That Sergeant Rutledge somehow manages to be both anti-racist and pro-genocide testifies not only to John Ford’s myopia about the Plains Indians, but to his genius. Even in his old age, he still had his finger on the pulse of the American people. There was no American Indian Movement in 1960. The occupation of Alcatraz and the siege at Wounded Knee, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Leonard Peltier would not hit the papers until over a decade later. But the Civil Rights Movement was already a burning issue. Martin Luther King had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott five years before in 1955. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been founded in 1957. Eisenhower had already sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to desegregate Central High School. Sergeant Rutledge was John Ford’s declaration that he was on the side of racial equality. What he missed, and why he missed it, tells us as much about American imperialism as it does John Ford.
Woody Strode, who plays Braxton Rutledge, was a UCLA basketball player, football player, track star, professional wrestler, and an actor who could be a domineering presence even in bit parts. It’s hard to forget his three minute star turn in Spartacus as the gladiator who strikes the first blow of the rebellion. At 6’4″ he looked every inch the black superman, the “Captain Buffalo” of the song that opens the film.
“Have you heard about a soldier in the U.S. Cavalry
Who is built like Lookout Mountain taller than a redwood tree?
With his iron fist he’ll drop an ox with just one mighty blow
John Henry was a weakling next to Captain Buffalo.”
Braxton Rutledge, the “top soldier” of the 9th Cavalry, the “Buffalo Soldiers,” is on trial for the murder of a teenage white girl, and her father, his commanding officer. John Ford’s narrative genius, even in this very late film, is fully on display. He knows all about how to set up a problem, how to introduce a character in two or three frames, how to misdirect the audience then clear things up when he wants to, how to use comic relief to slip his assumptions past criticism even before we know he’s made them. We know from the very beginning of the film that Rutledge is innocent, that he’s incapable of the horrible crime he’s accused of. What we don’t know is why he deserted his post, and why he seems in no great hurry to clear his name. Braxton Rutledge seems ready to hang for a crime he didn’t commit. We want to know why? Is he covering for another Buffalo Soldier? Is he covering for a white officer? Is he ready to take the fall because the victims have a secret he’d rather die than see exposed?
John Ford is the master at dangling something right in front of our eyes and making us look away. He knows how Americans see race. When Mary Beecher, the tall, blonde Constance Towers, returns to Arizona from the East only to get caught in an Apache raid on the local railway depot, she discovers the dead telegraph operator slumped down over his desk. She’s about to scream. Sergeant Rutledge, who was hiding out in the railway depot after leaving his post, comes up behind her and covers her mouth. We know he’s only doing what he has to do to keep her from alerting the Indians to their presence. But in 1960, a 6’4″ black man coming up behind a white woman and covering her mouth was a stick of dynamite thrown onto a pile of gunpowder, guaranteed to make any racist’s head explode. Ford flatters us, lets us feel superior to the racists who would be as titillated as they’d be outraged. But, above all, he puts us inside Braxton’s head. Why did he desert after he discovers the body of his commanding officer’s daughter? Now we know. He doesn’t think any white man (or women) will ever believe he’s innocent. As a black man, even on an army base where he’s well-known and respected, simply being accused of raping a white girl means he’s already been tried, sentenced and hanged.
But John Ford, no conservative but certainly a nationalist, now demonstrates that Rutledge’s paranoia about white Americans is misplaced. Constance Towers is as determined an anti-racist in Sergeant Rutledge as she was a Confederate patriot in The Horse Soldiers. Rutledge gets an equally determined lawyer, Jeffrey Hunter, who also starred in The Searchers with John Wayne. Above all, he gets a fair trial. It’s easy to get distracted by Ford’s gift for comic relief, by the hilarious squabbling between Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate, the president of the court martial, and his wife Cordelia. Otis and Cordelia Fosgate? Even the names can make you smile. But look more closely. Cordelia and Otis are Colonel Marlowe and Hannah Hunter from The Horse Soldiers in their golden years, a Yankee Radical Republican and a southern belle. In the midst of their squabbling we learn that Fosgate served with Sherman in Georgia, that he looted a plantation house in Atlanta, and marched to the sea in the Fall of 1864. Black men, Ford is telling us, should remember how white men fought slavery. Justice not only will be served. One of Sherman’s bummers as the judge? Justice already has been served. All Rutledge has to do is get over his guarded, secretive, black man’s mistrust of the United States of America, and he will inevitably be able to clear his name. He can resume his distinguished military career as “top soldier” of the 9th Cavalry.
Let’s just say that John Ford learned something from the way Jackie Robinson had been offered up to the American public as the conservative alternative to Paul Robeson. Martin Luther King is already a national figure in 1960. The Civil Rights movement would crest three years later with the March on Washington, but let’s not forget that Eisenhower had already committed American troops to protect the remnants of the French Empire in Vietnam. The United States Army in Vietnam would not fight for a noble cause, but it’s easy to forget that it was the first genuinely multiracial army in American history. Blacks wouldn’t serve in segregated, Jim Crow units like the 9th Cavalry — which, let’s face it, was what the Buffalo Soldiers were — but as the equals of whites in every division of the army. It wasn’t, of course, all that easy. There was racism, and racial conflict, all over the United States military. Black soldiers fought with white soldiers, fragged their officers, joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But, in the army, in 1960, Jim Crow was already a thing of the past.
Sergeant Rutledge, like black American soldiers in Vietnam, fights for an bad cause. The Apache, Ford tells us, have already been defeated and herded into reservations. The raid that kills the telegraph operator and Mary Beecher’s father, and threatens to overwhelm the detachment of the 9th Cavalry Jeffrey Hunter’s Tom Cantrell leads to bring Rutledge back for trial is a “large group that broke out of the reservation.” They’re refugees from a concentration camp. Rutledge and his Buffalo Soldiers are fighting for an equal place in American society, but the herds of buffalo they were named after are mostly gone. Let’s be blunt. Rutledge and the 9th Cavalry are imperial auxiliaries, Gurkhas, Sepoys, black men hired by white men to kill red men. Braxton Rutledge is 6’4″ and a “top soldier,” but, in essence, he’s Gunga Din. He maybe be a better man than Tom Cantrell or Otis Fosgate, but he’s also helping to prosecute a genocide against people of color in the interests of the white man. Black nationalism wouldn’t really explode into the public consciousness until the mid and late 1960s. But Malcolm X was already a prominent figure in the African American community. John Ford, as an old school Eisenhower Republican, wants Braxton Rutledge as a loyal, patriotic American, but not as an anti-imperialist. He’s willing to accept him as an equal so he doesn’t become a revolutionary.
Ford’s masterful screenwriting deftly raises, then dismisses the obvious question. What if Braxton Rutledge had simply given up on white America altogether? What if he had joined Crazy Horse and the Apaches? “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” Muhammad Ali would later say. “No Apache ever falsely accused me of rape and murder,” we can imagine a more cynical, more radical, less stereotypical “heroic” Rutledge saying. But he gives up on his chance to escape when the Apaches attack Tom Cantrall and the 9th Cavalry. Rutledge, as loyal as ever, never even thinks of joining the Indians in the attack. It’s certainly what I would have done. Rutledge is Jackie Robinson, not Paul Robeson or Malcolm X. He doesn’t care about joining the Indians or rejecting white America. He cares about the honor of the regiment, about proving that the black man is as loyal to the United States as any white man.
By the time we get back to the courtroom, the film feels anti-climatic. The mystery of who killed Major Davy and his daughter is very deftly resolved. It was a middle-aged white pervert, the father of one of the girl’s suitors, a sexually obsessed man who “just had to have her.” It’s a little bit of To Kill a Mockingbird in a John Ford western, with Tom Cantrell as Atticus Finch, Braxton Rutledge as Tom Robinson, and Bob Ewell getting his just deserts, not at the hands of a Boo Radley, but in a duly constituted military court of justice. “It was all right for Mr. Lincoln to say we were free but that ain’t so,” Rutledge says before he’s vindicated, “but not yet. Maybe some day, but not yet.” For John Ford, an Irish American, 1960 is that “some day” Rutledge dreams of. John F. Kennedy’s in the White House, and all is right with the world. Jim Crow is a stain on the American landscape, but it won’t be around for long. In the film’s last scene, Tom Cantrell and Mary Beecher walk off arm in arm, engaged, their coming marriage the capstone to their successful effort to save the life of an innocent black soldier. Sergeant Rutledge and the Buffalo soldiers look on and salute. It’s a happy ending for everybody but the Apache. They’ve been marked for destruction, something that John Ford, for all his liberalism, refuses to confront, even approves of.