"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sergeant Rutledge (Warner Bros, 1960)

The black sergeant

Because there’s too much studio recording and too little Monument Valley location work, and because so much of the action is set in the court room, this Western is static and slow. There are action flashbacks but the ensemble is really little more than a Western Perry Mason.

Woody Strode is splendid as the noble, unjustly impugned soldier. But the rest of the acting is so-so, descending to the downright amateur when Lucy (Toby Michaels) is talking to the store boy (Jan Styne). There is the usual Ford attempt at broad humor, largely inappropriate in a case of this kind. It is thought amusing that the officers of the court martial drink while court is in session or adjourn to play poker. Willis Bouchey doesn’t quite cut it as the president of the court. It needed Ward Bond. Jeffrey Hunter is handsome as the defending counsel but little more. Constance Towers as the love-interest (returning from The Horse Soldiers the previous year) does not convince either. So this movie is by no means top-drawer Ford. Like the fine cavalry westerns, it was written by James Warner Bellah and the fault is not in the dialogue, although it does end very melodramatically. Perhaps the courtroom/flashback format was doomed to failure from the start.

Even as late as 1960 the idea that a white girl may have been raped by a Negro was still deeply shocking (the color of the assailant’s skin was the shocking part) but the film prefigures the 60s civil rights movement by suggesting the prejudice and skirting round the issue and the terms. It’s a serious film which deals with serious issues. For once, the French film title may have been better: Le Sergent Noir.

The civilians who want to lynch Rutledge even before the trial and the officers’ wives who are titillated by the ‘spicy’ affair are both shown as overtly racist and rather repellent. To the Colonel’s lady (Billie Burke), Rutledge, whom she cannot even name, is nothing but a dangerous sexual animal. Then there is the institutional racism of the court (who are surprised by the ‘not guilty’ plea; they assumed Rutledge had done it). Then, most troubling of all, there is the internalized racism that Ford shows in us, the (white) viewers. Ford sets the scenes so that we all assume too much, though this, of course, only works on the first viewing. It is interesting, perhaps, that in the publicity still for the movie (above right), Rutledge himself only appears in third background.

When Rutledge is under suspicion, early in the film, he is photographed (Bert Glennon) in dark flickering shadows. When he bravely and self-sacrificingly saves his fellow soldiers he is filmed in blazing sunlight. It’s a much darker film than The Horse Soldiers but it still elevates the community of the cavalry, where these ‘buffalo soldiers’ find a kind of freedom they would not have elsewhere.

Sergeant Rutledge is essentially a 1950s Western in its look and acting. When you consider that it came out in the same year as The Magnificent Seven, for example, you realize how old-fashioned it was. Yet its theme of racial discrimination is very much a 1960s one.

This film is an essential part of the Ford canon and needs to be seen at least once. As we have said, The Searchers was the best of his Westerns but it was also the last really good one. The Horse Soldiers of 1959 and this picture the following year were followed by the flawed Two Rode Together and the dull-in-parts and over-talky The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in succeeding years, and finally the rather overblown Cheyenne Autumn in 1964. None of these, Sergeant Rutledge included, was anywhere near the quality of The Searchers.

Nevertheless, none was really weak. Had Ford not made The Searchers, My Darling Clementine or the cavalry trilogy in the post-war period we would remember these later Westerns as outstandingly good. They only suffer by comparison.

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