|Directed by||John Ford|
|Written by||James Warner Bellah|
|Produced by||Willis Goldbeck|
|Edited by||Jack Murray|
|Music by||Howard Jackson|
John Ford Productions
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
Sergeant Rutledge is a 1960 American Technicolor Western film directed by John Ford and starring Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Towers, Woody Strode and Billie Burke. Six decades later, the film continues to attract attention because it was one of the first mainstream films in the U.S. to treat racism frankly and to give a starring role to an African-American actor. In 2017 critic Richard Brody observed that "The greatest American political filmmaker, John Ford, relentlessly dramatized, in his Westerns, the mental and historical distortions arising from the country’s violent origins—including its legacy of racism, which he confronted throughout his career, nowhere more radically than in Sergeant Rutledge."
The film starred Strode as Sergeant Rutledge, a black first sergeant in a colored regiment of the United States Cavalry. At a U.S. Army fort in the early 1880s, he is being tried by a court-martial for the rape and murder of a white girl as well as for the murder of the girl's father, who was the commanding officer of the fort. The story of these events is recounted through several flashbacks.
The film revolves around the fictional court-martial of 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Strode) of the 9th U.S. Cavalry in 1881. At the time, the United States Army maintained four colored regiments, including the 9th Cavalry. His defense is handled by Lt. Tom Cantrell (Hunter), who is also Rutledge's troop officer. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, expanding the testimony of witnesses as they describe the events following the murder of Rutledge's Commanding Officer, Major Custis Dabney, and the rape and murder of Dabney's daughter Lucy, for which Rutledge is the accused.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that the first sergeant raped and murdered the girl and then killed his commanding officer. Worse still, Rutledge deserts after the killings. Ultimately, he is tracked down and arrested by Lt. Cantrell. At one point, Rutledge escapes from captivity during an Indian raid, but later, he voluntarily returns to warn his fellow cavalrymen that they are about to face an ambush, thus saving the troop. He is then brought back in to face the charges and the prejudices of an all-white military court.
Eventually he is found not guilty of the rape and murder of the girl when a local white man breaks down under questioning and admits that he raped and murdered the girl.
The screenplay for Sergeant Rutledge was original and was written by the film's co-producer, Willis Goldbeck, and by James Warner Bellah. Bellah has written that he and Goldbeck interested John Ford in directing a film after a screenplay was completed. Bellah had previously written the stories on which John Ford based his "cavalry trilogy" of films: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). The screenplay was subsequently adapted by Bellah for a novel of the same name.
Parts of the film were shot in Monument Valley and the San Juan River at Mexican Hat in Utah.
As illustrated in the poster image above, for the 1960 domestic theatrical release of the film the theater patrons were warned that they could not be seated during the final 10 minutes of the film in order to preserve its suspense. The film did poorly in U.S. theaters. Scott Eyman summarized: "Sergeant Rutledge is a film of considerable formal beauty about the bonds between a black band of brothers. Not surprisingly, it did miserably at the domestic box office, grossing $784,000. It did considerably better overseas, grossing $1.7 million, but was probably still a marginal financial failure."
In Spain, the film was shown under the title of El Sargento Negro (The Black Sergeant), and in Italy under the title I dannati e gli eroi (The Damned and the Heroes).
Black Classic Movies mentions that this is one of the few American films of the 1960s to have a Black man in a leading role and the first mainstream western to do so. Lucia Bozzola at All Movie gave it four out of five stars and mentioned "the expressionistic use of light and color, particularly during Rutledge's encounter with a sympathetic female witness, points to the repressed sexual terror that drives the case against him" and praised Strode's performance. Jonathan Rosenbaum at Chicago Reader considered the film to be "effective", but "slightly long" and mentioned that it is "one of Ford's late efforts to treat minority members with more respect than westerns usually did." Time Out agreed that the film is "often pigeonholed as one of Ford's late trio of guiltily amends-making movies" and although it praised it, it concluded that "he can't confront the cultural fear of miscegenation that mechanises [the movie], only its distorted expression."
In Mike Grost's anthology presenting Ford's movies, the film was described as being one of his best, but also one of his most underrated. It also mentioned how the film mocked traditional femininity as being an "artificial construct". TV Guide said the film "is a fascinating, detailed look at racism" and mentioned how some characters are directly racist, while others suffer from "repressed racism". Variety said that the movie has an "intriguing screenplay which deals frankly, if not too deeply, with racial prejudice in the post-Civil War era." The Movie Scene was more mixed, saying it is an "interesting movie because it is slightly different to what you expect from a John Ford western", but mentioned that it "is not the intelligent courtroom drama of say Anatomy of a Murder", but that it instead relies on Ford's customary use of the flashback.
A region 1 DVD was released in 2006 in the United States as part of a set of movies directed by John Ford. In 2016 the film's DVD was released individually. A VHS tape had been released in 1988.
Ford's message and his means of delivering it create problems. But his agenda and its relevance to film history are significant. The film itself may not provide the most memorable moments in the director's career, but it is an important contribution to our understanding of race in the 1960s.
Ford can show us an innocent victim of American racism, and stress in courtroom flashbacks his heroic credentials in white man's uniform, but he can never make the leap to offering us a black who actually rejects the role of honorary white.
Sergeant Rutledge was the first mainstream western to cast an African-American as the central heroic figure. There already had been other westerns with black characters--from the 1923 silent The Bull-Dogger to Bronze Buckaroo (1938) and Harlem on the Prairie (1939)--but these films were low-budget, all-black productions that were never screened for white audiences. Not only was Sergeant Rutledge produced by a major studio, but also it was directed by one of filmdom's most-respected talents, Ford.
Give John Ford a troop of cavalry, some hostile Indians, a wisp of story and chances are the director will come galloping home with an exciting film. Sergeant Rutledge provides an extra plus factor in the form of an offbeat and intriguing screenplay which deals frankly, if not too deeply, with racial prejudice in the post-Civil War era.
Ford, of course, is most famous for his Westerns, and one of the best of them, “Sergeant Rutledge,” from 1960 (July 19), set in Arizona in 1881, stars Woody Strode in the title role.
Bert Glennon's photography makes it Ford's most expressionistic color film (and possibly his most brilliant - characters set against black, light-streamed fog, trains roaring through the night. ... But suspense is not Ford's forte, and, anyway, Sergeant Rutledge is too much a discombobulation of genres — suspense film, wester, racial melodrama, theoretical expressionism.
the film finds Ford returning, at various points, to a kind of full-blown expressionism, especially during the stormy, nocturnal sequences that mark the first couple of flashbacks, which are rendered in some of the most layered and striking compositions of Ford’s oeuvre.
Ford’s film must be given kudos for bringing up real questions about racial relationships that were mostly ignored previously by Hollywood.Rated "B" on an A-F scale.
Admirably, scenarists James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (co-producer with Patrick Ford) have explored a little-known chapter in Army history: the solid, brave service of a group of Negro recruits, including former slaves, under white officers during the Indian Wars.
With an effortlessness which belies the film’s clunky flashback structure, Ford deftly traces the manifestations of racist fear in societal life, from the knee-jerks of the subconscious ('It was as though he’d sprung up from the earth… from a nightmare') to the self-deceiving rhetoric of the political establishment ('Incidentally, I’m glad that none of you gentlemen has mentioned the colour of the man’s skin').