Normally, a movie about the trial of a man accused of rape and murder would be suspenseful. But since Sergeant Rutledge was made in 1960, and the accused was a black man who supposedly raped a white girl, it was a given that the man was innocent. About the only suspense was in whether he would be acquitted, as happened in this movie, or convicted, which is what happened in another such movie, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). But that is still thin gruel, for even if Sergeant Rutledge had been white, the trial is a flop, dramatically speaking.
In place of suspense or dramatic value, the movie delivers, or is supposed to deliver, a sense of moral worth, in which the audience is allowed to take pride in the way it is above racial prejudice. So, the question is, which of the two is more important, enjoying a well-made movie that does not congratulate the audience for being so enlightened, but merely provides entertainment, or suffering through a poorly made movie just so you can wallow in a feeling of egalitarian righteousness?
In its simplistic way, the movie might be on the right side of the racial issue, but it gives us a questionable treatment of women. The main female character, Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), is a strong, independent thinking woman. Early in the movie, Sergeant Rudledge (Woody Strode) hands her a revolver, saying she is a Western woman, implying competence with a gun, and that she will need it because the Apaches will show her no mercy. Minutes later, when a couple of Apaches attack, she shoots one of them before he can kill Rutledge.
However, most of the rest of the women in this movie are a bunch of simpleminded old biddies, whose purpose in life is to be scandalized by the shameless behavior of others, obviously overprotected by their husbands. As a result, Mary and those women seem to be of totally different species, because the idea that she will become like them when she gets old defies comprehension.
One of the things that scandalize these women is the behavior of Lucy Dabney (Toby Michaels), the girl who is raped and strangled. The women chastise her for riding a horse astride. But Lucy says, in front of Chandler Hubble (Fred Libby), who we eventually find out is the one that actually raped her, that as long as she says her prayers and behaves herself, her father doesn’t care if she rides around like Lady Godiva. It is also worked into the conversation that her mother is dead. In other words, Lucy does not have a simpleminded old biddy for a mother to instill the proper sense of decorum into her.
At the end, Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), whose job it is to defend Rutledge, beats a confession out of Chandler Hubble while he is on the witness stand. Hubble admits that he had to rape Lucy because of the way she walked, the way she moved her body. You see, what with Lucy having her legs spread-eagled when she rides a horse and putting the image into his head of her being naked on that horse as well, it was just too much for him. In other words, the movie is just a hair from blaming the victim, although it stops short of that, blaming the circumstance of her not having a mother to raise her properly instead.
One might think that the real blame for the rape would fall on Hubble, the man who raped her. But the movie portrays him as having acted under a sexual compulsion (especially since his wife is deceased, thereby depriving him of a normal sexual outlet). The point seems to be that it is up to women to behave in such a way as to not unleash the demon in men such as him.
Regardless of the way this movie handles race and gender issues, however, its biggest problem is that it was a bad movie when it was made, and it just gets worse with age.