Film Review:Sergeant Rutledge,
John Ford, 1952
“the centrality of white heroes inferred that the plight of Blacks and Indians was essentially a problem for white America to solve.” Michael Coyne, 124
“We ain’t fighting the white man’s war. We’re fighting to make us proud”
“Soldier can never think with his heart, he’s got to think by the book.” Sergeant Skidmore (Juano Hernandez)
“We been hunted a long time too much to worry, yes it was all right for Mr Lincoln to say we were free but that ain’t so, not yet. Maybe some day, but not yet.” Sergeant Rutledge (Woody Strode)
John Ford, 1952
The eponymous hero of the film is played by Woody Strode, yet the “stars” were listed as being Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Towers and Billie Burke. Strode’s name was next as the “with” and his picture did not appear on the publicity posters. Perhaps this leads some commentators to underrate the film. Despite its flaws the film does celebrate the Ninth Cavalry and the integrity of the Black soldiers and it is hardly the film nor Ford’s fault that the United States was racist in allowing only solely black regiments with White officers at this time.
However much this film’s attitudes are out of sync with ours, watching today one is struck by its power and its honesty. While good intentions cannot carry a film through, some excellent performances and direction combine to make the film bristle with outrage at injustice. The film’s principled stand shines through and it is laudable that Ford managed to get this film made by Warner Brothers at a time when Civil Rights was such a central issue in the USA. Although a conservative, Ford’s populism and religious origins made him identify with the common man, and the fact that in this case he was black seemed to make no difference. While the film is vulnerable to the criticism of being patronising, compared to other mainstream films and the prevailing attitudes of the time Sergeant Rutledge was ahead of its time. Just to make the hero Afro American, let alone to turn him into the “Top Man” of a respected regiment and mythologise him with his own song “Captain Buffalo” is exceptional. Rutledge is the model soldier, his is the best disciplinary record, he has exhibited exemplary service and this has been recognized by his peers and superiors alike. However, prejudice is so great that all this counts for nothing when he appears to have been caught at the scene of a heinous crime.
Sergeant Rutledge is the accused in a courtroom drama in which racist prejudice is explored and confronted. While it is thought provoking, the film is a bit slow to unfold, albeit quite cleverly directed. The acting is brilliant in parts but a little laboured in others. The Ninth Cavalry are particularly close knit as their common ethnicity gives them a special camaraderie and mutual respect. They are bound by their common experience of adversity. The charge against Rutledge is rape although it is left unsaid and the undertone of racist bias against the defendant is suffocating, since he is apparently guilty of violating a white woman. Unbelievably today it seems that the fact that she is white is more important than the violation, yet Ford not only grasps the nettle he grapples with it in such a way as to provide us with a very useful History lesson. This is superb History, not in the sense of showing what happened but in two senses. Firstly it shows how History is influenced by our attitudes, and secondly it is most revealing about how these attitudes change over time. So far from being unacceptable in some way for its lack of “political correctness” it shows how, in many ways, it is more honest to explore the events of the past in their language rather than sanitising it by updating terms to remove those which have become unacceptable. This in itself shows how conservative he was politically, how perceptive Ford was in the matter of race. Paradox in human character is part of life’s rich tapestry, and Fod is a great example of someone who often appeared to be running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Correspondingly Ford’s presentation of women was equally ambivalent. On the one hand Constance Towers is a paragon of reason, showing great strength of character and independence of mind. The older women in the courtroom are used for comedic effect, being presented as empty headed, vacuous and unwittingly amusing in their lack of worldliness.
Unfortunately Ford’s perception of the race issue is limited in that, as others have observed, for him the salvation of the Blacks lies in the hands of their White advocates. This is perfectly exemplified by the credits excluding the eponymous hero from star billing, although this may not have been down to Ford. However, such was his standing and irascibility that he rarely did not get his own way in matters he deemed to be important. Furthermore, Ford’s attempted sympathy to the plight of the Blacks was not in evidence in his treatment of the native Americans – identified here as Mescalero Apache. They are stereotypically the Other and their depiction does not attempt to advocate their plight or sympathize with them at all. They are backdrop aliens providing the sinister threat from which Whites shrink in fear. As Richard Maltby observes, “the Indians are as stereotyped as in Stagecoach”. Ford is still presenting them as faceless fodder 21 years after his breakthrough Western. Yet only four years later such was Ford’s professed regret about how he had presented the native Americans that he produced Cheyenne Autumn supposedly to redress the balance. The starkness of this apparent “Road to Damascus” raises serious questions about Ford’s sincerity on this issue. One wonders whether his real motives were hidden behind this moral façade.
Much of Ford’s trademark direction is here: Monument Valley serves as a setting for the action sequences, the shots of distant landscapes and well worked close ups including the use of doorways to frame them which Ford used for his closing frames of The Searchers four years earlier. It is not up there with his best films but it is most interesting and is well worth watching.
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009