Since I saw him in Spartacus as Kirk Douglas' sparring partner in the gladiator ring, I've been a fan of Woody Strode. An imposing physical presence, the former UCLA football star turned to movies and made a career out of playing roles that typically needed him to be large and imposing while forsaking his actual acting ability. Strode shows off that ability in a career-best performance in this John Ford directed western and somehow gets fourth billing. Maybe it was because he wasn't the biggest star or name actor, but I think it's ridiculous that he's hidden below in the credit sequence at the beginning of the movie. Credits be damned, the performance is a keeper.
For seven years, Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) has served as an officer with the 9th Cavalry on the American frontier, including working often with First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Strode), the top soldier in the outfit. Now, Cantrell finds himself defending Rutledge in a trial with a rape and two murder charges pinned against him. But the Lt. knows this man too well to believe what's being said about him, but now he has to prove the man's innocence against a rabid prosecutor (Carleton Young) and the presiding army judge (Willis Bouchey). With everything stacked against him, Cantrell does his best to present the truth through a series of witnesses and flashbacks that show what really happened.
This is quite a departure for Ford that saw movies later in his career try to deliver more of a message about the old west, racism here, myth and legend in 'Liberty Valance,' and Indian mistreatment in Cheyenne Autumn. On top of that, this isn't a typical Ford cavalry western. He takes a crack at doing a courtroom drama with some mixed results, but overall it works. He uses a handful of lighting techniques while shooting the trial, lots of light and pitch-black dark, as the story morphs into flashbacks which split time in some studio sets and Ford's stomping ground, Monument Valley. Of course, it is a Ford movie, and he gets a couple 'Ford-isms' in, like a group of tittering, tottering old ladies led by Billie Burke and then Judson Pratt's drinking, card shark of an officer filling in not so admirably for the recently passed Victor McLaglen. Little things like that are annoying, but not a movie killer.
In terms of story, this is one of Ford's better ventures. He blends the flashback of Rutledge's arrest and the patrol getting him back to the fort with the actual courtroom testimony. The patrol flashback is Ford hitting a home run, scenes where you expect John Wayne to ride in off the horizon. Working with Ford for a third time, Hunter is excellent as Lt. Cantrell, an officer who must balance his personal beliefs with what the army is telling him. Leading the patrol, Cantrell wavers over whether to let Rutledge just ride away rather than face a trial. Constance Towers is along as Mary Beecher, a young woman coming back to visit her father only to find she's traveled into an Apache uprising. Cantrell's patrol includes a fair share of uncredited actors playing the black cavalry troopers -- they're not listed ANYWHERE -- with Juano Hernandez's Sgt. Skidmore the only representative, a good part as a former slave turned cavalry trooper.
Not quite as comfortable as the outdoor patrol scenes is the courtroom drama. For most of the movie, these quick snippets serve as nothing more than a way to get at the patrol storyline. But every so often, we get that Ford humor which drives me nuts, the group of sophisticated older women who gasp and sigh at every other thing said, or Pratt's Lt. character hamming it up as part of the review board. Bouchey's Colonel Fosgate does his best to remain order in a nice supporting part, and Young goes to town as Capt. Shattuck, the possibly racist prosecutor. The last act comes together a little too quickly for my liking -- the reveal of the real killer is almost a throwaway -- as Cantrell pieces it all together. But that's almost gravy, you're sure from the start Strode's Sgt. Rutledge DID NOT kill his commanding officer and rape a white woman.
He's Woody Strode, of course he didn't do those things. Usually relegated to background characters, Strode hits all the right notes here with a part that allows him to show off his skills -- and not just physically. His first introduction is of a rough but capable trooper trying to save Towers' life from two marauding Apache warriors. When questioned in the field, he refuses to cooperate, thinking the noose is waiting for him no matter what he says. The highlight of the performance is Rutledge on the witness stand as the sergeant explains why he comes back. It is a quick outburst but a very moving one. Strode was never better than he was here, his performance making up for any other issues I may have with this western. He certainly delivered higher billing, even if it was only ahead of Burke's annoying performance.
Sergeant Rutledge <----TCM trailer (1960): ***/****