Sunday, February 11, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Sergeant Rutledge (1960) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

One of the films I most enjoyed at last fall's Lone Pine Film Festival was SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (1960), directed by John Ford.

We saw this film on Friday evening of the festival. Seeing it for the first time with an appreciative audience on a good-sized screen was a wonderful experience. I planned to write about it soon after the festival, but time got away from me!

I wanted to be sure to share some thoughts on this somewhat lesser-known Ford film here, in hopes that others who've not yet seen it might check it out. I liked the film so much that I bought a Ford DVD set which includes this title shortly after the festival; given that it's been four months since I saw the movie, I put in the DVD and gave it a second look today. A film worth watching twice in just a third of a year is a very good movie, to my way of thinking -- which shouldn't be a surprise given that it was directed by Ford.

The story is presented in a series of flashbacks during the court-martial of 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode), who's suspected of killing his commanding officer and the man's daughter Lucy (Toby Michaels).

(Note to self: You don't want to be a young woman named Lucy in a Ford film! I can think of at least three who had a bad time of it, and two of them ended up dead.)

We learn that Rutledge, fearing his innocence would be challenged due to his race, had fled the post after being seen at the site of the murders. He ends up at a train depot in the middle of nowhere, where he saves Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) from maurauding Indians.

The next day Rutledge's old friend Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), who had also very recently made Mary's acquaintance, shows up at the train depot and arrests Rutledge. He believes in Rutledge's innocence, however, and represents him at the court-martial, where the prosecuting captain (Carleton Young) is clearly motivated more by racism than by evidence, ignoring Rutledge's long and impressive record as a man of character and courage.

I only have two minor complaints about the film. The first is that Young's attorney, Captain Shattuck, is so over the top in his behavior that he veers into being a cartoon character. I think it would have been more powerful if Shattuck and his racism were presented more subtly, as he comes off as downright unbelievable at times. The viewer wants to smack him almost from the first moment he appears on screen.

My other issue is that an early part of the story seems faulty. Schedule or no schedule, I find it difficult to believe that a soldier and railroad employees would drop a young woman off at an empty train station in the middle of nowhere, at midnight, with no station master in sight. There was a contrived bit with Hank Worden insisting on hurrying along the train but I still had trouble believing the complete lack of gallantry! However, if they hadn't left her there, much of the initial story would have had to be reworked, so there you have it.

Otherwise, it's a film I enjoyed a great deal. There's always more to notice and take in in a Ford film, and I loved spending additional time with the film and its characters, getting to know the movie better. I also appreciate that the film features an interesting slice of Western history in the Buffalo Soldiers.

Hunter has always been appealing to me, and Towers has a unique screen persona, intelligent and perhaps not classically beautiful, but striking.

Best of all is Strode in a majestic performance as the towering "Top Soldier," Braxton Rutledge. Strode, who became a close friend of director Ford, is simply wonderful, particularly in the courtroom scene where he struggles to explain why he had to save his troop instead of taking the chance to run away.

Granted, Strode was not a star at the time, but today it's jarring seeing him billed below the title, especially when he played the title character -- and all the more so as supporting actress Burke is billed above the title.

Burke contributes her usual dizzy performance as the wife of Col. Fosgate (Willis Bouchey), who runs the court-martial. Ford regular Mae Marsh is also on hand as Burke's friend; the officers' wives in their pastel dresses look like so many Easter eggs as they flutter their fans in the hot courtroom.

The always-excellent Juano Hernandez costars as an aged Buffalo Soldier. Also in the cast are Jack Pennick, Judson Pratt, Rafer Johnson, Cliff Lyons, Fred Libby, Walter Reed, Shug Fisher, and Chuck Roberson, to name a few. IMDb lists William Wellman Jr. as a courtroom guard, but I didn't pick him out; I hope to ask him about it at a future festival.

A side note on Constance Towers: She had previously appeared in Ford's THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959), another Ford film I need to watch for the first time. (I recently picked up a copy of that one, as well!) She has been on my mind this week due to the passing of her husband, actor John Gavin. Gavin served as President Reagan's Ambassador to Mexico from 1981 to 1986, with Towers representing our country alongside him.

Prior to those years, I was fortunate to see her sing on stage on two different occasions in the mid '70s, in the musical review RODGERS & HART, costarring Harve Presnell, and opposite Yul Brynner in THE KING AND I. Those are both cherished memories; I was about 12 when I saw the first show, at the Westwood Playhouse, and 13 or 14 when I saw THE KING AND I at the Pantages Theatre. I'm blessed that my parents took me to see so much good theater and music from an early age!

SERGEANT RUTLEDGE was filmed in Technicolor by Bert Glennon, on location in Arizona and Utah, including Monument Valley. It runs 111 well-paced minutes.

The Lone Pine Film Festival screening we attended was followed by a discussion on Buffalo soldiers, John Ford, and racism conducted by historians Bob Boze Bell and John Langellier. We sadly had to pass on that in order to get some sleep, as we had an early wakeup call Saturday morning. There are always hard decisions on how to split one's time at film festivals! I wanted to mention that, though, to help illustrate why the Lone Pine Film Festival is such a valuable experience, with many varied opportunities.

In addition to the Ford DVD set mentioned above, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE has recently been reissued as a single-title DVD by the Warner Archive.

5 Comments:

Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Any Ford film on the big screen is indeed a thrill.

My late dad was a huge Woody Strode fan, and particularly of this film. The flaws are indeed annoying, but the overall effect is very satisfying storytelling.

I envy your seeing Connie Towers live. I think she has one of the loveliest of soprano voices.

6:24 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Haven't seen this in a while but remember enjoying most of it. I liked Constance Towers in this and The Horse Soldiers. Don't know why she didn't do many films. Lucky you, seeing her on stage!

11:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Vienna! It is interesting Towers did relatively few films -- perhaps because she was also spending a lot of time on stage? And in later years she played Helena Cassadine on TV's GENERAL HOSPITAL -- a role briefly originated by Elizabeth Taylor!

I'm looking forward to seeing her in THE HORSE SOLDIERS, that's a definite 2018 goal!

Best wishes,
Laura

8:34 PM  
OpenID Walter Severs said...

Laura, what a well written article about a really good movie. I first saw SERGEANT RUTLEDGE(1960) back in the 1960's. ABC affiliate Channel 8 KAIT-TV showed this movie often in the late '60's and early '70's. Woody Strode(1914-94) had such a strong memorable screen presence. I will never forget his performance, especially the scene where, during his testimony, he gave his heart wrenching reason for why he couldn't run away from his home, which was the 9th Cavalry. In an interview Woody said proudly, "There I was up on the screen riding through Monument Valley, just like John Wayne."

The cast members were really quite good. I have always liked Jeff Hunter, ever since I watched him in his television show TEMPLE HOUSTON(1963-64) and of course, THE SEARCHERS(1956) Constance Towers is so talented and underrated as a movie actress. She gives another good performance in THE HORSE SOLDIERS(1959), Director John Ford personally liked her because she knew all the old Irish songs.

I'm envious because you saw Constance Towers and Yul Brynner in THE KING AND I as well as the musical review RODGERS AND HART with Harve Presnell.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Walter! So nice of you to come over here from the 50 Westerns site and join the conversation. I appreciate the kind words!

Strode did have such a powerful presence -- that scene you mention was really emotional. I love him commenting on riding through Monument Valley.

That's also a great bit about Towers knowing songs Ford appreciated. I was fortunate indeed to see her on stage!

Best wishes,
Laura

3:40 PM  

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