The first Western to feature a Black lead character
While attending UCLA, Woody played football with Bruin teammates Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson. In 1946 Woody and Kenny became the first two players to break the color barrier in the NFL. The next year, Jackie achieved the same feat in the MLB.
By the 1950s Woody abandoned professional sports and turned to acting full time. He was cast in minor television and movie roles before being selected by director John Ford to play the title character in Sergeant Rutledge, breaking another color barrier as the first Black lead in a Hollywood Western.
In addition to being the first film in the Western genre with a Black lead character, the film challenged mid-century race relations in other ways. As the one of the first (and only) movies centered around the exploits of the Buffalo Soldiers, it serves as a reminder that Black regiments performed critical roles in shaping the modern American West.
Released in 1960, 5 years after the murder of Emmett Till, a few months before To Kill a Mockingbird was published, and 3 years before Martin Luther King led the March on Washington, Sergeant Rutledge came into popular culture at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement.
The story follows the trial of a soldier accused of committing terrible crimes, and in the process attempts to question racial stereotypes and challenge structural inequality in modern America.
John Ford is one of the most significant figures in American film history – he made John Wayne into a star, influenced future generations of filmmakers like Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino, and remains the most decorated director in Academy Award history.
After casting Woody Strode for the title character in Sergeant Rutledge, Ford and Strode worked together on 3 other films, making Woody a bona fide member of the so-called “John Ford Stock Company” composed of Ford’s regular cast members. Strode was at his bedside when Ford passed away.
The theme song (and original working title) for the film is Captain Buffalo, a nod to the nickname “Buffalo Soldier” assigned to members of the 9th and 10th Cavalries, the first Black regiments in the US Army who were renowned equestrians skilled in horsemanship and mounted tactics.
Immediately following the Civil War, Buffalo Soldiers were assigned to the Western frontier and given the difficult task of managing conflicts between Native Americans and settlers, deterring cattle rustlers, guarding stagecoaches, escorting survey crews, and building infrastructure.
In 1898, Buffalo Soldiers stationed at Fort Duchesne in the Utah Territory were dispatched to nearby Helper to protect a train from being robbed by Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. These troops were responsible for patrolling the entire eastern boundary of the territory from 1886 to 1911.
Despite starring as the title character in a film decrying racism, Strode did not receive top billing in promotional materials as seen on the above lobby card, designed for advertising the film in movie theater lobbies.
Join Museum Director Elise Park for an in depth discussion of the film, Woody Strode’s lasting legacy, the role of Buffalo Soldiers in Utah, and the importance of celebrating Juneteenth. Visit our YouTube channel for more film discussions from the Moab to Monument Valley region.
“[Sergeant Rutledge] had dignity. John Ford put classic words in my mouth… 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.”– Woody Strode