My Classic Movie Pick: Sergeant Rutledge

Today’s post is for the  John Ford Blogathon.  If you aren’t too familiar with John Ford, he was a film director and considered one of the best in his field.  This blogathon is being hosted by Krell Laboratories  and Bemused and Nonplussed.  Be sure to visit those two blogs to read more great posts about director John Ford and about his movies.


JF Blogathon

Ford directed many movies and he began his career during the silent movie era and continued to direct until 1976.  I’ve included his info from IMDB if you want to read more about his rich movie-making  career.

In 1960 he directed a simple film, simple that it wasn’t one of his storied long films.  Simple in that the plot was very straightforward.  Simple in that the lead actors weren’t his usual well-knowns, such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, or Maureen O’Hara.  The film I chose to write about is Sergeant Rutledge.  Its main stars were Woody Strode, Jeffrey Hunter, and Constance Towers.  Sgt. Rutledge poster 1

Sergeant Rutledge is set in the west of the 1880s and it  tells its tale mostly through a series of flashbacks.  Sergeant Braxton  Rutledge( Woody Strode)  is a member of the 9th Calvary, which was also nicknamed the Buffalo soldiers; made up entirely of black men serving their country.   The movie opens  in a courtroom because Sergeant Rutledge is on trial.  The trial is a court-martial for  Sergeant Rutledge and he   has been accused of two horrific crimes: the murder of his Commanding Officer, Major Dabney, and  the rape and murder of Dabney’s teen daughter.

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence to link Sergeant Rutledge to the crimes but as we see through the flashbacks, he is an upright and innocent man.  Lieutenant Tom Cantrell(Jeffrey Hunter) is the officer in charge of the 9th Calvary and it is his duty to arrest Sergeant Rutledge and take him to the fort’s prison to await the trial.  As members of the 9th Calvary and Lt. Cantrell are about to take in Sergeant Rutledge, he is able to escape on his horse   which forces  the 9th Calvary to go after him.

Sergeant Rutledge finds a train depot to hide out at;it’s in the middle of a dry, nowhere place.  Here he meets by accident a lady traveler, Mary Beecher(Constance Towers).  She has arrived at the depot to await her father but when she finds the station agent, she is horrified to discover that he’s dead!   Wandering outside the station, it’s now  nighttime, wondering what she should do,  she is grabbed by the Sergeant in order to keep her quiet-she doesn’t realize that the depot is surrounded by Apaches and that she and the Sergeant will have to use their wits in order to get away from the depot without being killed.  Part of that scene is available to watch here.

Sergeant Rutledge  and Mary are able to get away safely and meet up with Lt. Cantrell and the rest of the 9th Calvary.  The sergeant is able to warn them about a possible Apache attack  and towards the end of that scene, as a fellow calvary comrade, Moffat, lies dying from his wound in Sergeant Rutledge’s arms, is a moving discussion between the two men as to why they should keep on fighting for the US Calvary.  That scene is here.

As the trial begins, we see that Lt. Cantrell will be Sergeant Rutledge’s defense attorney.  Despite Mary Beecher’s testimony in favor of the Sergeant’s character, and the same from Sergeant Skidmore, Rutledge’s worst fears are realized by the work of  a hostile prosecutor and from  the community that lives in the town closest to the fort; already stirred up and convinced of the black sergeant’s guilt.  Despite these serious issues, the trial doesn’t turn out as Sergeant Rutledge thinks it will.

Woody Strode was a native of Los Angeles and a star football player on 1939’s UCLA team.   He was also one of two black men to first ever play in the NFL, joining the Los Angleles Rams in 1946.   Acting came easily to him and with his commanding presence and athletic build, he was a natural for the camera’s eye.  He is strong, stoic, courageous, and cautious as Sergeant Rutledge.  It was his first role to be the lead and he handled it excellently.

Jeffrey Hunter, who had appeared in John Ford’s more famous film, The Searchers, is good as Lt. Cantrell.  He is sincere in his beliefs that his 9th Calvary men are just as equal to serve in the US Calvary as white men are.   He is sure that Sergeant Rutledge is innocent of the horrific crimes he is accused of and is determined to defend him to the best of his abilities.  Lt. Cantrell also can’t help falling in love with Mary Beecher, so there is a touch of romance in the film, too.

Constance Towers is beautiful and gives  a terrific performance as Mary Beecher.  She conveys so much with her eyes.  She is the main female in this world inhabited mostly by men and she is strong, not willing to hide behind her femininity or to use it for her own betterment, disregarding the other people in this world she didn’t purposely enter.

Look for wonderful supporting actors Juano Hernandez as Sergeant Skidmore and a scene-stealing Billie Burke(Glenda the Good Witch herself!) as Cordelia Fosgate.

Sergeant Rutledge is available through Turner Classic Movies Shop in a 5 dvd set of some of John Ford’s films.   It is also available to purchase through Amazon or to watch it through their instant rent program.   The OV Guide also has the film available to watch online, for free.

Filmed in the spare yet beautiul Monument Valley area of Utah, see Sergeant Rutledge for a John Ford film that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.  I’ll close this blog out with some more photos from the film.

Woody Strode as Sergeant Braxton Rutledge

Woody Strode as Sergeant Braxton Rutledge

Jeffrey Hunter, on the left, as Lt. Cantrell

Jeffrey Hunter, on the left, as Lt. Cantrell


Constance Towers as Mary Beecher

Constance Towers as Mary Beecher







12 responses to this post.

  1. […] at portraitsbyjenni on Sergeant Rutledge […]


  2. Great write-up, Jenni! This is the Ford film I now want to become more familiar with, upon reading this.


  3. Great review of a Ford film I’d never even heard of. Thanks for the introduction, this blogathon has introduced me to all the gaps in my Ford knowledge!


  4. I’ve always thought this was one of Ford’s most underrated films. There’s a lot of expressionistic cinematography here, and Ford’s attitude toward the military is a lot more cynical (as it would be with the rest of his films).


  5. This sounds like a terrific film that I need to see. Thanks for the introduction! 🙂


  6. Sgt. Rutledge fits well into Ford’s long list of films centered around life in the US Calvary. It came at a point in his career and life when he began to re-evaluate the Western myths he had earlier helped create. The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and Cheyenne Autumn also share themes about regret at the passing of the frontier, the loss of rugged individualism, and the need to atone for racism.


    • Yes, I also believe it was part of his looking back at earlier films he had made, how the minorities had been perceived in his films, and that Sergeant Rutledge was a way to atone for some of those past portrayals.


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