Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.
This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it puts Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African-American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African-American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.
The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) and the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely station. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.
Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African-American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.
The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African-American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African-American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.
Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers (1956), the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).
Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).
This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).
As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director either being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be my next task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.
Denial is a strange film – a star-laden ‘independent film’, conventional in style and approach but with an intriguing mix of genre elements. Always engaging and involving it certainly delivers for audiences while being dismissed by some mainstream critics. Its release in the UK at the end of the first week of the Trump presidency proved timely as it offers an opportunity to explore concepts of ‘historical truth’ and the difficulty of ‘proving’ it in a court of law.
Denial is another ‘based on a true story’ narrative. It follows the legal proceedings set in train by the British ‘historian’ David Irving who alleged damage to his reputation caused by published statements by the American academic scholar Deborah Lipstadt in her book Denying the Holocaust (1993). Under English law, a libel action such as this is heard in the High Court and the onus of proof is on the defendants (in this case Ms Lipstadt and her publishers Penguin Books). The danger of defending the action was that Irving, a notorious right-wing Holocaust denier, would get the chance in court to expound on his own views and attack the statements of defence witnesses. In many cases libel actions are ‘settled’ out of court but would this be acceptable/advisable in this case. Deborah Lipstadt decided to fight and the film narrative is based on her book about the case.
The production did not have major studio backing but the three US and UK companies did receive support from BBC Films in the UK. In the US the film was released by the independent Bleeker Street but in the UK it is an eOne release, i.e. from one of the two ‘mini-majors’ (eOne is a Canadian-US-European multinational). The film’s cast boasts four central performances from acclaimed actors. Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, Tom Wilkinson plays her barrister Richard Rampton and Timothy Spall plays David Irving. All three are very good and deliver the performances their reputations suggest. But for me the standout, in a smaller role, is Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius, the solicitor who Lipstadt turns to first. Irish actor Scott is currently being feted for his Hamlet at the Almeida in London and his performance in the difficult role of Julius is very impressive. David Hare adapted Lipstadt’s narrative (the courtroom dialogue is taken from the court transcript). Hare is a distinguished British playwright who is also well-known for his screenplays and for his films as a director. I haven’t seen much of his recent work but I remember his 1980s films such as Paris By Night (1988) and Plenty (1985) (directed by Fred Schepisi, written by Hare from his own play). I thought both films struggled to utilise the powers of their leads (Charlotte Rampling and Meryl Streep respectively). Rachel Weisz does better in this new film. Denial is directed by Mick Jackson. I was surprised to find that back in the 1980s Jackson directed the Barry Hines scripted Threads (1984) – one of the great British TV films about the possible effects of nuclear war. In the 1990s he went to Hollywood and scored with The Bodyguard (1992) with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner but in 1997 he the disaster movie Volcano proved to be his last cinema film for nearly twenty years (all spent on TV projects). Why did the producers choose Hare and Jackson as a team?
The key to Denial is, I think, the generic mix and how it works with the Holocaust discourse. At the centre of Denial is a courtroom drama with very high stakes. But the film is effectively a drama-doc – a dramatised reconstruction of actual events. So, although the trial is gripping, we know the outcome already and there are no real surprises. The trial was finally held in 2000 by which time the discourse of Holocaust studies/films/books etc. was developing further. Steven Spielberg, whose 1993 film Schindler’s List raised the profile of Holocaust narratives is mentioned in Denial‘s script. The Holocaust narrative in Denial is focused on the dilemma for Lipstadt and her defence team about how they should deal with the emotions and hurt that Irving’s vile outpourings were bound to threaten. The script veers towards making this a conflict between British and American attitudes to the libel case and this in turn means that the narrative must include an explanation for audiences of the crucial difference between English and American law, despite the fact that American law is based on English Common Law principles. (I can’t remember if the script refers to ‘UK law’, but American readers should note that Scottish law is a different beast altogether.) This conflict is neatly symbolised (or ‘heavily signalled’) by a tiny action in which at the beginning of the trial Deborah Lipstadt refuses to bow to the presiding judge when the trial begins, but at the end of the trial seems to have become ‘anglicised’ and bows like everyone else. I’m not sure how much patience American audiences will have for this narrative, but for me it was the most interesting part of the film. The emotion is carried partly by the existence of Holocaust survivors who the defence team, to Lipstadt’s dismay, are reluctant to use in court. For narrative convenience, only one such survivor is singled out (played by Harriet Walter, one of several well-known British actors playing smaller roles.) Rampton must refute Irving’s claims by conducting a case which shows evidence that buildings in Auschwitz were used to gas Jewish (and other) inmates of the concentration camp. This isn’t straightforward.
The potential Anglo-American split is also played out in the relationship between Lipstadt and Richard Rampton. Wilkinson’s Rampton is initially seen by Lipstadt as cold, detached and lacking compassion. There is no suggestion of any kind of romance between the two but the script displays what might be thought of as tropes of a romance narrative as Rampton visits his client’s room with a bottle of wine and she seeks him out in a café. Part of the conflict revolves around the social class distinctions of the English legal profession and alongside the emotional questions this is brought out first on a trip to Auschwitz which, as Rampton himself points out, is not for “memorialising” but for forensics – it is a crime scene and he must prove what happened.
Denial has done steady but not spectacular business for a narrative of this kind in the UK, making £730,000 in five weeks. I suspect it appeals mainly to older audiences and that it will find a wider audience on TV, where its star names will attract viewers who will be rewarded by the script and performances. As a cinema film it does feel a little ‘clunky’ but in truth Mick Jackson has only limited opportunities for visual display. He focuses on a foggy Auschwitz visit with some success but primarily this is about skilled actors and a highly literate script delivered in meeting rooms and Kingston County Hall masquerading as the High Court on the Strand.