August 3, 2010

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When John Ford decided to cast Woody Strode in the title role of Sergeant Rutledge, Warner Bros.  pleaded with him to cast a better known actor like Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte. Ford replied, “They aren’t tough enough.” That story, relayed by Joseph McBride in his Searching for John Ford biography, defines the mystique of Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode. With his taciturn manner and wiry athleticism, he was an immediately arresting presence on-screen. He brought more than an intimidating physicality though, secreting a constant melancholy behind those hooded eyes and chiseled face.

His tough-guy credentials were unassailable. He was a tight end at UCLA, blocking for star running back Kenny Washington. In their senior year of 1939, they shared the field with Jackie Robinson (they were called  “The Gold Dust Trio”) and went undefeated, ranking 7th in the year-end AP poll. But in the years immediately following graduation, they were blocked from joining the NFL because of their race. From 1934 – 1946, there was a gentlemen’s agreement of sorts between league owners not to sign black athletes, despite the success of players like Fritz Pollard in the ’20s.  In the prime of their careers, Strode and Washington played for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Football League (PCFL).  In 1946, they broke the re-instated NFL color barrier by signing with the L.A. Rams after an intense campaign by sportswriter William Harding. (for the full story, read Alexander Wolff’s great article in Sports Illustrated). Strode told Wolff, “They didn’t take Kenny because of his ability. They didn’t take me on my ability. It was shoved down their throats.”

Strode was already 32 years old, and he was cut after one forgettable season (Pro Football Reference shows he played in 10 games, and caught only 4 passes, although he was probably a solid blocker). Washington lasted for three intermittently productive years. It was a disillusioning experience:

“Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life,” Strode told SI in an unpublished interview before his death. “There was nothing nice about it. History doesn’t know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is.”
“If I have to integrate heaven, I don’t want to go.”

In 1948, he moved to the Canadian Football League (CFL), to greater success. Playing both offense and defense, he led the Calgary Stampeders over the Ottawa Roughriders to win the Grey Cup, 12 – 7. He played for two more years, and helped pay the bills by working as a professional wrestler during the offseason.

By 1951, he was ‘rasslin full time. In his autobiography, Goal Dust, he reminisced about balancing fighting and entertainment:

It’s a thin line between the showmanship and the straight wrestling. Straight wrestling is too dull. If I’ve got a headlock on you and stop your circulation, you’ll faint. They fans won’t pay to see that. The real artists can hit you without doing any damage. They can throw a punch and land it right on your skin. That’s how good you have to be. The guys who miss are not good.

While honing his acting skills in the ring, he started to get regular work on television and film as an exotic other, his first regular gig a stint on “Ramar of the Jungle” as a native named “Big Boy”.  His film work was more of the same stereotyped nonsense until he nabbed a part in Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill in 1959. It was on that set where he caught John Ford’s eye, as told to Frank Manchel, excerpted in Volume 25, Vol. 2 of The Black Scholar:

[Pork Chop Hill] is the first dramatic thing that I had done, and he [Ford] was on the same lot with me, and he sent his chauffer over to find me. So I went over to see him, and he says, ‘I hear you’re trying to be an actor.’ At that point I was wrestling for a living, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m just making a little money.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Woody. I got a little job for you, and I’ll tell you about it when I get through with this picture I’m doing.

Ford was finishing up The Horse Soldiers (1959), and in the meantime Strode caught bit parts in Spartacus (1960) and The Last Voyage (1960). Eventually Ford, who always referred to his profession as a “job of work”, must have admired Strode’s similar attitude, handed him the title role to Sergeant Rutledge.  For contractual reasons, Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers were given lead billing, while Strode was merely listed as a featured player, but he is the heart and soul of the film. It is a courtroom drama that documents the court-martial trial of Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, an officer in the Ninth Cavalry Regiment (nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers”), accused of the rape and murder of a white teenage girl (Toby Richards) and her father, his superior officer. Hunter is the earnest, conflicted defense lawyer who argues the case in front of the distracted, buffoonish panel of Army judges.

The script, by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, was inspired by a Frederic Remington picture “of black calvarymen on the western frontier.” Without access to their first draft, Joseph McBride reports on Bellah’s novelization of the film as “patronizing”, and that “Rutledge seems less intelligent in the book than he does on-screen, and the author finds a familiar outlet for his prurient racist fantasizing….” Suffice it to say that Ford made major revisions to the screenplay before it was finalized – McBride reports he spent ten days with the writers fixing it up. Strode remembers the script fondly: “it was so well written…. When I say them lines, I still feel it. Do you hear me?”

It is Ford’s most straightforward film about race, placing Strode’s soldier as a good worker (his highest compliment) railroaded  by a justice system riven by bigotry. But there is ambivalence threaded throughout Sergeant Rutledge that makes it much more than a simple message movie. It is clear Ford is making a case for racial equality, but beyond the conclusion of this one individual case, he doesn’t offer much hope. The panel of judges are amusing but clueless drunks, the lead prosecutor a race baiter, and the Buffalo Soldiers themselves despair as to their place in society. As Moffat, one of the 9th Regiment, is dying, he tells Rutledge, “Some day. You always talkin’ about some day, like it gonna be Promised Land here on earth. Brax! We’re fools to fight the white…white man’s war.”

Rutledge tries to reassure him that they are not fighting the white man’s war, but that they fight in order “to make us proud.” Ford’s grand theme had always been about building communities (the church-raising scene in My Darling Clementine is the peak of this strain), but there was a skepticism regarding official institutions that ran throughout (the sheriff at the beginning of Clementine is a coward), but he found men who could do their jobs in spite of it all. The 9th regiment is not sacrificing their lives for the United States, but for their self-respect, and in this sense falls in line with the tension in Ford’s work between the individual and the community that he’d been mining his entire career. Earp leaves town at the end of Clementine, leaving the civilizing to others, but Rutledge soldiers on in order to empower more young black men. In his most dramatic speech, and probably the finest piece of acting he put on film, Strode responds to the prosecutor’s goading about his refusal to desert. It was “because the Ninth Cavalry was my home. My real freedom. And my self-respect. And the way I was desertin’ it, I wasn’t nothing but a swamp-runnin’ ni**er. And I ain’t that! Do you hear me? I’m a man.”

In collaboration with the great cinematographer Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Wagon Master), Ford shoots Strode from dramatic low angles and pushes the artifice to an expressionist degree during the witness’s flashback testimony. It is Ford’s most theatrical film, or at least the most self-reflexively artificial, allowing him to shoot heroic shots of Strode that might have made John Wayne blush. There are some shots that look like Strode is posed in front of a moonlight drenched Casper David Friedrich painting.

But the most telling sequences come at the end. After the rote romantic clinch between Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers is finished outside the courthouse, the Buffalo Soldiers march in formation past them, and towards the camera. It is a remarkable hand-off between the ostensible, contractually obligated stars, and the real ones. The final shot shows the regiment riding over Monument Valley, and regardless of the fact that the film was a flop, it contained indelible images. In 1971, Strode told Charlayne Hunter of the New York Times that, “You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before. I had the greatest Glory Hallelujah ride across the Pecos River that any black man ever had on the screen. And I did it myself. I carried the whole black race across that river.”