Which Book? Which America?: John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (with bonus Michelle Obama reference)

by zunguzungu

Sergeant Rutledge, from 1960, is probably not a great movie; it’s marred by weak acting and (according to in interview with the screenwriter) a sort of lazy directing and writing performance from Ford, who was getting quite on in years. One of the male leads-Sergeant Rutledge, a black cavalry officer wrongly accused of rape-was played by Woody Strode (who you’ve never heard of) even though the studio wanted to cast Belafonte or Poitier. I wish they had; Ford wanted the ex-football player because he looks magnificent, and he does, but the man is a passable actor at best and there are some cringeworthy moments of dramatic dialogue as a result. It says something about how Ford worked, though: he wrote in pictures and images, and the kind of image Strode could give off, the cut of his jaw and the rippling muscles, does come off as singularly impressive. Strode was always grateful for being rendered magnificent on screen in this way; as he put it: “You never saw a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne. I had the greatest Glory Hallelujah ride across the Pecos river that any black man ever had on screen before.”

The whole movie is singular, actually. I’d never heard of it before, and I think that has something to do with the long shadow cast by To Kill a Mockingbird, which came later but which is also somewhat less daring. Both films are courtroom dramas, in which a black man is accused of a crime and defended by a brave white man who realizes that the honor of America is at stake in whether a fair trial can be held. In this film, Sergeant Rutledge is accused of the rape/murder of a white woman, and he runs, not because he’s guilty, but because, as he tells another black cavalry soldier, “white woman business” is something none of “us” can fight.

I give Ford a lot of credit for lines like this. There are two narratives in the film, actually-which is itself very Fordian-and they’re not wholly in alignment. The first is the To Kill a Mockingbird narrative, in which the trial is not primarily about the defendant, but about what he represents: the honor of America as adjudicated by its ability to treat an “other” with justice. There’s a scene in which the JAG lawyer argues with his love interest over whether this is “a good land” or not, whether it is now and whether it ever will be, and it sounds like classic “The-West-will-become-modern” talk, like Earp talking to his dead brother’s grave in My Darling Clementine. But here it’s clearly a question of whether or not an innocent black man accused of miscgination could ever get a fair trial. And it’s not an easy belief: the JAG office quotes Rutledge himself in saying that “this is a good land,” but Rutledge’s choice to run rather than face military justice indicates that his faith may be only in future possibility. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, then, the courtroom drama is therefore a test of whether America’s various idealisms have any purchase on reality, the test of whether this is really a good land or not. As the lawyer puts it, “If the color of a man’s skin is to be entered as evidence against him, or even as argument, then I say that it is this court that is on trial and not Sergeant Rutledge.”

These are strong words, I think, because the court’s acquittal is neither predetermined nor without costs. For one thing, the Capra-esque courtroom scene is more of an anamaly than anything else: Rutledge happens to be proven innocent, but Ford makes it quite clear that this was pretty lucky on his part and it could easily have gone the other way. America got lucky this time, but it quite clearly doesn’t, most of the time. And there’s a wonderful moment when the president of the court commends his officers for not having mentioned the fact of the color of the man’s skin, and the quick chiming in of his flunkies “Very well put, Mr. president!” is a lovely Fordian touch: not mentioning the fact of racial difference only enables white privilege to operate all the more effectively. There is no grounds for optimism in such a courtroom.

My favorite touch, though, is the question of what kind of “book” can represent justice in America. The JAG’s love interest, at one point, calls him a “cheap, contemptible, tin-plated book soldier” for insisting on bringing Rutledge back to stand trial. She doesn’t know what he knows-that the key piece of evidence clearing Rutledge has fallen into his hands-so the film asks but saves itself from having to answer the truly damning question: should he bring an innocent man back to stand trial in a courtroom he knows is rigged against him? As the JAG lawyer puts it, “a soldier can’t think by his heart; he’s got to think by the book,” but does this mean he has to adhere to the letter of the law when that letter is unjust? And the film makes it clear that the court is rigged; the actualy manual for courtroom procedure (the very book they’re using) is at one point revealed to be a confederate manual, which the US cavalry has adopted complete, to the judge’s embarrassment.

What I like best about the film, therefore, is this darkness, this hopeful optimism that America can overcome its history linked with a dogged refusal to forget how viciously present that history still is, in this case, that a black man can get justice in a courtroom still run according to the rules of proceedure set down by the confederacy (even if the judge and his cronies prefer to pretend that it isn’t). This, to me, is something much braver than the pablum optimism of To Kill a Mockingbird, where the end is predetermined, something much more like Michelle Obama’s statement that she had never been proud of America until the moment that it showed a willingness to elect a black man president. This land has to earn the right to feel good about itself, goddammit, and if it wants to do that, it’s got a long way to go. The film knows this, and shows it, to its credit.

There is, however, another book in the film, and here we tend towards a more questionable piece of Americana: using racism to overcome racism. At a crucial point in the film, Sergeant Rutledge is in handcuffs when Indians attack, and when he points out that the cavalry rules for engagement state that prisoners are to be freed and given weapons in the event of attack. He is freed, and armed (“like,” as he puts it, “the books says”), and is therefore able to lead his men in glorious victory over the savages, going far above and beyond the call of duty. Unlike the black and white justice of the confederate courtroom manual, in other words, the cavalry manual gives justice in white and red, and when there are injuns around, even a black man becomes American. And here, Rutledge suddenly regains his faith in America: at a key moment, he has a chance to ride away to the north, where he can be free (crossing a river, no less) but, of course, he decides to turn back and come to the aid of his fellow cavalry soldiers.

This is a mixed triumph: on the one hand, Rutledge can-when set alongside savage indians-become fully a member of the cavalry unit again, fully an American. One kind of racism can cancel out another. But even this mixed blessing must be fully qualified: like an uncle Tom, he can only prove his virtue through selfless service to white people. When questioned about why he didn’t just run away when he had the chance, he burst out “The ninth cavalry was my home, my freedom. If I deserted, I wasn’t nothing but a swamp rat nigger, and I ain’t that. Do you hear me? I’m a man.” The fact that he can only be a man by disclaiming the right to run away (and the “swamp rat” line is a clear reference to runaway slaves hiding in swamps) is important, as is the fact that this film does not, as such, attack the principle that miscegination is a lynchworthy offense. To the contrary, in an early scene, it goes to great lengths to establish that Rutledge knew his place and was (like Uncle Tom with Little Eva) a protector of white innocence and virtue. His one on-screen interaction with the girl he was supposed to have raped involves both the extension of his protective mantle (he sternly admonishes that “You’ll break your neck if you ride like that”) and a wink to the other white man in the scene. Coming hard on the clucking disapproval of the old lady who finds the sight of a young girl not riding side-saddle (clearly indicating that a spread-leg riding position is inappropriate for a girl of her maturity), Rutledge gives a similar warning: ride like that, and something bad will happen. And the wink is a gesture of mutuality, the assumption that he and all other men are united by the need to protect (and control) such sexualityan attempt to use manly fraternity to create interracial solidarity. He is wrong, of course; as it turns out, the other man was the guy who eventually rapes and murders the girl, but the important thing is that Rutledge himself is trying to use gender to overcome race*.

As with Uncle Tom, though, such manhood can only be accomplished by giving up the claim that, for example, a black man denied justice might have some grounds for complaint, can only be asserted by first accepting his proper place (a young girl’s protector). Unlike the Jeremiad rhetoric of, say, Frederick Douglass’ “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” Rutledge can only become American, can only earn his citizenship, by first accepting that it is his responsibility to earn it. For a black man to become an American, we are reminded, he has first to acknowledge that he is not an American, and only then can he begin to bargain for naturalization.

* This, by the way, is a muted version of a larger theme in Ford, maybe something I’ll post about the next time I feel a John Ford post in me. In The Searchers, the question of who is the real threat to female innocence (the savage rapist or the murderous John Wayne, who seeks to revenge the rape by killing the girl) is not really the issue: more important is Ford’s illustration that male possession of female virtue is, at the very least, a kind of latent violence, and often enough, a very real violation. Ford has taken flak from people who point out how many times you see a Ford hero violently taking possession of his woman (without even trying, Donovan’s Reef, The Quiet Man, and Drums Across the Mohawk all spring to mind) but such moments are visible as such precisely because Ford wants them to be, and plays them as such in ways you can;t help but notice and be disturbed by. What makes Ford remarkable, in other words, is that he’s so often willing to directly portray the ugly violence of gender as ugly and violent, without pretending that you can simply-by condemning it-get rid of it. And there’s some of that bravery in Sergeant Rutledge with regard to race; Ford constantly goes back to the confederacy over the course of his career because it represents a formative history within the United States’ consciousness, and while one could simply condemn it (and he pretty much does), that doesn’t really make it go away. So in movies like The Prisoner of Shark Island, I think Ford is, whether successful or not, trying to imagine a constructive engagement with that history, trying to imagine how something inescapably negative can be integrated into an America one would want to live in. The same with gender: he recognizes that marriage is bound up with all sorts of patriarchal privilege and violent possessiveness, but he uses his engagements with this violence to think about ways to make that violence into something positive. Again, I don’t wish to say that he succeeds, but there’s something much more interesting about his willingness to engage with the really hard questions, rather than simply wishing them away by moral righteous my-eye-hath-offended-me-ism.