Tag Archives: Constance Towers

Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

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.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Grierson’s Raid, which ran from April 17 to May 2, 1863,  was the dry run for Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In April of 1863, the United States Civil War was at a stalemate. Back in December, the Union Army had received a bloody repulse at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the west, Ulysses Grant had mounted one campaign after another, but had still not captured Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the Mississippi River. In May of 1863, he would make one more try. He would run his transports past the murderous fire of the great Confederate fortress, march his troops down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross over, then march back up and lay siege to the town that Jefferson Davis had referred to as “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”

It was a risky strategy. If either John C. Pemberton, the commander of the garrison at Vicksburg or the dreaded Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest got wind of Grant’s plans and hit the Union army hard at the river crossing, they could wreck the Vicksburg Campaign altogether. Grant had to find some way of distracting Pemberton until he could fully deploy his troops on the Mississippi side of the river, after which his superior numbers would make him all but invincible.

Enter Benjamin Grierson.

Benjamin Henry Grierson, who was 37 years old in 1863, deserves to be better known. An ex-music-teacher with a fear of horses — a horse kicked him in the head when he was a little boy — he would go on to become the best Union cavalry commander of the war, the only man who ever fought Nathan Bedford Forrest to a draw. He was also the progressive anti-racist most of us, incorrectly, imagine William Tecumseh Sherman to have been. Sherman was a racist. Grierson would go onto command black troops, “Buffalo Soldiers,” in the 1870s and 1880s. He also objected to the genocidal war against the Plains Indians and did his best to minimize the damage wherever he could. Liberals who want to look up to someone from the past would do well to forget about John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt and check out Benjamin Grierson. He’s the genuine article, a progressive, anti-racist war hero.

Grant’s diversionary plan was a two pronged reconnaissance in force. To the north he sent Colonel Abel D. Streight to attack the Western and Atlantic railroad, which was supplying the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Streight’s Raid was poorly planed and executed, but it did manage to draw off Nathan Bedford Forrest. To the south, he sent Grierson, and three regiments of his best cavalry, the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2nd Iowa. Grierson’s Raid was executed flawlessly. Starting out in La Grange, Tennessee, Benjamin Grierson and his 1700 troops road all the way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 800 miles through the heart of Confederate territory, and sustained only nineteen casualties, three killed, seven wounded, and nine missing. They tore up railroads, hit the supply depot at Newton Station, and kept an entire division of Pemberton’s soldiers tied up defending the Vicksburg-Jackson railroad. It’s widely considered to be the greatest cavalry raid of the war, if not one of the greatest in history. If that weren’t enough, Grierson kept his troops perfectly disciplined. There were no massacres of civilians. There was no looting. They were as polite to the local women as they would have been in New England. That May, Grant made the crossing at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, the largest amphibious operation of the United States military until the invasion of Normandy. Vicksburg fell two months later.

John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers, which is loosely based on Grierson’s Raid, continues the long, dishonorable Hollywood tradition of obscuring the history of the United States Civil War.

Ford gets just about everything wrong. In place of the 37-year-old ex-music-teacher, he gives us the combination of the 50 year old John Wayne as Colonel Marlowe, the raid’s commanding officer,  and the 41-year-old William Holden as Major Henry Kendall, a regimental surgeon. Holden might have been believable as the real Grierson, had his part been written better. John Wayne is just a drag. Colonel Marlowe, like Grierson, is a clever soldier who knows how to use misdirection and solid intelligence to achieve his objectives without sustaining heavy casualties or shooting up civilians, but Wayne is woefully miscast. It’s 1959, not 1938. He’s beefy and middle-aged, not spare and intense like the real Grierson. He makes no attempt to work up his character as 19th-Century radical Republican. Instead he plays Grierson as yet another dreary “Greatest Generation” veteran of the Second World War. His character is a stereotype out of 100 other World War II films.  To make matters worse, Ford gives him an absurd back story as an ex-railway engineer who lost his wife to an incompetent doctor. That, naturally, sets up a conflict with Kendall. Throw in a love triangle between Holden and Wayne and a fiery southern belle named Hannah Hunter, Constance Towers, and you’re left with a corny Hollywood romance that’s just flat out embarrassing. Marlowe seems to have no place in his outfit for a regimental surgeon. War’s too serious a business for doctors. But he has time for romance? The real Ulysses Grant would have put a man like this in handcuffs before sending him back to his civilian job as a railway engineer.

The only real question is why Ford does it. Why does he shit all over the history of the Grierson raid? Ford, who’s one of the greatest filmmakers in history, could not make a bad movie if he tried. But he tries very hard with The Horse Soldiers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an entertaining two hours, but as light comedy, not history. Surely Ford would have recognized the potential of the real Benjamin Grierson. A man who grew up with a fear of horses becoming the Union Army’s best cavalry commander? How can you possibly pass up a story like that? What’s more, Ford’s no southerner or neo-confederate. He’s a Yankee, born and bred in Cape Elizabeth Maine, an old school progressive Republican and a great admirer of Lincoln. How could he have hacked up such a great story so badly?

David Blight, who’s the Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, tells us why. In his seminal book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Blight discusses how, in the late 19th Century, a consensus developed that the United States Civil War was not about the end of the slave power but about the valour and courage of the soldiers of both sides.  It was not about a great victory of democracy over the dark forces of reaction. It was about “supporting the troops.”

John Ford, who has a reputation as a “conservative,” was, of course, anything but. A liberal nationalist who made the definitive cinematic version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ford’s vision of the United States Civil War comes out of the New Deal, a center-left government, but one run by the Democrats, the party of  the Confederacy.  Franklin Roosevelt, as the leader of a Democratic Party with a progressive, northern wing, and a white supremacist southern wing, could not govern as a flat out Yankee progressive. He had to keep the south. That meant putting Civil Rights on the back burner, and relegating the struggle against Jim Crow to his wife Eleanor. The Second World War made it even more important to avoiding alienating Dixie. The Northeast and Midwest had large German American, Irish American and isolationist factions who would not necessarily side with the United Kingdom against Germany.  Ford did what every other progressive Democrat did. He made compromises.

So he soft-pedalled the immediate political context of the Grierson Raid for the sexual and domestic conflicts among his individual Yankees and Confederates, not all of whom, to his credit, were white. The ridiculous love triangle between Constance Towers, John Wayne, and William Holden becomes a lot more interesting when you realize that it’s actually a ridiculous love quadrangle. Althea Gibson, the African American tennis player, is Hannah Hunter’s loyal “slave” Lukey. Put “slave” in quotes because Hannah Hunter is not only a strongly feminist character. There’s more than a hint of a lesbian relationship between her and Lukey. When Hannah puts on an exaggerated Southern Belle act to fool Marlowe and Kendall, Lukey harshly dresses her down for “talking like a field hand.” The image of the southern woman as a flirt, Ford assures us, is just an act. Southern women, black and white, are strong, highly capable and independent, and just as patriotic and determined to fight the Yankees as southern men.The Civil War doesn’t stop when the soldiers stop shooting and it won’t end at Appomattox.

The South, John Ford is telling us, is feminine, and the North masculine. That’ s not a common way to look at the United States Civil War, but it does make sense, especially when you’ve got John Wayne as the prototypical Yankee. The South was agricultural and romantic, the north industrial and secular. Reconciliation, therefore, becomes as natural as heterosexuality. Conflict is as inevitable as it is in marriage. Whether Constance Towers ends up with John Wayne or William Holden is less important than that she ends up with one of them, and not Althea Gibson.

Not incidentally, the film’s most powerful scene is Lukey’s death at the climatic Battle of Newton Station.

So perhaps John Ford can be forgiven for not making a film that stayed closer to history. The real Grierson Raid would have been entirely too masculine, too much of a northern story, to have turned into a Hollywood film. It was 1959. John Ford had grown old. John Wayne had gotten fat and middle-aged, and the United States had recovered from the Depression. Ford wanted pleasant nostalgia, not history, romance, not war. My guess would be that  he choose the Grierson Raid for his most overt film about the Civil War because of the relatively low death toll. To make a film about the holocaust of the Battle of Gettysburg or Shiloh, to have that many Americans killing that many other Americans, would have been unthinkable only 14 years after the end of World War II. Ford wasn’t asking “why can’t we all get along?” He was pleasantly reveling in how we all did get along.

He was an old man who never saw the 60s coming.