#24 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
There was a moment about halfway through this film when I thought it was going to stand as one of John Ford’s greatest triumphs. If the movie had simply kept to the actual story it was trying to tell, I probably would have kept onto that opinion, but the decision to make a courtroom drama out of it and falling into some of the worst tropes of the genre hobbled it far too much. The overall movie ends up a good look at a complex situation with wonderfully drawn and performed characters, but the overall structure imposes a clean ending that the core story doesn’t need. It’s a good film that really should have been great.
The majority of the film is told in a series of flashbacks during the court martial of Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode), a black top sergeant in the Ninth Cavalry during the Indian Wars. Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), also Rutledge’s commanding officer, has just arrived at the fort to serve as the accused’s defense counsel in the trial arranged to determine Rutledge’s guilt in the killing of Major Dabney and the rape of Dabney’s daughter Lucy (Toby Michaels). The prosecution is led by Captain Shattuck (Carleton Young) while the court martial is led by Lieutenant Colonel Otis Fosgate (Willis Bouchey).
From the beginning, the marriage of the court martial flashback structure and the unfolding of the drama feels somewhat uncomfortable, but it approaches it interestingly from the beginning. Shattuck’s first witness is Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), a former denizen of the area who had returned to live with her father after twelve years back east. Her contribution, the first, to the narrative actually begins a good bit into the actual narrative of the flashbacks, Shattuck trying to paint the accused in the worst light by getting only a partial telling of Mary’s events out. Cantrell gets Mary to tell the rest of her story, though, and the prosecution’s efforts kind of fall apart a bit (as I said, the court martial structure never quite works). She arrived at the remote station to await for her father, but Rutledge came to her in the dark of the night to protect her from a roving band of Apache that had already gotten through, killing a couple of them in defense of Mary in the process.
I was thinking of the recent The Last Duel while watching this, considering how that film took the tact of having the same events and recasting them based on the perceptions and recollections of the three primary points of view. I knew that this wasn’t going to be making a similar effort, and what does end up happening makes the court martial setting more redundant than illuminative. Each witness gives different slices of the same take, and, even more curiously, we never get Sergeant Rutledge’s take of the actual crime he’s on trial for. In fact, the actual crime, because the court martial is really just an excuse to use flashbacks to get to the meat of the story, feels like an afterthought during the trial, spoken of with great gravity towards the beginning, especially around the testimony of Fosgate’s wife Cordelia (Billie Burke) who spoke of Lucy directly, giving us our only direct look at the victim. The trial simply moves on to focus on the events past the crime to Rutledge’s eventual final arrest. In a military court martial like this, it does seem like his conduct under arrest would be a consideration but not at the near complete dismissal of the base crime. The marriage of the structure and the actual story is never more than uneasy.
And yet, for about thirty minutes, I simply didn’t care. I saw the court martial as an excuse to get to the actual story, and the actual story was great. I saw this as the much more mature take of Tyree’s subplot in Rio Grande. It’s a balance of personal self-interest against duty to the cavalry that makes the film feel completely at home with the Cavalry Trilogy. Lieutenant Cantrell led the party that captured Rutledge, forced to continue on with their mission of trying to protect the white settlements from the roving Apache warband. They also must bring along Mary, creating a conflict between Cantrell and Mary since they had begun a nascent romance that gets halted due to Cantrell’s duty to arrest the wanted Rutledge, despite his good conduct towards her. This creates a nice mirror between Cantrell and Rutledge that helps fill out the film nicely.
The core of it, though, is that it’s obvious that Rutledge never did the crime he’s accused of. I’m not sure if there’s an audience who would see the movie and figure Rutledge as the guilty party. It’s just not that kind of movie. Because we know he’s innocent, without ever getting a look at the actual crime, we can focus less on the particulars of his innocence or guilt and spend more time considering his moral quandary. He’s a black man accused of killing two white people and raping a white woman. Of course, he’s going to run. His efforts to push the other black soldiers away from him when he’s caught, in order to protect them (a moment recounted by Cantrell that he never witnessed), is such a strong moment that fully embraces the complexities of the story at play.
I was going back and forth through the latter half of the film, wondering if it was fully great or merely very good because of the court martial, until the final ten minutes. After the recounting of Rutledge’s selfless effort to save the Ninth from an Indian attack after he had gotten away and could have simply rode to freedom, Ford offers up one of the most cliched endings of his career. The court martial, never feeling terribly genuine but solid enough to convey the actual story, descends into silliness with the effort to tie up all of the loose ends at once, getting a minor character up on the stand to break under fifteen seconds of tough questioning into admitting his own guilt. I don’t think this movie needed the pat resolution offered up, and it definitely didn’t need it in the cliched manner of a last second surprise witness who just spills all the beans. My opinion of the film dropped at that.
I kind of wish the court martial element had simply been cut. There’s entertainment to be had, offering up the only real comedic relief mostly around Fosgate, his “water”, and his wife, but the unrealistic take on trials and cliched ending just work against the film and the actual story. In the actual story, though, Jeffrey Hunter and Woody Strode stand remarkably tall in a pair of fantastic performances that offer real masculinity, strength, and introspection to carry their parts of the film. I regret not liking this film more, but it’s really the film’s fault for that.
As a whole, this is a great movie inside an unfortunate one. I’d rather just watch the great movie next time.