1960's Sergeant Rutledge may be the worst John Ford movie I've ever seen. It's not altogether bad--an inevitably good Ford western is uncomfortably married to a stiff, political message plot, the awkwardly self-conscious kind common in the civil rights era. It's the very thing Ford avoided in his magnificent The Searchers by putting character first and ideology second. The motives are admirable, but Sergeant Rutledge falls flat in satisfying them.
The title character is played by Woody Strode, though Jeffrey Hunter gets top billing as counsel for Rutledge's defence--the movie follows his court martial for the murder of his commanding officer and the rape and murder of the officer's daughter. Most of the traditionally western elements of the film--American military fighting evil Indians, romance out in the hostile frontier--are shown through flashback.
Maybe racism is to blame for Strode not getting top billing--or even second or third billing. His name doesn't even come before the title. But maybe it's more to do with the fact that he wasn't nearly as good an actor as Jeffrey Hunter. Strode has a great physical presence, a big, muscular man, his face etched with lines, his eyes sunken and his head almost bald, giving his head a skull-like quality. Combined with his harsh, raspy voice and generally impassive demeanour, the guy effortlessly cuts a threatening presence with hardly any lines at all in Once Upon a Time in the West and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This might be appropriate for a man falsely accused of a horrible crime, but Strode simply wasn't capable of the emotional range required of him in some scenes.
I've often wondered why it's so rare to see decent performances from black actors in movies before 1960. Perhaps because there were less black actors, since a black man or woman couldn't hope to attain the success of a white actor, and consequently there was a smaller pool to choose from. Perhaps it was racism on the parts of casting directors who expected bad performances from black actors. Whatever the case, with a few exceptions, most black performers in movies before 1960 come off stiff and sort of amateurish, with overly careful cadence to their speech and self conscious bearings.
Ford has the courage to tackle some of the more specific points of racism in American culture, including Rutledge's fleeing the scene of the crime, making himself look more guilty only because he assumes he won't get justice, and at the very end of the movie the prosecutor overtly brings up Rutledge's skin colour as an argument itself for his guilt. But the former point feels more like a spoken statistic because Rutledge's character lacks depth both due to writing and to Strode's performance, and the latter point is brought up only the once and with a distracting deliberation.
The story of Rutledge showing his valorous nature as a man willing to risk his life for the small group of men holding him in custody when they're forced to battle a group of murderous Indians is well shot and told with Ford's keen instinct for storytelling. But there's no interest in stemming the portrayal of Indians as two dimensional savages here, perhaps due to a feeling that only one civil rights issue could be dealt with at a time.