April 02, 2008

Evil Apaches in Sergeant Rutledge

Sergeant Rutledge is one of John Ford's better films. That's because of its portrayals of a black man, not its portrayal of Indians.

Here's the plot:

Sergeant RutledgeThe film revolves around the court-martial of Sgt. Braxton Rutledge, a 'Buffalo Soldier' of the 9th Cavalry, with Jeffrey Hunter as Lt. Tom Cantrell, counsel for the defence. The story is told through flashback, based upon the testimony of several witnesses as they describe the events following the murder of Rutledge's Commanding Officer, and the rape and murder of his daughter.

"It was all right for Mr. Lincoln to say we was free. But that ain't so! Not yet! Maybe someday, but not yet!"

—Sergeant Rutledge
Sergeant RutledgeCircumstantial evidence suggests a first sergeant in a black cavalry regiment has raped and murdered a white girl then killed his commanding officer. When he makes the case look even worse by deserting, an old lieutenant friend is sent to get him back--and finds himself also quelling an Apache uprising. The lieutenant then volunteers to defend the sergeant in court, where the full story starts slowly to emerge.My thoughts

The following sums up my reaction to the movie:For once, John Ford gave his black company player Woody Strode a starring title role as a cavalry officer being tried for the rape of a white woman and a double murder. Told mainly in flashbacks, this effective if slightly overlong western thriller (1960) represents one of Ford's late efforts to treat minority members with more respect than westerns usually did (Cheyenne Autumn was another), and Strode takes full advantage of the opportunity.

--Excerpt from Jonathan Rosenbaum's capsule at the Chicago Reader
As usual, the John Ford film opens with a cavalry marching song. As usual, it's set in Monument Valley, which still doesn't resemble the Arizona/Mexico border. Ford may have been a talented filmmaker, but he repeated himself often. He could've reused footage from his Cavalry Trilogy and saved money on filming.

The year is 1881. Geronimo was captured 2-3 years ago. But a band of Apaches has left the "San Rosario" reservation. Supposedly they want to "blood" themselves to prove they're warriors.

It's roughly the same conceit as in Fort Apache and Rio Grande. Apparently Ford didn't have a lot of original ideas. Or if he did, he didn't use them in setting up his movies.

Indians attack!

At least the Apaches in Sergeant Rutledge look authentic. And the use rifles rather than bows and arrows. But other than that, they're mindless savages.

You can find out how Sgt. Rutledge fared from many sources. (Hint: He's the hero.) Let's see how the Indians fared in the five scenes about them.

1) Left at the train station, Miss Mary Beecher finds the station master dead, shot in the chest with an arrow. As Rutledge flees the scene of the crime, he runs into Beecher. With no motivation or reason, two Apaches suddenly attack. They're literally faceless, since you can't see their faces clearly. Rutledge and Beecher shoot them dead, then forget about them.

2) After Cantrell and his black troops capture Rutledge, they ride after the Apaches, who have torched three ranches so far. They find young Hubble, the son of the trading post owner, staked out in the sun. (Hubble shouldn't be confused with Hubbell, who was a trading post owner in Arizona.) Hubble's body (off-camera) is smoking, so it seems the Apaches burned him. They probably burned him alive because they’re so evil.

3) After fleeing, the Apaches suddenly turn and charge the troops. Naturally they whoop like demons. But they ride around the mass of troops and present themselves as targets. They die because there military "strategy" is primitive and, frankly, stupid.

4) Rutledge gets away from the troops and heads for the river. There he sees the Apaches attacking the Beecher ranch--or at least riding around the corral waving their guns and whooping. Having captured old man Beecher, the Apaches shoot him in cold blood.

5) The Apaches lie in ambush for the troops as they cross the river, but Rutledge saves his comrades by warning them. Since stealth didn't work, the Apaches mount a head-on attack. (Apparently their motto is: "If at first you don't succeed in killing someone, try, try again.") Again they die because their strategy is stupid.

And that’s about it for the mindless savages.

The mythical Sergeant Rutledge

One other tidbit of Indian lore arises. Toward the end of the film, Cantrell finally says what we've been thinking: that this black regiment is the famed Buffalo Soldiers. From IMDB.com:Cantrell explains that the "buffalo soldiers" were so named because when first seen by the Native Americans, the Natives mistook their woolly coats for those of a buffalo. In truth, it was the "nappy" hair of the Black soldiers that lead the Natives to dub the unit as "Buffalo Soldiers," but Cantrell could have been misinformed.In any case, Sergeant Rutledge is their top sergeant and moral leader. They serenade him as “Captain Buffalo” because he's the best of the best. They compare him favorably to John Henry, who’s one of the greatest black men in American history or mythology.

Rutledge is a paragon of virtue. He's as upstanding and honorable as Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones or Brock Peters in To Kill a Mockingbird (two great films). John Wayne could've played the Rutledge role without changing his speech or behavior.

So we have one of the best portrayals of a black person in fictional history. In a film that rejects racial myths and humanizes a minority, just as Huck Finn did 80 years earlier. Yet the same film depicts Indians as screaming beasts of prey. They have no recognizable human traits except killing and dying.

This is what Indians have had to deal with for 500 years. They were the first to be stereotyped and they're arguably the last. No other group would tolerate the racist and stereotypical caricatures that Indians routinely experience.

Despite its racist portrayal of Indians, Sergeant Rutledge is a fine film. Skip The Searchers and The Quiet Man hand and see this one instead. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

P.S. For lots of images of Sergeant Rutledge, see John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge.

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