Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

JOHN FORD

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1960. , . Screenplay by , , based on the novel by James Warner Bellah. Cinematography by . Produced by , Willis Goldbeck. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

A courtroom is abuzz with curious onlookers desperate to witness the trial about to start, in which a cavalry soldier named Rutledge () stands accused of murdering his senior officer and raping and murdering the man’s teenage daughter. The hubbub around the case immediately gets the public viewing gallery thrown out of the military’s court as witnesses take the stand, giving testimony that flashes back to events leading up to the crime, beginning with a theatrical lighting effect as they begin their tale and then fading to scenes of what they witnessed.  (as always superb) recalls being saved by Rutledge when he holed up with her at an abandoned train station during an Apache uprising. Billie Burke (in her final feature film role) testifies to seeing Rutledge coming out of the victims’ quarters with a gunshot and running away. A doctor takes the stand and gives details about the bodies and how he found them, convinced that Rutledge is guilty of having done the deed.

The court treads carefully around the matter of the accused man’s race, Rutledge is a member of the Buffalo Soldiers, post-emancipation soldiers conscripted into the army and frequently subjected to levels of prejudice that the men on the table are trying hard to avoid; director John Ford, as always an expert creator of images of the myth of the wild west (including breathtaking shots of his beloved Monument Valley), does his best to make as forward-thinking a movie for its time as he can, even fighting the studio’s desire to cast Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte in the lead role in the hopes of attracting a white audience already predisposed to liking those two performers (they weren’t tough enough, Ford said). That the man who plays the title character is billed well below his white co-stars and treated like a context character in the background of the white romance between Towers and (as his lawyer) betrays the era in which the film was made, not to mention the usual indulgence in flat and disposable characterizations of indigenous characters who exist solely as opportunities for violence.

A long portion of the film is spent observing Rutledge and Hunter’s battles in the uprising and feel like the murder mystery is going off the rails, but a tight surprise ending brings everything together in one neat move.  It’s not up there in quality with She Wore A Yellow Ribbon or My Darling Clementine, but this is a fine film by the great director and one with more than a few tense and exciting moments.

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