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. Continue reading