Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I ain't no swamp running n_____, I'm a man: Sergeant Rutledge

Poster for Sergeant Rutledge.  Note that Woody Strode's billing is eeny teeny.
I promised one final look at a John Ford movie sans John Wayne, and I chose Sergeant Rutledge.   It's a film unlike many of Ford's movies in that it examines a serious issue, racial prejudice. Embedded in the context of a more comfortable genre, the western, and produced smack in the middle of the civil rights era, he hits the right notes.  While Ford's effort is flawed, it is a good effort.  
Sergeant Rutledge quiets Mary Beecher as Apache warriors prowl nearby.
This 1960 courtroom drama is told through flashbacks and implicates highly respected Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode) in the 9th (colored) U.S. Cavalry Regiment in murder and rape.  These being the times they were, little consideration is given for the truth, and Rutledge, convinced he'll be lynched by the public flees Fort Linton.  At the same moment as the murder, young Apache warriors bolt the neighboring reservation and begin a reign of terror on nearby ranches.
A courtroom scene with Hunter as Cantrell, Strode as Rutledge and Young as Shattuck.
The story continues as Rutledge is captured by his commanding officer Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter).  When he rides out to assist a mortally wounded comrade, Rutledge sees his opportunity to escape, and he rides off only to uncover an Apache ambush set for his fellow troopers.  Rutledge returns to save his men, and ride back to the courtroom. The courtroom interactions between Cantrell as Rutledge's defense counsel and Capt. Shattuck (Carleton Young) as the prosecutor are steeped in the innuendo of racial bigotry.  It must have seemed quite unsettling for audiences at the time of the movie's release.  When Shattuck accuses Rutledge of returning to his unit to warn them of the Apache ambush Rutledge's response froze my blood:
It was because the Ninth Cavalry was my home, my real freedom, and my self-respect, and the way I was desertin' it, I wasn't . . . nuthin' worse than a swamp-runnin' nigger, and I ain't that! Do you hear me? I'm a man!
The story ends very Perry Mason-like when the post's sutler confesses to the crime, and Sergeant Rutledge is seen riding off with his command to the melody of "Captain Buffalo."
Jeffrey Hunter as Lt. Cantrell, Rutledge's defender.  Yawn.
 Of all the performances, Strode's is the most impressive.  He gives Rutledge dignity and respect, as well as a knowledge of how the world worked in 1880's.  There is no fawning, no victimhood. Sergeant Rutledge is indeed a man.  The other performances are less impressive.  Jeffrey Hunter is okay as Cantrell, but doesn't leave a lasting impression.  Constance Tower as Mary Beecher is just eye candy.  The most interesting supporting performance is by 76-year old Billie Burke as Cordelia Fosgate, wife of the president of court martial.  One can't have too much of Glinda the Good Witch.

Filmed in Monument Valley, the movie is beautiful.  Unfortunately it can't disguise some of its problems.  This is a serious movie with a serious theme.  Yet, Ford persisted in playing a good deal of it for laughs.  Lots of drinking jokes, lots of silly patter between the members of the court-martial are unfunny and unnecessary.  The lame attempt at romance between Cantrell and Beecher goes nowhere and is uninteresting.  The ending in which the true criminal is revealed feels tacked on and unsatisfying.  The portrayal of some of the black cavalrymen seems stereotyped and one dimensional. 

 Yet, for all that, Ford took on an important topic for its time.  He portrayed a subject, African Americans in the frontier U.S. Army which few people knew about in 1960.  Ford took Rutledge's character and together with Strode gave him dimension.  This is a difficult DVD to find.  It is only available as part of the John Ford Collection, but it is definitely worth your time.

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