Friday, September 10, 2010

Sergeant Rutledge

TCM is showing the fine John Ford western Sergeant Rutledge tomorrow at noon ET.

Sergeant Rutledge is a bit of an atypical western, in that it's no so much a traditional western as it is a courtroom procedural that happens to set out in the old West. The movie could easily be Anatomy of a Murder or The Caine Mutiny. The movie starts off with Army Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) coming to the fort town. He's the counsel for the defense, and is expected to defend Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode) against a court-martial on a count of rape and two counts of murder. And, it's during the trial that we begin to learn the details of the case....

A lot of events came together on one fateful night. Lt. Cantrell's girlfriend Mary (Constance Towers) is returning from the east coast on a night train, but is stopped by Brax at the station. He knows that there's been an Indian ambush, and there may still be some Indians at the station -- after all, they've killed the station master. However, he's also been in town, where he is generally believed to be the last person to have seen the two murder victims (the rape victim and her father) alive. Complicating matters is the fact that Brax is one of the "Buffalo Soldiers", those black cavalrymen who went west after the Civil War to serve with distinction in the Army. Back in those days, nobody would take the word of a black defendant accused of raping and murdering a white girl. Still, Cantrell is determined to give the man a proper defense....

Sergeant Rutledge is the sort of movie that's a bit difficult to give a detailed synopsis to without giving away the key plot elements. Instead, it's probably better to look at the performances. Woody Strode is the keystone here, and provides an excellent performance. It says something not too flatering about Hollywood in 1960 when the movie was released that, despite the movie being about this one man, Strode could only get fourth billing. Top billing goes to Hunter, who isn't a particular favorite of mine, mostly because I'm not a huge fan of westerns or the 1950s adventure movies that were a staple of his career. However, his portrayal of the military defense attorney is more than adequate. Towers gets second billing, and has a role that I personally find easier than Linda Darnell's in No Way Out. Towers' part is just too modern; not that it's her fault, of course. Getting the third spot is actually Billie Burke. She plays the wife of the presiding judge at the court-martial, and is also a witness in the case. Most of her role is providing the light relief. She had had long practice playing such roles in Dinner at Eight and Topper, and in this, her final film, she pulls the same stuff off just fine. John Ford's direction is good, but probably at its best when he gets to go outside in Monument Valley. The courtroom scenes seem too stereotyped, especially in the use of lighting particular characters.

Still, Sergeant Rutledge is a satisfying and worthwhile movie. It's also been released to DVD.

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