(director: John Ford; screenwriters: James Warner Bellah/Willis Goldbeck; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; editor: Jack Murray; music: Howard Jackson; cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Lt. Tom Cantrell), Constance Towers (Mary Beecher), Billie Burke (Cordelia Fosgate), Woody Strode (Sergeant Braxton Rutledge), Juano Hernandez (Sgt. Matthew Luke Skidmore), Willis Bouchey (Col. Otis Thornton Fosgate), Carleton Young (Capt. Shattuck), Judson Pratt (Lt. Mulqueen), William Henry (Capt. Dwyer), Walter Reed (Capt. MacAfee), Fred Libby (Chandler Hubble), Toby Michaels (Lucy Dabney), Charles Seel (Dr. Eckner), Chuck Hayward (Capt. Dickinson), Mae Marsh (Nellie), Cliff Lyons (Sam Beecher); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Willis Goldbeck/Patrick Ford; Warner Home Videos; 1960)
“Noted as the first major Hollywood western to feature an African-American hero.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
John Ford’s (“Fort Apache”/”The Searchers”/”Seven Women”) big-budget, overlong, schematic courtroom film that can be viewed as a makeup call to westerns that in the past treated minorities as second-class citizens and were stereotyped. It stars formerNFL football player Woody Strode, stock player in Ford movies, as the dignified Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, a cavalry officer of the all-blackNinth Cavalry Regiment being tried for the rape of a white woman and a double murder. The film is noted as the first major Hollywood western to feature an African-American hero. It’s written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck as a sort of liberal tract for the Civil Rights movement in the air at the time, by showing the framework of a military courtroom in 1881, in the Arizona Territory, that pursues justice for a former slave now a “buffalo soldier”–a term which comes from the buffalo furs the black soldiers of the 9th wore in winter.
Lucy Dabney and her father, Maj. Dabney, are found dead in their quarters at Fort Linton in the Arizona Territory. Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) arrives at the U.S. Army’s southwestern headquarters to defend the accused black soldier, Sgt. Rutledge, who served bravely under Cantrell in the all-black Ninth Cavalry for over six years, from the circumstantial evidence. Because Lucy was raped and beaten before her brutal strangulation, the case attracts a group of curious and boisterous prejudiced spectators. Presiding over the court-martial is the officious Col. Otis Thornton Fosgate (Willis Bouchey), who ejects the onlookers from the room. This angers his shallow wife Cordelia (Billie Burke).
At the trial the film goes into a series of flashbacks, as the smug prosecutor Capt. Shattuck (Carleton Young) questions a number of witnesses, starting with the only unprejudiced witness and love interest of Cantrell, Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), a woman returning home to Arizona after a long stay in the east and saved at the railroad station from an Indian attack by Rutledge, to describe the events that occurred on the day of the murders. There are a number of overly melodramatic scenes, until the defense lawyer reveals that his client is innocent and establishes that a white man is the real culprit.
In one sequence it shows Rutledge singing “Captain Buffalo” and riding across the Pecos River to help the Cavalry when they are attacked by Apaches. Strode in his autobiography wrote“You never seen a negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before. I had the greatest Glory Hallelujah ride across the Pecos River […] I carried the whole black race across that river.”
Ford can show with passion the ugly scene of an innocent black victim of American racism and give the proper respect due to the black man in the film, but he’s not able to deal with the issues of miscegenation that plagued American life forever and Hollywood since the days of “Birth of a Nation.”
The film did a poor box office. Though Strode was generally praised for his heroic performance. Nevertheless Ford’s film must be given kudos for bringing up real questions about racial relationships that were mostly ignored previously by Hollywood.
REVIEWED ON 9/21/2010 GRADE: B