Cast & Crew
In the summer of 1881, a young woman named Lucy Dabney and her father, Maj. Dabney, are found dead in their quarters at Fort Linton in the Arizona Territory. Lt. Tom Cantrell arrives at the U.S. Army's southwestern headquarters to defend the accused, a black sergeant named Braxton Rutledge, who served bravely under Cantrell in the all-black Ninth Cavalry for over six years. Because Lucy was raped and beaten before her brutal strangulation, the case attracts a group of spectators, who harass Rutledge as he is led into the courtroom. Presiding over the court-martial is Col. Otis Thornton Fosgate. After Fosgate ejects the onlookers from the room, angering his fluttery wife Cordelia, prosecutor Capt. Shattuck questions a series of witnesses, who describe the events that occurred on the day of the murders. Mary Beecher relates how she returned to Arizona on that day after an absence of twelve years. Because her father failed to meet her at the train station, she found herself alone. Upon discovering the station master's lifeless body, she became utterly terrified. Rutledge then suddenly appeared and defended her from two attacking Indians who, along with a larger group of Mescaleros, had broken out of the San Rosario Reservation earlier in the day. Cordelia then tells the court that she saw Rutledge tumble from Dabney's quarters after hearing two shots fired. Earlier in the day, Cordelia had told Lucy that even though Rutledge had been the girl's friend and riding instructor for years, it was unseemly for her to speak with him. As the fort doctor and then Tom himself take the witness stand, the court learns that Rutledge, arriving at Dabney's to warn the major of the Apache breakout, found Lucy's body, but was forced to shoot the major in self-defense when Dabney, entering the room, wildly fired on him. Convinced that no one would believe a black man's story, Rutledge then fled in a panic to the train station, where he aided Mary. Tom, leading a detachment of Ninth Cavalry soldiers, followed and arrested Rutledge, then proceeded toward the Beecher ranch in pursuit of the Apaches. On the way, they discovered the body of young Chris Hubble, who had been killed by an Apache lance. During a subsequent skirmish with the Apaches, Rutledge escaped, but as he approached the Beecher ranch, he realized that the patrol was riding into an Apache ambush. After warning the soldiers, he commanded them during the battle, only to be taken back into custody afterward. Following Rutledge's testimony, Shattuck declares that the sergeant's heroic actions were intended merely to earn him the court's mercy, whereupon Rutledge protests that the Ninth Cavalry is his home and the source of his self-respect. Next, Mary testifies that after the battle, Tom found young Lucy's gold cross as well as a jacket marked "CH" on the body of a dead Apache. Tom presents these items as evidence that Chris was the murderer. Shattuck angrily accuses Tom of attempting to pin the crime on a dead white boy merely to salvage the life of a black. Chandler Hubble, Chris's father, then admits under oath that his deceased son committed the crimes. Realizing that the jacket was too large for young Chris, Tom accuses the elder Hubble of the murders, whereupon Hubble confesses. Following Rutledge's acquittal, Mary and Tom are united, and the sergeant again leads his proud soldiers.
George "shug" Fisher
Bobby Lee Smith
Trusse R. Norris
Bill Wellman Jr.
James Warner Bellah
M. A. Merrick
Frank M. Miller
John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge (1960) uses the framework of a courtroom drama to examine a fascinating and under-represented subject: the Ninth Cavalry Regiment. Like the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments, The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments were composed of African-American enlisted men and commanded by both African-Americans and whites. They were established just after the Civil War and included many recently freed slaves. (Tellingly, when Sergeant Rutledge is searched in the film, they find a document certifying his release from slavery.) While there is widespread disagreement about the source of their nickname "buffalo soldiers," the film adopts the explanation that it comes from the buffalo furs they wore in winter. Known for their skill and courage, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments played a major role in the Indian Wars during the latter half of the 19th century. The film's working title was Captain Buffalo, which is also the title of the song played during the opening credits.
John Ford has been widely criticized for his reliance on ethnic stereotypes-especially in his representations of Native Americans. In that regard, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) are often considered Ford's late-career attempts to redress this problem in his earlier Westerns. However, his earlier films are more complexly layered than is often acknowledged, and a film like Sergeant Rutledge has its own, relatively minor limitations-especially its reliance on a white romance to frame the central narrative. Note, for instance, how Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers appear above Woody Strode in the credits. Despite this ploy to appeal to a mainstream audience, the film was not entirely successful either at the box office or with critics, though Variety praised Strode's work in the main role and Howard Thompson of the New York Times described the film as "thoughtful" and "well acted." The
Sergeant Rutledge remains notable as the first major studio Western to cast an African-American actor in the lead. It is also quite perceptive and daring for the way it links racism with fear of black male sexuality. One often-cited example of this can be found in the scene when Miss Beecher is stranded at the train station. Rutledge appears from nowhere and covers her mouth with his hand, ordering her not to scream. An extreme close-up of his hand plays upon the audience's unconscious fears, so that as the narrative unfolds they can reflect on their own prejudices as well as those of the characters in the film.
Without excusing Ford's use of ethnic stereotypes in other films, it is important to keep in mind that they were part of a broader tendency by Ford to construct his narratives out of sharply defined social types, something that Ford learned from his early days as a filmmaker in the silent era. This storytelling technique also has its roots in older narrative forms such as 19th century realist prose and the stage melodrama. (Stagecoach , for instance, is indirectly inspired by Guy de Maupassant's famous short story "Boule de suif.") Other social types commonly represented in Ford's films include the busybody "respectable" women in town, the alcoholic, and the duty-bound hero. Thus, the drama in Ford's films frequently arises from conflicts between the different and sometimes contradictory values that these various social types hold. The film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg further emphasizes Ford's identity as an Irish-American, which was in fact a widely denigrated minority during much of Ford's childhood and early adulthood. He argues that Ford's Westerns juxtapose the intolerant WASP mainstream with the protagonists, who often come from what he calls "ethnic margin" or are otherwise marginalized by society. He further maintains that in general Ford's treatment of minority groups is often more "richly textured" and "nuanced" than is often recognized.
The lead actor Woody Strode (1914-1994) received a Golden Globe nomination for his smaller role in Spartacus (1960), but it was Sergeant Rutledge which really established him as a serious actor, and it was the role of which he remained proudest throughout his life. In his autobiography Goal Dust [sic], Strode recalled that Ford guided his performance closely, literally acting out the part for him in rehearsal. At the same time, Ford pushed Strode's emotional limits in order to elicit a more visceral performance. The night before they were scheduled to shoot the big confrontation between him and the prosecuting attorney, Ford invited Strode to his son Pat's house and encouraged him to get roaring drunk. The next day on the set, Ford berated him in front of the other crew for drinking the night before until Strode reached the breaking point. The actor recalled: "He knew how to pluck me like a harp. [...] I almost had a nervous breakdown doing Sergeant Rutledge, but it helped me become an actor." At the same time, Ford photographed the Rutledge character to emphasize both his larger-than-life physical presence and his innate heroism. This is especially evident in the scene where Rutledge returns to help the Cavalry when they are attacked by Apaches. Strode recalled: "You never seen a negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before. I had the greatest Glory Hallelujah ride across the Pecos River [...] I carried the whole black race across that river." Strode subsequently became one of Ford's few very close friends and appeared in other films by the director such as Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and 7 Women (1966).
Another distinctive aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is its color cinematography by Bert Glennon (1893-1967). Perhaps best known for the luminous The Scarlet Empress (1934) and his remarkable work with John Ford during the late Thirties - including The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) - Glennon worked with Ford only rarely during the ensuing years and spent much of the Fifties working on various television series. Beyond the picturesque Monument Valley setting, Sergeant Rutledge stands out for the distinctive effects Glennon achieves in places by combining low-key lighting with color film. The best example of this is the extended scene between Constance Towers and Woody Strode in the train depot toward the beginning of the film. Another unusual effect is the deliberately stylized device of lowering the lights in the courtroom to signal the start of some flashbacks.
Director: John Ford
Producers: Willis Goldbeck, Patrick Ford
Script: James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck
Director of Photography: Bert Glennon
Art Director: Eddie Imazu
Film Editor: Jack Murray
Costume Design: Marjorie Best
Music: Howard Jackson; the song "Captain Buffalo" Mack David (lyrics) and Jerry Livingston (music).
Cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Lt. Tom Cantrell), Constance Towers (Mary Beecher), Billie Burke (Cordelia Fosgate), Woody Strode (Sergeant Braxton Rutledge), Juano Hernandez (Sgt. Matthew Luke Skidmore), Willis Bouchey (Col. Otis Thornton Fosgate), Carleton Young (Capt. Shattuck), Judson Pratt (Lt. Mulqueen), William Henry (Capt. Dwyer), Walter Reed (Capt. MacAfee), Fred Libby (Chandler Hubble), Toby Michaels (Lucy Dabney), Charles Seel (Dr. Eckner), Chuck Hayward (Capt. Dickinson), Mae Marsh (Nellie), Cliff Lyons (Sam Beecher).
C-112m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by James Steffen
Berg, Charles Ramirez. "The Margin as Center: The Multicultural Dynamics of John Ford's Westerns." In John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era, 75-101. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2001.
Eyman, Scott. Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Review of Sergeant Rutledge. New York Times, May 26, 1960.
Review of Sergeant Rutledge. Variety, April 8, 1960.
Strode, Woody and Sam Young. Goal Dust. Lanham, New York and London: Madison Books, 1990.
Sergeant Rutledge - John Ford's SERGEANT RUTLEDGE on DVD
To the movie's credit, it's much more than a message movie, and it holds up better than similar films of its day like, say, The Defiant Ones. But, as can still happen today, it focuses on its "different" character through its "normal" character. The different character is the title character, Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, an ex-slave and the proud "top soldier" of the all-black (save for officers) 9th Cavalry; the audience surrogate is Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter of The Searchers), an officer at the 9th's Arizona outpost. Rutledge is on trial for the murder of the post's commanding officer and the rape and murder of his C.O.'s teen daughter, and Cantrell is defending him.
One of the things that makes the movie interesting today is that, as probably wouldn't happen today (when we're all so enlightened), Ford and writers James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck actually play off of the assumed racism of the audience. As Rutledge's court-martial begins, we're not told what the exact charges against Rutledge are, but we see that the one witness Cantrell has brought to the courtroom is blonde Mary Beecher (Constance Towers of Sam Fuller's Naked Kiss) and we see that a group of ornery townspeople is clamoring to string up Rutledge. Of course, we assume there's a sex crime involved; it's not as if Hollywood was making many movies about black heroes. (The movie's trailer, the DVD's lone extra, also plays on the assumed threat of a big black man on a white woman like Mary.)
But Rutledge is indeed heroic. Sergeant Rutledge has an inevitably predictable structure, launching into flashbacks with every new witness who takes the stand, but it also tells a very involving tale. Starting with Mary's testimony, we see how she first encountered Rutledge at a remote train station where, after she found the station man dead and ran outside in horror, it was wounded Rutledge who grabbed her, calmed her and protected her from a small band of raiding Apaches. Further testimony from an officer's wife (Billie Burke), the post doctor (Charles Seel), another 9th Cavalry sergeant (Juano Hernandez), Cantrell and Rutledge himself fill in more of the story: how Rutledge was friendly with teen Lucy (Toby Michaels), how Rutledge was seen exiting the C.O.'s quarters after shots were heard, how he deserted the post and, later, how Cantrell, leading a party of soldiers tracking Apaches, arrested him at the train station. When the cavalrymen encounter the Apaches, Rutledge helps to save the lives of many of his comrades.
Of course, that battlefield heroism won't get Rutledge off the hook at his court-martial. The panel of judges (led by the cranky officer well-played by Ford regular Willis Bouchey) doesn't doubt the ex-slave's reputation as a warrior, nor the defendant's powerful speech about how important the 9th is to him, emotionally put across by Strode. It takes a Perry Mason-like unveiling of the real perpetrator to acquit Rutledge, but that feels rushed and overly convenient. No, in the world of John Ford westerns it's much more significant that Rutledge and his squad get the full-blown Ford treatment: face-offs against Indians, treks through Monument Valley, the camaraderie of men in uniform. There's no love interest for Rutledge, but other than that, the most effective affirmation of the title characer in Sergeant Rutledge is that, essentially, whatever's good enough for John Wayne is good enough for Woody Strode, too. Despite the weak resolution, which also involves a reconciliation of would-be paramours Cantrell and Mary, the last shot of Sergeant Rutledge, a choice Ford image of a line of buffalo soldiers on horseback, ascending a ridge, is a genuine tribute.
In a rare lead role, Strode, who regularly played supporting parts in Ford's 1960s films and had memorable roles in The Professionals, Spartacus and Once Upon a Time in the West after this, really rises to the occasion. Like most good movie actors, his very bearing gets across much of his character, and the proud air ex-football player and wrestler Strode gives Rutledge makes him a strong, dignified character who won't be cowed by his harsh court-martial surroundings. The movie asks you to accept this defiant character on his own terms, and though the movie's message of tolerance can feel obvious 46 years later, Ford certainly spoonfeeds its message of tolerance less than many movies after it, Philadelphia included. Among the better of Ford's non-Wayne westerns, Sergeant Rutledge is, for the time being, available only in the John Ford Film Collection boxed set.
To order Sergeant Rutledge, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
Sergeant Rutledge - John Ford's SERGEANT RUTLEDGE on DVD
Unsatisfied with Strode's rehearsal of bullet-wounded drowsiness, director John Ford took his own steps to make Strode appear authentically weary for Rutledge's gunshot early on in the film. The day before the scene was to be shot, Ford got Strode drunk early in the day and had an assistant follow him around for the rest of the day to make sure he stayed that way. When the time came for Strode to shoot the scene with actress Constance Towers, his hang-over gave him the perfect (for Ford) appearance of a man who had been shot.
The film's working titles were Captain Buffalo and The Trial of Sergeant Rutledge. Portions of the film were shot in Monument Valley, along the Arizona-Utah border. Although August 1959 Hollywood Reporter news items add Edward Shaw the cast, his appearance in the film has not been confirmed. The CBCS mistakenly credits Shaw as "Chris Hubble," a role played by January Stine. Other actors added to the cast by contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items are Dan Borzage, Byron Hightower, Gertrude Astor and Dorothy Phillips, but their appearance in the film has not been confirmed.
After the Civil War, four all-black units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry, played a major role in developing the Western frontier. The Native Americans who faced these men in battle called them "buffalo" soldiers, in honor of their fighting spirit, as well as the buffalo coats and hats they wore. After seeing combat in World War II, the 9th and 10th Cavalry were deactivated in 1944. At that time, the 25th Infantry was also scattered, although the 24th Infantry survived to do battle in Korea. The all-black units ceased to exist when the Army desegregated in the early 1950s.
In interviews published by modern sources, producer/writer Willis Goldbeck credited director John Ford with much of the screenplay's construction, including the film's courtroom setting. Modern sources also state that Ford was paid $300,000 for his work on the film. Numerous film scholars have stated that Sergeant Rutledge marked an important step in the evolution of racial consciousness in Ford's films, as it is his only film to feature an African-American protagonist.
Released in United States 1990
Released in United States on Video June 2, 1993
Released in United States Spring May 1960
Shown at American Museum of Moving Images, New York City February 24 & March 1, 1990.
The first Western by a major studio to use a black man as the central hero.
Released in United States 1990 (Shown at American Museum of Moving Images, New York City February 24 & March 1, 1990.)
Released in United States Spring May 1960
Released in United States on Video June 2, 1993