A Lost Ethics Movie: John Ford’s “Sergeant Rutledge”

All right: not exactly lost, but certainly almost forgotten.  Released in 1960, “Sergeant Rutledge” was a daring Western with a racial justice theme well before Jim Crow had breathed its last. The iconic film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” was two years from being made, and master director John Ford told the story of a black “buffalo soldier” wrongly accused of raping and killing a white woman and shooting an officer. The film was the first to feature the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black cavalry units that continued through World War II, and was the first Western to feature a black protagonist. Sergeant Rutledge, played by the perfectly cast Woody Strode. Rutledge is innocent, but because he is black and a white girl was one of the victims,  he is presumed guilty. The prosecution in his military trial has blatant racist overtones, and Ford unsparingly focuses on the indignities imposed on African Americans in the unsettled frontier culture following the Civil War. In Strode, Ford had an almost too ideal star: everything about him is perfect. He’s brave, well-respected, professional, trusted and gorgeous: Strode was a magnificent former athlete who projected virtue quiet dignity in every film appeared in. I don’t think he ever played a villain.

The movie has some problems, including a Perry Mason-style resolution that is either over-acted, badly-acted, or badly-written: I couldn’t decide. It was also a flop, perhaps because the nation was more ready for the theme two years later, perhaps because Ford’s star was fading fast by 1960, but more likely because it had no major star like Gregory Peck  (or John Wayne, who was busy making “The Alamo”) to persuade audiences take a chance on an unusual film. It is Strode’s only starring role, and Hollywood was just beginning to cast Sidney Poitier in leads—Poitier was a far more versatile actor—in 1960. The other star is Jeffrey Hunter, best remembered today for making the original pilot for “Star Trek” as “Captain Pike.” Hunter never was a box office draw, though he was a strong second lead in Ford’s “The Searchers.”

Somehow the myth has grown that this was a film in which Ford, nearing the end, was “apologizing” for his previous racially insensitivity in other films. That’s revisionism. Ford made Westerns about cowboys and the West, and both were undeniably dominated by whites, with blacks in subservient positions. It’s not insensitive to be faithful to history.  Ford was, by the standards of his time, a progressive liberal, and the kind, apparently now extinct, who could still have close friendships and working relationships with conservatives, like Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, James Stewart and John Wayne. For example, Ford memorably stared down arch-Right director Cecil B. DeMille when DeMille was trying to get the Screen Director’s Guild to install a loyalty oath.

One African American film critic wrote that Ford’s “films were not above dealing in negative racial stereotypes…His regular portrayal of Native Americans in most of his western films – like “The Searchers”, “Stagecoach” and his cavalry trilogy, “Rio Grande,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” and “Fort Apache” – were as bloodthirsty savages.” I hate to accuse a film critic of not watching the films he’s writing about, but this is flat out false. Ford’s films, especially the cavalry trilogy, are remarkable (compared to other Westerns of the period) for their portrayals of Native American tribes as abused, dignified, and in several cases, morally and ethically superior to the white men engaged in the process of decimating them. Even in “Stagecoach,” where the Indians’ main function is to attack the stagecoach (it is not as if they didn’t do this, you know), Ford manages ridicule white bigotry. For example, the timid liquor salesman played by Donald Meek screams out in terror when he sees that the wife of a Mexican innkeeper is an Indian. “She’s a savage!” the whiskey drummer stutters. “Si senor,” the innkeeper says, smiling at his wife.  “She’s a little bit savage, I think!”

In “Sergeant Rutledge,” Ford, as usual, manages not to go light on preaching. His movie crystallizes its civil rights message late in the film, with an exchange between the Army’s prosecutor, Captain Shattuck, and Hunter, as Rutledge’s defense counsel, Lt. Tom Cantrell. After the prosecutor excoriates Hunter for trying to shift blame for the murder onto a white man in order to shield “this… Negro,” Cantrell erupts that if the tribunal is going to measure guilt or innocence according to the color of a man’s skin, then it has no legitimacy.

Ford molded the screenplay by Willis Goldbeck carefully, as was his method. It contains many moments that must have challenged 1960 audiences, like the scene in which Rutledge is being transported to stand trial.  Rutledge is  handcuffed and wounded from a gunshot in his side, and riding his horse in the front of the troops alongside Cantrell, who captured him:

 Cantrell: How’s the side holding up, Sergeant?

 Rutledge: [sarcastically] You know what they say about us, sir. We heal fast.

Cantrell: You give me your word you won’t try to make an escape, I’ll take those irons off you.

 Rutledge:  I can’t do that, sir, c’ause I ain’t going back to stand trial.

 Cantrell: Well, don’t you be a fool, Brax. What if you did get away? Why, this thing would haunt you until you couldn’t stand it!

 Rutledge: You forget, sir. We been haunted a long time. Too much to worry. Yeah, it was all right for Mr. Lincoln to say we were free, [He turns to  Cantrell, angrily] but that ain’t so! Not yet! Maybe some day, but not yet!

6 thoughts on “A Lost Ethics Movie: John Ford’s “Sergeant Rutledge”

  1. A lot of the content in Ford’s films are dated, but his story telling, photography and authenticity make them movies worth watching over & over. Let’s not forget that he volunteered for WW2 at an advanced age, and performed a valuable service filming the Pacific War, and at some considerable danger to himself. In fact I am still amazed at the B&W photography in his “My Darling Clementine”. It’s a stunnIng example of movie as art. Yes that tale of Tombstone & Wyatt Earp was short on fact, but he knew Wyatt personally late in his life & Fords reply was alway that it’s the way Wyatt told it to him personally. And yes he depicted The Indians extremely well, and anyone who has watched “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” should know that. I don’t know a lot about ethics, but I know good storytelling when I see it.

    • As you probably know, when Orson Welles was preparing to direct his first film (Citizen Kane), he prepared by watching Ford movies over and over, and taking copious notes. And I’ve found that the best Ford films get more interesting with every viewing.

      I didn’t know about Fort and Earp–I’ll have to watch that film again. Its historical weirdness has always driven me crazy, especially the portrayal of Doc Holiday (I’m not a Victor Mature fan) It’s certainly the most beautifully shot of the Earp films.

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