Sergeant Rutledge (1960): Starring Woody Strode

“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.

4/5 Stars

No Name on The Bullet (1959): America’s Hero Becomes a Villain

Nonameonthebullet.jpg“We might be the only two honest men in town.” – Audie Murphy as John Gant

Audie Murphy had the added reputation of being a hero in real life, and so it hardly hurt him in his efforts to portray valorous protagonists on the big screen. However, despite being a fairly humble effort, No Name on The Bullet deserves some acknowledgment for giving Murphy the chance to be on the other side of the spectrum.

He’s introduced in the picture with foreboding music. It’s the only character cue we need to go with his dark clothes. He’s no good guy. Soon he’s taken a room at the local hotel and his very presence has gotten the whole town buzzing apprehensively.

Initially, it feels like a somewhat corny setup hinging on melodrama. Although Murphy’s by no means over-the-hill, and though I’ve only seen him in a couple films, he was never really a compelling lead.

Early on, his youthfulness aided him as did the mystique of his extraordinary war record. If anything, he is a living testament to courage not being solely predicated on imposing physical prowess. Whereas the westerns of old certainly were, and he does not meet one’s typical impression of a gunslinger. His part as John Gant, though menacing and curt, hardly can be considered intriguing at first glance. He feels like a walking trope.

But as he settles in, everything gets more and more engrossing. In fact, the movie’s increasingly deceptive because his part gets better and better the more involved the townsfolk become.

The implications are that his very name strikes fear in every man because he is a notorious assassin who has killed upwards of 20 or 30 men in the past. However, he’s never met a conviction of any kind because he always goads his targets into fighting back. The question remains: Who is he after? The subsequent punchline seems obvious. Someone is going to be dead by the time he leaves town.

The local Sheriff (Willis Bouchey) is a decent man who nevertheless feels helpless. If Gant doesn’t do anything, there’s no law against sticking around town. All he and his deputy can do is keep an eye on the fort.

It’s this unsettling, restless stalemate of the narrative conceit that proves to be the movie’s bedrock. There is also an innate reminder No Name on The Bullet functions very much as a morality play. In terms of story, Gant is the stimulus in the town causing the dark predilections to come to the surface or, more comically, the scurrying rats who want to confess their shading dealings.

Because his mere presence sends shock waves through the community. The tension comes with not knowing who he is actually after. I even momentarily thought (like The Gunfighter) maybe he’s simply looking for a respite. Not so…

Despite the antagonism, Gant does find one benevolent soul (Charles Drake) who doesn’t hold his reputation or vocation against him, at least not initially. It’s easy since a certain amount of ignorance proves blissful.

Their mutual respect within the picture is informed by the real-life relationship between Murphy and Drake. Murphy considered the other man his best friend and used his pull to get Drake in many of his movies so they could work together. It’s not altogether magical, but there’s no denying it helps their rapport.

Luke Canfield (Drake) is son of the blacksmith while simultaneously filling in as the local doctor. He is pledged to be married to the perky daughter (Joan Evans) of one of his ailing patients. There is little doubt he has a stake in keeping the peace. Even as they come to understand each other, there’s a sense that he and Gant remain diametrically opposed. Still, the gunman suggests they aren’t actually all that different.

They commence a literal chess match that becomes a pretense for the town’s many issues. They trade personal philosophies, with everything that happens around them informing their views of humanity. In the wake of their meeting, the real games begin.

With the sheriff’s powers in question, the invalid judge proposes two alternatives: either vigilante justice — the western standard of mob rule — or let Gant kill his man. Then, everything would be settled.

Though hesitant, Canfield finally resolves to get at the head of the mob to try and ensure no further bloodshed will take place. As town physician, this is his main prerogative. As a trained killer with a job to do, Gant has other ideas, even if he’s not looking to take the other man down with him. They appear to be two immovable forces at a kind of impasse.

The final twist is a lovely bit of, shall we say, poetic justice. The story is served best by an open ending because this is not a distillation of reality; it is a western parable of good vs evil, human corruption, and ultimately, some form of instinctual integrity.

Thinking about it in retrospect, it really is a fine stroke of inspiration to turn America’s greatest WII hero into a villain. It sends a distinct message to your audience: We must look inside ourselves and consider our own character.

Do we stand up to scrutiny? Are the heroes we prop up all that different than our villains or do we often choose to see what we want to? For that matter, are we very far removed from those that we conveniently categorize as villains?

Now 14 years after the end of WWII, you might say America was in a place to start coming to terms with its specters. The 50s were still an age of innocence, but we were on the cusp of something far bleaker. No Name on The Bullet is a portent for a future generation of westerns. Those bearing the mark of a far muddier morality.

3.5/5 Stars