This fall, the IU Cinema programmed a series entitled “The Rashōmon Effect” which, in the spirit of the 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic, brought together a number of titles from disparate countries and decades which all employ a narrative device that deals with contradictory interpretations of the same events by various witnesses. Upon reviewing their selections, which included Brian De Palma’s great 1998 thriller Snake Eyes as well as a British noir by Anthony Asquith, I couldn’t help but lament the omission of my own favorite film in this eclectic lineage of Rashōmon-like works: John Ford’s scorching masterpiece Sergeant Rutledge, a 1960 western starring Woody Strode as the eponymous cavalry sergeant standing trial for the alleged rape and murder of a white girl at a U.S. army fort during the 1880s.
As in the Kurosawa film, the narrative device here is structured around an investigative trial. Courtroom testimonies punctuate and give meaning to a series of flashbacks which Ford brings to life with a great deal of physical detail. Shot on location at Monument Valley, Utah and with vibrant color photography by frequent Ford collaborator Bert Glennon, this film is scandalously underseen (it’s never been one of Ford’s most popular westerns, though I think it’s one of his most personal), and seeing as I regard Mr. Ford as the greatest American artist in any medium, I thought I’d try to use whatever influence I have in the pages of this blog to try to convince people to see it, preferably in conjunction with the other titles screening in this interesting series.
The influence that the great German filmmaker F.W. Murnau exerted on the young Ford has been well-documented by Tag Gallagher and other Ford specialists. Murnau shot his American masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) for William Fox Studio, the production company that employed Ford during the first mature stretch of his directorial career, and it’s very likely that Ford saw the film during this period – one can observe Murnau’s shadowy fingerprints all over the place in Ford’s ‘30s films like The Hurricane (1937) and Stagecoach (1939). Later in his career, Ford downplayed the poetic expressionism of these films in favor of a more subtle and complex aesthetic, in which he synthesized a kind of naturalism or documentation of the world with sometimes extreme forms of encroaching stylization – a process that one sees Ford perfecting in his deeply personal and idiosyncratic postwar westerns such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Wagon Master (1950). I mention these background details concerning Ford’s shifting visual style in part because Sergeant Rutledge represents something of an anomaly in the context of Ford’s late period aesthestic: the film finds Ford returning, at various points, to a kind of full-blown expressionism, especially during the stormy, nocturnal sequences that mark the first couple of flashbacks, which are rendered in some of the most layered and striking compositions of Ford’s oeuvre.
Perhaps this alteration in visual approach is related to a key difference in the kind of material the filmmaker was accustomed to working with. Most Ford films of this period deal with the breaking up of families and communities due to internal or historical circumstances, yet Rutledge largely does away with these obsessive Fordian visions of society-in-microcosm, instead being very openly concerned with the ways in which intolerance and bigotry operate in the material world. In leaving behind the hermetic nineteenth-century world of communal rites and rituals, exemplified by the dances, parades, weddings, funerals and brawls that he so often presents us with elsewhere, Ford effectually liberates the action and affect(s) of Rutledge from any kind of container or distanciation, thereby imbuing the proceedings with a startling directness. Though the film should be seen and situated within the rich genre tradition of the American western, I also like to think of it as a kind of horror film about the nature of intolerance and the atrocities central to American history – and a scathingly angry as well as articulate one at that. Like many Ford films, it’s a desperate and fiercely dialectical plea for tolerance and understanding.
I have strategically avoided summarizing the plot of the film, and with good reason: Ford’s almost music-like sense of narrative dynamics is so masterful and rhythmic that it should be experienced on its own terms. Suffice to say, I can’t think of any other practitioner of the flashback in cinema who used that device more eloquently or vividly than Ford does: as in the extended passages of How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Ford is so committed to conjuring the texture of memory itself through a sensitivity to the finest gradations of light and gesture that he, as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, “makes the past feel more alive than the present.” This is of course a quality in Ford’s body of work that distances it from that of America’s other greatest classical filmmaker, Howard Hawks, the director who famously never once deigned to film a flashback. Hawks works habitually in the present tense (and this decision begins to make sense the more time one spends with his work), whereas Ford positions himself on the horizon line of history.
Additionally, Ford’s direction of his company of actors here is unsurprisingly great and very natural, benefited by the filmmaker’s practice of allowing the editing of the picture to dictate and shape the various qualities of these dramatic performances. Jeffrey Hunter returns for his last collaboration with Ford a mere four years after his wonderful work in 1956’s The Searchers, but the stand-out here is Strode, whose resigned, stoic acceptance of loss and regret recalls Randolph Scott’s mature work in Budd Boetticher’s “Ranown Cycle.” The mournful final collaboration in that seminal series of Boetticher-Scott westerns, Comanche Station, was released the same year as Sergeant Rutledge (1960), just as the classical golden age of postwar westerns was experiencing its last gasps of life.
For as rich and eternal as Ford’s body of work is on its own terms, I’m always gratified and moved by the deep and abiding reverberations that this artist’s work shares with the concerns of the western cycle in its entirety, as well as with that of American literary artists such as Faulkner and Twain. For his celebratory and scathing (as well as quite rigorous) examinations of communities and histories, as well as his immediate and complete grasp of film form and visual storytelling, this son of an Irish immigrant saloon-keeper strikes me as, pound-for-pound, the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, the one who felt it in his bones most of all. I can’t think of anyone else who’s given us more masterpieces, and I certainly can’t imagine my own life without his work in it.
Sergeant Rutledge is available on DVD in the United States through Warner Brothers.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.