A potent film about justice, Sergeant Rutledge stands among the greatest works of John Ford. Sergeant Braxton Rutledge is on trial for his life, as he has been court marshalled for murdering a superior officer and his daughter. He is a member of one of the first black cavalry regiments instatement after the freeing of the slaves, and by all accounts is a model soldier. Set in a courtroom, each individual witness testimony evokes vivid flashback sequences that paint bit by bit the events that transpired that day, with exception, of course to the crime itself. The man defending Rutledge is a friend, Lt. Tom Cantrell, who believes completely in his innocence.
There is a painterly quality to the film’s cinematography, especially in the early scenes. It creates a world that is close to being real, but isn’t quite. Mary Beecher’s first encounter with Rutledge is on a dark night, she has been dropped off at a train station where she was to meet her father. No one is there, and she soon finds the station master dead, and is soon grabbed by Rutledge rather violently. The scene is one out of a horror film, an extension of her anxiety and fear painted into the darkness of the setting. Even the weather seems to storm around the small station, isolating the two and creating an incredible sense of dread. The rest of the film isn’t nearly as visually affecting as this early sequence but the whole thing speaks for Ford’s style, evoking idolization and strength especially through editing and low angle shots.
At it’s heart, the film is about the changing face of a country because of the Emancipation Proclamation, and how despite it’s inception, men are still not free. Sergeant Rutledge’s primary struggle is this idea that he is not an equal, and the colour of his skin damns him even before he has an opportunity to defend himself. His pride and belief that one day black men and women will be given the same opportunities and treated with the same dignity is what drives his decision to run off, and motivates his cryptic confessions and testimony. Even though under the eyes of the law he is supposedly free, he does not feel that way, and his sacrifice is the sacrifice for his “family”, that they may not be tainted by the blind accusations. Woody Strode gives probably a career performance as Rutledge, bringing a huge amount of emotional and historical weight to his performance. His testimony is heart-wrenching, but it never crosses the line into melodrama or attention baiting. It is one of the most sincere expressions of ideology and social criticism I have ever seen put to film. Apparently, Strode said this was the favourite film of his career (one that included such classics as Once Upon a Time in the West, Spartacus, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and the Ten Commandments, among others).
Though often forgotten between two of Ford’s more famous films, this deserves it’s due as a startling portrait of justice and Americana.