“It’s alright for Mr. Lincoln to say we’re free, but that ain’t so. Maybe someday, but not yet.” – Sergeant Rutledge
Sergeant Rutledge rarely gets talked about with the greatest westerns or even the greatest westerns of John Ford. Without getting overly effusive with my praise, it should be heralded as an underrated gem worthy of far more scrutiny. History is more than on its side. The movie preceded To Kill a Mockingbird by at least a year while examining similar themes of a black man on trial for rape, albeit through the specific settings (ie. Monument Valley) and lens of its director.
As purely a courtroom drama, it’s probably more engrossing because the other film is just as impactful for its relationship outside the court’s walls. The familial relationship is the core of the story. In Sergeant Rutledge, Ford gladly builds up the atmosphere of the courtroom while allowing it to bleed out and color the rest of his narrative, set against the backdrop of apache raids.
Willis Bouchey stands out as the demonstrative head of the court marshall tribunal, Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate. The turn might be one of his most substantial and enjoyable roles on the big screen. Not only did he have an extraordinary career on the small screen, but he was an often called upon member of John Ford’s stable of actors. His foray in this picture makes it plain enough. Every time he asks for “water” or scolds his wife, it provides instant texture.
Because his wife, Billie Burke, is one of the goody-two-shoes in the peanut gallery, prepared to watch the court case in their finest clothes with their mouths agape and their eyes agog. Meanwhile, the rowdiest fellows stand impatiently in the back smoking their pipes and raising a brouhaha. The judge has enough gumption to clear them all out.
There’s no doubt Ford is in control of the courtroom scenes, from its initial clearing to the subsequent stage lighting to highlight witnesses on the stand. It’s quite extraordinary rather like when Hithcock worked through The Paradine Case breaking the stagnant sequences up with purposeful moments. These are bulked up through substantial flashbacks where we are allowed to invest in the drama firsthand, becoming involved more in more in something that feels like a traditional murder mystery.
The first to take the stand is Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), a quivering young woman who caught Sergeant Rutledge in a compromising and nevertheless now comes to intercede on his behalf, not to accuse him. She recounts how, left in a deserted town, it was the honorable soldier who willfully saved her life.
Next, Fosgate’s own wife (Burke) takes the stand with her usual tittering mannerisms, relaying the last time she saw spunky young Lucy Davenport alive, before she was brutally raped. She came to the general store and shared a conversation with Rutledge. This was no surprise as he was the man who taught her how to ride a horse and practically raised her. To the eyes of all those on the outside looking in, it leads them to burn with indignation.
The dialogue throughout is often curt if not altogether mundane, even overly twee in the lightweight moments, but the scenario itself and Ford’s interaction with it, make it worthwhile viewing. It’s what he’s able to build up around them, devolving into a fairly unheard of exploration of racial tensions on the range. When it gets talky and the message is made obvious, it loses its impact — looking all the more of its time.
What builds a lasting impression are the images — watching the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers — appreciating their discipline and fortitude. Surely seeing these representations say enough about how American society treats non-whites, both in life and on celluloid. They are deserving of the same amount of human dignity and not having the burden of proof thrust upon them merely based on the color of their skin.
Because this is what it comes down to. Sergeant Rutledge (Woody Strode) is on trial to be hung, accused of rape and murder. This is not a pleasant affair whatever the outcome might be. As Jefferey Hunter headlines another Ford Western (following The Searchers), he holds a crucial stake in the case as both one of Rutledge’s superiors but also his defense counsel, and, ultimately, his friend.
Woody Strode might be buried in the credits, but there’s no doubting his prominence at the heart of the drama. It’s his stalwart characterization that allows it to stands out from the crowd of westerns from the era — and in Ford’s own lineage — because it gives him a place of cinematic significance. One scene, in particular, is easy to call upon.
In the dead of night, there’s a refrain of “Captain Buffalo” as Sergeant Rutledge stands on the ridge, the moon in the foreground behind him, looking down at his men; it’s only a brief aside, but something in me stopped still because these are the kinds of moments, if you’re lucky, you’ll see in a Ford picture. How do we quantify them? They’re a feeling, a sense, speaking to so much of who we are and what our country means. It’s history, both rich and also riddled with honor and disgrace. I look at Rutledge and I’m proud and a moment later ashamed for how a man such as this is treated.
Woody Strode was used quite well by John Ford on several occasions; he gained some repute for his role in Spartacus; but to my knowledge, he never had a role more extraordinary than that of Sergeant Rutledge. It’s indicative of the industry that Strode — once a football star alongside the likes of Jackie Robinson — was never a bigger movie star.
Here is a picture that allows him the opportunity to show his talents, and he does so with unsurpassed strength and dignity. Captain Buffalo, as eulogized, is a mythical figure surpassing John Henry in his larger-than-life gravitas, and Woody Strode is as close as we could have gotten to seeing him in the flesh.
Part of this is the man himself, quiet yet formidable, and of course, Pappy Ford does him the greatest service. He allows him to be great and sets him up in such a sympathetic yet empowering light.
I’m glad we have this movie, and I’m delighted Ford had the guts enough to make it. Woody Strode deserved many more pictures like this one. For that matter, so did the eminent Juano Hernadez and all these men. It has to do with what this film represents.
We rarely get to see eulogies to the Buffalo Soldiers and this one is as good as anything I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s captured as only John Ford can do it — enamored with the American myth — while still beholden to our own hardened reality. To come to terms with both is one of Ford’s great gifts.