I would hazard a guess that contemporary cultural politics hasn’t been kind to Sergeant Rutledge, director John Ford’s attempt to introduce the Black presence in the American West to the movies. Its enticing mixture of frontier military romance and courtroom melodramatics enable a “white savior” (in the unlikely form of Jeffrey Hunter) to orient the viewer into the world of the Buffalo Soldiers, as well as save the title character ( (Woody Strode, a trailblazing football star and professional wrestler turned movie icon)) from a wrongful criminal conviction. The picture’s contextualization of Native American attacks on white settlement is arguably among the director’s least nuanced meditations on the topic as well. That said, Rutledge generates a compelling degree of suspense while directly subverting racial stereotypes of Black masculinity.
By 1960, Westerns were not averse to acknowledging racism. Despite their often savage depictions of Native American warrior brutality, the genre often deployed frontier conflict to both acknowledge and deflect from an awareness of contemporary race problems. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow exemplifies a tradition of Westerns that recognized racial inequality fostered by the ideology of Manifest Destiny and encouraged discussion and compromise in overcoming these issues for the sake of national progress. Likewise, the racist tendencies in characters like Ethan Edwards in Ford’s The Searchers exhibited manifestations of ignorance and emotional instability. These early revisionist films spoke of America’s “race problem” by substituting the African American with a Native American avatar, recognizing the issue of race but casting it into a historically incoherent situation that bore no real resemblance to modern mores. Sergeant Rutledge was unique in terms of utilizing the actual contributions of African Americans in the Old West to tackle discriminatory social imagery that was heavily ingrained in the country’s mythology.
Specifically, the film reversed traditional associations of the African American male physique with brutality and sexual menace. Sergeant Rutledge depicts the travails of an African American frontier veteran facing a court-martial on rape and murder charges of a teenage girl. Having been seen in proximity of the victim when her body was discovered, he flees, using the coincidental outbreak of an Indian revolt to advance his getaway. Wounded while saving another white woman (Constance Towers) from an assault, Rutledge is ultimately captured but escapes again during the fog of battle. He soon returns to captivity to warn his outfit of another imminent attack. Despite this act of heroism, Rutledge’s bad timing and actions for self-preservation present a circumstantial case for guilt — stoked by a dog-whistling prosecutor — and an obstacle for his commanding officer (Hunter) who acts as the sergeant’s attorney.
Strode’s six-and-a-half-foot height and sculpted muscularity are crucial to the picture’s subversion of stereotypes. Physical superiority in strength and size with regards to Black men was commonly portrayed as a compensation for a lack of other qualities, such as sexual and emotional restraint. In fact, 19th-century race scientists defended slavery on the grounds that it allowed European society to utilize the material attributes afforded by Black labor while constraining their more “barbaric” impulses by instilling discipline and spiritual enlightenment. As film historian Donald Bogle bluntly put it, Strode represented the “buck” stereotype in appearance, but he often flipped it, as in his crucial supporting role as an enslaved gladiator in Spartacus, into something more humane, even heroic. Sergeant Rutledge was the first movie to appreciate the actor’s potential iconic exemplification of Black male power and mold it into a positive social image.
John Ford is generally celebrated as a master of crafting cinematic images, and unsurprisingly, the picture is at its most memorable when its framing of Strode takes precedence over its plot. There is a lovely moment when Rutledge’s military brethren sing, Sons of the Pioneer-style, “Captain Buffalo” in his honor. Their chorus accompanies a low-angle shot of Rutledge, dressed in uniform while still a prisoner, holding a rifle, surrounded by a dark blue background. Strode frequently cited the scene in which he charges down a hill on horseback carrying the American flag as the proudest accomplishment in his career. Equally stirring, if more problematic, is the testimony he gives in court explaining why he returned to the unit. The actor, shot in close-up, powerfully conveys the inner conflict of not being able to live with himself if he continued to flee knowing that it would endanger his comrades-in-arms. Ford directed the scene knowing that Strode was hungover from a party the night before and subjected him to verbal abuse in order to provoke real discomfort.
These moments invest the audience with a feeling that Rutledge is innocent, even though the crime that he is accused of isn’t shown. The officers convening the court-martial cannot fully observe these images, it remains doubtful whether the Sergeant can surmount the weight of circumstantial evidence pointing towards his guilt. The prosecution’s playing up the salaciously racist mythology of rape and misogyny obviously troubles the other officers, as it exposes an inherent cultural bias interfering with their duty. Sergeant Rutledge might have made a deeper impression if a last-minute, Perry Mason-style introduction of exculpatory evidence, followed immediately by a confession by the actual killer, didn’t resolve these questions truncatedly and unconvincingly. The contrived climax shifts the dramatic center of the film from the court’s decision to the emergence of empirical truth that guarantees a happy, and just, ending. Three years earlier, 12 Angry Men addressed the vagaries of facts and implicit bias in the justice system head-on, so by 1960 Rutledge’s melodramatic twists seem evasive.
Nevertheless, the picture made an important contribution in depicting the Black presence in the American West. It was the first movie to portray the segregated Black military units stationed on the frontier since the silent “race” films of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. It was also the first major studio film to depict a distinct African American social world in the context of the Western myth. Despite its imperfections, Sergeant Rutledge allowed for a more comprehensive depiction of racial diversity in the Western genre, and would usher the way for further explorations of Black history in areas where their presence had been erased.