Thursday, November 11, 2021

Woody Strode is “Sergeant Rutledge”

Sergeant Rutledge (1960) is an American Western film directed by John Ford, starring Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Towers, and Woody Strode in the title role. Other actors in the supporting cast include Billie Burke and Juano Hernandez. Of all of Ford’s films, this may be the least well-known.

First Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Strode) of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, which included several colored regiments during the late-19th century, is accused of killing his commanding officer Major Custis Dabney and the rape and murder of his daughter Lucy.

Circumstantial evidence piles up against Rutledge and his conduct, including deserting the Cavalry, make his guilt seem more certain than before. First Lt. Tom Cantrell (Hunter), also of the 9th Cavalry believes Rutledge to be innocent and defends him at trial.

Woody Strode, Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Towers

John Ford (1894 – 1946) was an American film director. Best known for his classic westerns. Ironically he won four Best Director Oscars for non-western films, a record that has yet to be equaled. Ford directed more than 140 films going back to the silent era. Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman are among the many who consider Ford the greatest director of all time.

Jeffrey Hunter (1926 - 1969) was an American film and television actor. He was signed to a long-term contract by 20th Century-Fox in the early 1950s and the studio groomed him for stardom, starting him out in small roles, and eventually offering him lead roles alongside some of the studio’s top stars. He was in competition for roles at Fox with fellow contract player Robert Wagner. The top stardom didn’t come at Fox. Hunter was cast in the second lead of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) supporting John Wayne on loan from Fox. He made another film with Ford, The Last Hurrah (1958) starring Spencer Tracy. He left Fox in 1960 and the following year starred in King of Kings (1961) in the role of Jesus Christ. The film was a box office hit and probably the film Hunter is most remembered for. Hunter continued to make films and appeared often on television. In 1964, Hunter starred as Captain Christopher Pike in “The Cage,” the first pilot for Star Trek. Hunter declined to make another pilot for Star Trek and was too expensive to have been its star when the show went into production. While filming a movie in Spain in 1968, Hunter suffered a severe concussion, leaving him unable to speak. While recovering, he fell down the stairs at his home and hit his head, knocking him unconscious. He died after undergoing brain surgery on May 27, 1969. He was only 42.

Constance Towers (1933 - ) is an American film, stage, and television actress, and singer. Towers was a child voice actress on the radio in her native Montana.  She got her start in film during the mid-1950s and then transitioned to acting in the theater, including many Broadway productions. Towers starred in revivals of Show Boat (1966) and as Anna in The King and I (1977 and 1978). Later in her career, she played Clarissa McCandless on the daytime drama Capitol (1982 to 1987). She also play the soap opera villain on General Hospital beginning in 1997. Towers has appeared on numerous television series including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Designing Women, Fraiser, The Rockford Files, L.A. Law, and Cold Case. She was married to actor John Gavin from 1974 until his death in 2018 at the age of 86.

Woody Strode (1914 - 1994) was an American athlete and actor. Strode played football at UCLA with Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson in 1939. Strode made early film appearances in the early 1940s before the United States entered World War II. He was drafted at age 27 and served in the United States Army Air Corps. After the war, Strode resumed his acting career in the 1950s in mostly walk-on and/or supporting roles. In 1960 he was cast as the Ethiopian gladiator Draba in Sparticus receiving a nomination for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. Around this time he became friends with director John Ford. Ford would go on to cast Strode in the title role of Sergeant Rutledge against the studio which wanted either Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte. Strode’s film and television career continued steadily until his death in 1994 at the age of 80.

Sergeant Rutledge trivia:

  • John Ford got Woody Strode drunk to get a better performance out of him in a particular scene.
  • This was the third film Jeffrey Hunter made with John Ford.
  • Constance Towers starred alongside John Wayne and William Holden in The Horse Soldiers (1959), the year before she starred in Sergeant Rutledge.
  • Although well-received critically, the film was a box office disappointment.

To watch the film on YouTube, click on the link below.

To join in the discussion on November 15, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. click here. Once you RSVP, you will receive an email with an invitation and a link for the discussion on Zoom.

Why watch this film?

  • One of the earliest studio films to cast a black actor in a lead role.
  • It is a John Ford film that gets passed over when his work is reviewed and discussed.
  • The film has developed a higher profile over the decades since its release due to the subject matter which was ahead of its time.

Discussion questions:

  1. What was your overall impression of the film? Did you like the narrative flow?
  2. Did you think the film portrayed the time and setting accurately?
  3. Would you have cast another actor, i.e., Sidney Poitier or Harry Belefonte in the role of Rutledge?
  4. What did you make of the relationship between Rutledge and Cantrell? Between Rutledge and Mary Beecher?
  5. Do you think the film holds up today?
  6. Did anything surprise you?
  7. How does this film compare to other movies directed by John Ford?

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