Sergeant Routledge

John Ford’s Western of 1960, Sergeant Rutledge, is one of his most underrated films, perhaps because it was misunderstood as just another military courtroom drama.

But in actuality, the flashbacks, which show the witnesses’ testimonies are far more interesting and dominant in the film.

Among other distinctions, Sergeant Routledge is the first Ford Western that offers a lead role to a black actor, Woody Strode, equal in size to that of the white nominal hero, played by the handsome Jeffrey Hunter.

At the center is the court-martial of 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Strode), a “Buffalo Soldier” of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, whose defense is represented by Lt. Tom Cantrell (Hunter), Rutledge’s troop officer.

As noted, the story is told through half a dozen flashbacks, which show and expand the testimony of witnesses as they describe the events after the murder of Rutledge’s Commanding Officer, Major Dabney, and the rape and murder of Dabney’s daughter, of which Rutledge is accused.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the first sergeant raped and murdered the girl, killed his commanding officer, and then deserted his post. He is tracked down and arrested by Lt. Cantrell.

Rutledge escapes from captivity during an Indian raid, but later, he voluntarily returns to warn his fellows about an impending ambush, thus saving the troop. He is then brought back in to face the charges by an all-white military court whose members are prejudiced against blacks.

In the end, he is found not guilty of the rape and murder of the girl when a local white man breaks down under questioning and admits that he was the one who raped the girl.

Ford shot this Western on his favorite location, Monument Valley, Utah.

Cast

Jeffrey Hunter as 1st Lt. Tom Cantrell, 9th Cavalry (counsel for the defense)

Constance Towers as Mary Beecher

Billie Burke as Mrs. Cordelia Fosgate

Woody Strode as First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, 9th Cavalry

Juano Hernández as Sgt. Matthew Luke Skidmore, 9th Cavalry

Willis Bouchey as Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate, 9th Cavalry (president of the court-martial)

Carleton Young as Capt. Shattuck, 14th Infantry (prosecutor)

Judson Pratt as 2nd Lt. Mulqueen, 9th Cavalry (court-martial board member)