Mrs. Cordelia Fosgate (Billie Burke), the old married couple constrained by rank, position and racial assumptions.
Ultimately it’s a much forgotten film due to the rarity of the Black troop, there have been others since celebrating the forgotten, part of Ford’s admiration for American servicemen. In-terms of apologies, its heavy handed at times, a different take on the ideas might have been more successful. Its a product of it’s time and he was fighting under those politics. I’m glad I’ve finally seen the film, building up a bigger picture of a director I admire, in terms of his myth it adds another page which is usually turned too fast to see his stronger work.