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Sergeant Rutledge Reviews

Shot among the magnificent buttes of John Ford's beloved Mounument Valley, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE was the first mainstream western to cast an African-American as the central heroic figure. There already had been other westerns with black characters--from the 1923 silent THE BULL-DOGGER to BRONZE BUCKAROO (1938) and HARLEM ON THE PRAIRIE (1939)--but these films were low-budget, all-black productions that were never screened for white audiences. Not only was SERGEANT RUTLEDGE produced by a major studio, but also it was directed by one filmdom's most-respected talents, Ford. The film begins as Strode, a sergeant in the 9th Cavalry (an all-black unit under white command) is put on trial for the murder of his commanding officer and the rape and murder of the dead man's daughter. In flashback, the events that led up to the murder are re-created. Towers, an attractive young woman who has returned home to the West after 12 years in eastern schools, tells how she met Cavalry lieutenant Hunter on the train. On the evening after their meeting, Towers finds the body of the murdered stationmaster and is shocked when the wounded Strode arrives to protect her. Unsure whether she can trust the black soldier, Towers watches Strode remove the corpse from the station. When Strode asks for whiskey, Towers is apprehensive, but she feels guilty about her suspicions after the sergeant uses the whiskey to tend to his wounds. Towers decides to trust Strode. The next morning, Hunter and the rest of the 9th arrive to arrest Strode for the murders. The previous day, Strode's commanding officer was murdered and the officer's daughter, a friend of Strode's, was raped and killed. When Strode was found to be missing, Hunter immediately assumed the sergeant was guilty. The action shifts to the court-martial of Strode. Burke, the wife of the general heading the court-martial, testifies that the relationship between Strode and the dead woman was anything but honorable. Burke's racist testimony confirms the already deep suspicions of Strode harbored by others, and prosecutor Young pushes this bigotry to the limit. Seel, the post doctor, brings emotions to a fever pitch by emphasizing that the officer's daughter was "violated" before she was killed, and throughout his testimony Seel stares at Strode. When Hunter takes the stand--at this point he has become one of Strode's defenders--we are brought back to the morning after the murders. On the ride back to the fort, with Strode in chains, the soldiers are attacked by Indians. Strode manages to escape, but he returns to the group when he sees that they are about to ride into an Indian ambush. Strode bravely rides into the fray and with his help the company is saved. In a moving moment, Strode comforts a dying comrade and tells him not to worry about his family's future because the soldier has given his little girls memories of a father who commanded respect and dignity. Due to Strode's efforts the company survives the attack, but Hunter still has bring Strode in to stand trial. Eventually Strode is given the chance to testify on his own behalf. Under brutal grilling from the prosecution, the soldier finally loses his reserved demeanor when Young questions the sergeant's loyalty to the 9th Cavalry and ridicules his return to the unit after he had escaped. Strode rises up out of his chair and makes a powerful speech declaring his abiding devotion to the 9th Cavalry. His speech shocks the racist courtroom into silence. In those brief moments, Strode has demonstrated greater devotion, honor, and dignity than anyone else in the courtroom could ever hope to possess. Though his speech has affected the tribunal, it is obvious that Strode is going to be found guilty. Suddenly a spectator, Styne, the father of a boy friend of the dead girl, breaks down and confesses to the crimes. Finally cleared, Strode rejoins the proud 9th Cavalry, while Hunter and Towers embrace. lSERGEANT RUTLEDGE is a fascinating, detailed look at racism. Contrasted with the obvious, unashamed racism demonstrated by Burke, Young, Seel, and most of the people in the courtroom is the more subtle, repressed racism demonstrated by Strode's friends, Hunter and Towers. If a white cavalry soldier had come to her rescue at the train station, Towers wouldn't have hesitated to tend the man's wounds and help him in any way she could. But because the soldier is a black man, she immediately distrusts him. Hunter, who had known Strode and watched him become the best soldier in the outfit, instantly assumed the worst of his friend upon discovering the double murder and rape, and also suspected him of attacking Towers. Though both these white people rise to Strode's defense when reason overcomes emotion, one cannot help but feel that they do so out of guilt for suspecting him in the first place. Through it all, Strode knows who he is and understands what is happening to him. The 9th Cavalry is his identity. It separates him from other men, black or white, and gives him self-respect, pride, and honor. When he is accused of the crimes, Strode is not surprised; the sergeant even goads Hunter by sarcastically playing up racial stereotypes. While the film's heart is in the right place, it proves a bit of a disappointment as a John Ford film because the courtroom structure forces a claustrophobic, static perspective. Except for the flashbacks, the film takes place entirely on one tight set, with action being related more through dialog than visuals. Ford, a master of the unspoken emotion, falls back on people making speeches to get his points across. He succeeds brilliantly, however, with Strode's final statement of identity. Playing his old tricks, the director reportedly told the inexperienced black actor that the shooting schedule had been changed and he wouldn't be needed the next day. To ensure that Strode would relax, Ford threw a party for his star, making sure the actor got good and drunk. At six the next morning a groggy and hung-over Strode got a call to be on the set in an hour for his big scene. Strode performed his moving speech with his head pounding and nausea sweeping over him. Ford had pulled the same trick on Victor McLaglen 25 years before on the set of THE INFORMER. Though the courtroom drama and character study are at times quite powerful, perhaps the most significant aspect of the film is the visual portrayal of the 9th Cavalry itself. Shot in just as stunning a manner as the horse soldiers in any John Wayne picture, the men of the 9th strike giant, heroic figures against the buttes of Ford's Monument Valley, giving them a place of immortal respect and honor in the western genre.