Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

Throughout American history, there has been prejudice of various sorts, which has been reflected in the movies.  In an effort to make amends for discrimination against one group, however, a movie may end up being oblivious to the prejudice it shows toward another.

In particular, in a movie in which a black man is put on trial for raping a white woman, he always turns out to be innocent at the expense of the woman.  Given all the black men that have been lynched in America for supposedly raping white women, perhaps these movies were thought necessary as a way of condemning this practice.

On the other hand, we have recently been made aware of just how much prejudice there is against women who have been raped, making it difficult for them to get justice. Our belated enlightenment on this issue makes us reevaluate the movies in which white women were to blame in some way whenever black men ended up being tried for raping them.

There are basically three ways in which women are to blame in these movies:  the woman lied; the woman imagined it; the woman was provocative.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is the most well-known movie in which a white woman lies about being raped by a black man.  Another is Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys (1976).  In this movie, two white women lie about being raped by nine black boys. Now, it might be pointed out that since the movie was based on a true story, we can hardly criticize those who made this movie for making the women to blame for the false accusation.  On the other hand, had the two white women been telling the truth, and were indeed raped by nine black boys, we would never have seen a movie about that story because it would never have been made.  This true story was selected as the basis for a movie precisely because the white women could be blamed for the black boys being tried for rape.

In A Passage to India (1984), it is not an African American who is accused of raping a white woman. But the man is a native of India and has dark skin.  Moreover, the movie takes place when India is still a colony of Great Britain, and the British are prejudiced against the natives.  So, it’s close enough.  In this movie, the woman becomes hysterical, owing to repressed sexual urges on her part, and imagines that she was raped so vividly that she believes it actually happened.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960) falls into the third category, in which, unlike in the first two categories, where no rape actually occurs, in this movie, a woman really is raped. Because she is also murdered, she is not the one that accuses a black man. Nevertheless, she is still at fault for being raped because she was asking for it.

The movie is set in Arizona in 1881.  Much of the story is told by witnesses testifying during a court martial. One of those witnesses is Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), who comes across as a strong, independent woman, who also serves as the love interest for Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter).  As depicted in a flashback during her testimony, we see that Mary has been left alone at a train station in the middle of the night.  She discovers that the man running the station is dead, an arrow sticking out of his chest.  As she runs out of the station, Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode) grabs her and puts his hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming. Although Mary is not the woman in this movie that is raped, the idea of a white woman being raped by a black man is suggested by this scene, and that is certainly what Mary thinks is about to happen to her.  He explains to her that she mustn’t scream because there are Apaches nearby.  He 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. This too suggests the possibility of rape by men that are not white. Minutes later, when a couple of Apaches attack, she shoots one of them before he can kill Rutledge.

As we later find out, Lucy Dabney, a young white girl, has been beaten, raped, and strangled. Rutledge, a first sergeant in a colored regiment of the United States Cavalry, accidentally came upon her dead, naked body.  As he covered her with a blanket, her father, Major Dabney, Rutledge’s commanding officer, entered the room, and, believing Rutledge to be attacking Lucy, pulled out his pistol and shot him, causing a minor wound.  In self-defense, Rutledge shot Major Dabney in return, killing him. Realizing he would be blamed for Lucy’s rape and murder, as well as for killing her father, he decided to desert.  That is why he happens to be at the station in the middle of the night.

Most of the women we see in this movie are the officers’ wives, led by Mrs. Fosgate (Billie Burke), wife of Colonel Fosgate (Willis Bouchey), who presides over the trial.  The women are a bunch of simpleminded biddies, whose purpose in life is to be scandalized by the shameless behavior of others, and who are obviously overprotected by their husbands. No, I take that back.  These women are so addled and confused that they need protecting.  They seem to be of a totally different species than Mary.  We cannot imagine Rutledge handing Mrs. Fosgate a revolver, saying she is a Western woman, and expecting her to kill an Apache, if need be.

During another flashback, representing Mrs. Fosgate’s testimony, we find that one of the things that met with the disapproval of these women was the behavior of Lucy. The women chastised her for riding a horse astride. But Lucy said, in front of Chandler Hubble, who we eventually find out is the one that actually raped and strangled 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, which explains why she does not behave with the proper sense of decorum. And those women also express misgivings about how friendly Lucy is with Rutledge, which is just one of the ways the movie lets us know that white folks regard black men as being a threat to white women.

The soldiers of the colored regiment are intelligent, brave, and of good moral character.  In praising this movie for how it portrayed African Americans, critics fail to notice, or prefer to overlook, just how demeaning this movie is in its portrayal of women.  And while on the subject, we never see the wives of any of the black soldiers. We have to wonder, if there had been black women in this movie, would they too have been simpleminded biddies?  Alternatively, since this movie is at pains to present a positive portrayal of African Americans, would the black women have been depicted as fair-minded and intelligent, and thus superior to the white women?  This movie escapes the horns of that dilemma by not having any black women in the movie at all.

Toward the end of the trial, Cantrell, whose job it is to defend Rutledge, beats a confession out of Hubble while he is on the witness stand, forcing him to admit that he was the one that raped Lucy. But while the blame has shifted from Rutledge to Hubble, the movie qualifies that blame by portraying Hubble as having acted under a sexual compulsion, triggered by Lucy’s behavior.  He pleas for understanding:

Don’t you understand?  She…, the way she walked!  The way her body moved. She drove me crazy! I had to have her!  I had to! I had to!  You know I had to!  God help me! God, help me!

You see, what with Lucy having her legs spread-eagled when she rode a horse and putting the image into his head of her being naked on that horse, well, it was just too much for him, 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 comport themselves in such a way as to not unleash the demon in men such as Hubble.  Of course, we accept this only because Hubble is white.  It would be unthinkable to have it turn out that Rutledge, a black man, had such a strong desire for Lucy that he just couldn’t help himself.

And so, just as Rutledge, a black man, had to be found innocent of raping and killing Lucy, so too was it felt necessary to make excuses for Hubble, a white man, who actually did what Rutledge had been accused of. Toward that end, those that wrote and directed this movie showed no hesitation in blaming Lucy for what happened to her.

Being a relic of its time, there will never be a remake of this movie.  It was praised back then, and to some extent still is, not for its entertainment value, which is minimal, but for having the correct moral posture regarding African Americans.  This was not entirely new in 1960, but is now something that has been routine in movies for decades, so a remake would serve no useful function.

But let us imagine a remake anyway.  There would have to be a complete reworking of the way women are portrayed.  In this imaginary remake, the officers’ wives are intelligent, and in many ways wiser than their husbands, to whom they give sound advice.  They are shown to have doubts as to Rutledge’s guilt, whereas most of the white men are prejudiced against him.  Because the white women are portrayed in a positive manner, it is safe to have black women in the movie too, the wives of the black soldiers, and they too are shown to be just as intelligent as the white women.

Lucy’s mother is still be alive and has raised her properly.  Lucy is just an innocent young girl who never dresses, talks, or acts in a provocative way.

As for Hubble, his wife is still alive, and she is an attractive woman, thus providing him with a normal sexual outlet.  Nevertheless, he rapes and murders Lucy simply because he feels like it, not acting under a compulsion, but of his own free will.  Such men exist in the world and always will.  The fact that Hubble is a white male means it is perfectly safe to make him an unregenerate villain. It would have been safe to make Hubble such a villain in 1960 too, but those making the original movie had such disregard for women that they preferred to apologize for him at the expense of the rape victim.

By making the updated version this way, the black man accused of raping a white woman could be shown to be innocent of the charge without making it be the woman’s fault, which would be more in keeping with twenty-first century sensitivities.

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