I didn’t plan to see John Ford’s Western Sergeant Rutledge, an undeservedly unknown movie about a hero who is black, on the blockbuster opening weekend of Marvel Studios’ overdone movie about a black superhero (Black Panther). But doing so underscored for me the contrast between these two extremely different movies. Both films feature titular black heroes who do not dominate screen time. Both heroes are leaders of their bands of chosen brothers. But Sergeant Rutledge, unlike Black Panther, depicts an iconic hero who remains superior in his ability and steadfast in his vision; he is a man who earns and keeps the audience’s respect and consistently shows integrity while acting on principle. What’s more, Braxton Rutledge is not a fantasy figure. The “top solider” in the U.S. cavalry faces a realistic foe in the deepest sense. He goes by reason and remains strong. As a so-called buffalo soldier, he makes advancement of black people possible. Sergeant Rutledge details and dramatizes what this costs and why.
Admittedly, Ford’s Monument Valley-based Western is imperfect, yet it is also fully engrossing. Beginning with a rousing song about “Captain Buffalo”, Sergeant Rutledge, like Ford’s 1939 epic Stagecoach, sets the plot in Arizona near the scenic Monument Valley in a town with a bunch of petty, old biddies. Billie Burke (The Wizard of Oz) plays the woman who bosses this band of whiny, gossipy women around and her character is married to the judge who is charged with hearing the case of a black man accused of raping and murdering a white woman some time after the Civil War. Plot points get rather silly as the judge’s wife becomes a witness for the prosecution in the court-martial trial of Sergeant Braxton Rutledge. The whole courtroom trial framing device becomes problematic, especially later in the movie, but, at its core, the court-martial’s an important stand-in for the era’s injustice against Americans who are black. So, it serves a crucial function.
Ford, who sought to make this movie and insisted upon casting handsome, strapping Woody Strode in the leading role, against the studio’s demands for an actor such as Sidney Poitier, grasps this functionality. The courtroom layout is a key part of the unfolding mystery and drama of the wronged black man on trial. The panel of white judges sits in observation of a single witness chair while the defense and prosecution face off. The judge, who drinks alcohol to excess and huffs and puffs in typical John Ford fashion, pledges that there shall be “no prejudice toward the accused.”
Enter Sergeant Rutledge’s defense attorney, blue-eyed Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), who, unlike Strode’s swift, strong and silent soldier, fumbles when he comes on screen. It’s as though Cantrell will have to strive to rise to the caliber of a character like Rutledge, who never wavers and never errs. The relationship between the accused and his champion is among the most layered and loaded in the movie; it is, at times and in sum, an artful and potent statement on the equality of man and it is an accomplishment by all three men, Hunter, Strode and Ford, that the progression of one character is never at the other character’s expense. There’s real chemistry and artistry in their mutually tense, strained relationship.
With curiously stagy transitions from the courtroom to flashbacks of the events at issue, Sergeant Rutledge awakens the audience to the challenge of settling the West, which Ford skillfully uses to prime the story for its morality climax about the plight of the black man who, in this case, amounts to the black cowboy. A meeting on a train — a dead man at the train station — a woman (Constance Towers) stranded in the desert wearing a pink dress while Geronimo’s Apache Indians (echoing Stagecoach again) escape and attack settlers — Ford leads the audience to think of one plot scenario while dovetailing into another. The gamesmanship has a purpose, too, as it allows the audience to grow accustomed to Rutledge’s steely presence after being shocked when he puts his hand over a white woman’s mouth in anticipation of an Indian attack — and for his own sake, which he makes abundantly clear.
As the female in distress, Towers is no victim; she shoots to kill and does without getting hysterical. As he does in Stagecoach, Ford really knows how to throw people together in a crisis and let them hash out their similarities and differences. Through the scenes with Towers’ character, who’s already fallen for Hunter’s handsome cavalryman on the train, Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge sets his character straight and clear. As the woman in the West becomes traumatized, again, it merely serves to underscore what the black man in America faces by implication.
When Rutledge buries a corpse and covers up blood, though there’s every reason to think that he does so because he’s a decent man, he’s instantly suspect in a way that a white man is not. Besides unrealistic courtroom developments, Sergeant Rutledge has limitations, such as Strode’s early scenes being too wooden. The Towers character won’t say the word ‘colored’ which is not realistic for this time period. Most of the cast, except Strode, Towers and Hunter, tend to overact, some to a noticeable degree. But, generally, plot layers leading to the rape and murder of a white woman unfold and build interest, suspense and tension.
Despite the usual Ford humor, with showy character actors, jokes about drinking alcohol and silly old women, Sergeant Rutledge is best seen as a mystery about the West’s mythology, not completely unlike Ford’s superior The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, down to the two-man character contrast in Hunter’s Cantrell and Strode’s Rutledge. There’s a lot to unpack here as Ford loads up on powerful shots, scenes and suggestions, from the silly old woman who’s name-dropping for status and prestige, with the power to destroy an innocent man’s life, to female nudity. And, coming into the Sixties, John Ford demonstrates that he still likes his heroes with good looks, grit and seriousness. In stark contrast to every other witness who takes the stand, when Cantrell steps up to testify, he emphatically cuts the oath off before the bailiff can say “so help me God…”
Director Ford makes these sharp points, but he lets the pre-Civil Rights era movie’s American Negroes, buffalo soldiers, show and tell for themselves in the moving and poetic third act. Rutledge, who, if you disregard the need to account for facts, acts as though he may be guilty, says when he’s caught by his fellow black cavalryman: “why didn’t you shoot me?” He has reason to distrust that the state will grant a fair trial and he has the freedom papers, which emancipated him from slavery, as if to prove it. When Cantrell attempts to engage Rutledge, whom he knows and admires, and investigate, he ends up flustered, asking: “what does it all add up to?”
This is the question the 1960 audience is put on the spot to answer, too. But in Sergeant Rutledge, as against To Kill a Mockingbird, which was released two years later, the outcome of the wrongly accused black man’s trial is the ultimate point of the movie, not the nobility of its white characters. Braxton Rutledge, moved by the barbarism of Indians who butchered someone white, with his hooded, knowing, tired eyes, possesses qualities any man should admire. He stands alone against the world but as an idealist, not as a victim or martyr. Let that sink in about a movie made three years before Martin Luther King made his speech in Washington declaring “I have a dream…”
It’s impossible not to notice that Sergeant Rutledge’s theme, and Sergeant Rutledge‘s theme, foretells that stirring speech in Washington. He speaks of “someday” with a poignant vision, which gets severely tested in an ambush at Crazy Woman River. This turning point in the accused black man’s story marks an indelible moment in both this film and motion pictures. Until Sergeant Rutledge, black men were depicted as men of muscle with perhaps a sad, tragic or downbeat (or cartoonishly giddy) sense of life. The muscled, black buck stereotype, too, gets tossed away in Sergeant Rutledge. How the character regards himself is paramount and, with depth of sincerity, John Ford culminates the hero’s sense of himself in several climactic campfire scenes with song, an iconic stance and a reveal for how the buffalo soldier got his name.
Ford lights Strode’s deep-set eyes, cheekbones and granite facial features as if to highlight that he’s a man made of flesh, not some mindless brute or racial figure, during the sergeant’s testimony, which include a single and proper use of the term nigger. Again, the staging of opposing legal minds is pivotal to the dramatic suspense. Ford’s shots of certain characters in proximity add to the thematic rewards. For example, when Towers spews against Hunter for a perceived transgression he makes against Strode’s Rutledge, recoiling in disgust as if physiologically imploding, Strode’s sergeant stands in the background, lifting his chin in pride, defiance and liberation, as though he is undaunted by any injustice. He is proud, chiefly of himself, and he is unconquered. But, again, by this point the audience knows that he is not a pulp fiction cover or lurid movie poster pinup; he is a whole man who experiences a range of emotions. As he plainly tells the court: “I’m a man.”
Sergeant Rutledge does not stop at that, however, and, again, for 1960, Ford’s foresight in laying out a portrait of a soldier who’s black, persecuted and heroic all at once on the Western’s larger than life canvas is commendable, though his grandson Dan Ford writes in Pappy that Ford sensed in this film the ability to make money, so it’s not some sort of charity project. A case in point is how Ford treats the buffalo soldier in general, not just in particular. Look at the movie’s exaggeration among blacks in the cavalry unit for evidence of how especially attuned John Ford was to storytelling through oral histories. Each man in the cavalry talks at the right moment in Sergeant Rutledge about being welcomed at the White House by President Lincoln, embellishing history and reality to inculcate in themselves the sense of mythology, man’s idealized story, to summon their courage in the Indian Wars, stoke optimism and foster in their camaraderie the sense of a sacred mission to elevate and uplift future generations of those who look like they do. That the Negroes in the film’s 9th Cavalry smile as they march past the happy white people with pride carries an imbued sense of a greatness to come, made possible by the title’s heroic top soldier.
Whites, too, transform by having known Woody Strode’s top buffalo soldier. In seeing how Rutledge goes by reason, moral absolutes and his own judgment, Constance Towers’ character, an Easterner who’d been reluctant to embrace the glory of the West, finds in herself the courage and power to make her own personal progress. She cradles a wounded black boy to help him die or heal in peace and comfort and she ultimately learns from her mistakes.
Sergeant Rutledge is not a perfect or fully exalted movie. Its mystery is solved in a lust-driven anti-climax that seems to appear from another movie and Ford’s broad humor, the secondary cast’s overacting and other choices slow it down or dull its fine finish. But in an era in which a mediocre action blast such as Black Panther takes credit for a heroism it does not deserve, its best qualities really shine.
The delicacy of Black Panther‘s social justice warriorism clashes with its sporadic sense of fun, suctioning the conflict of any sense of good versus evil. This might be the point, that all are redeemable, but the reign of duty to tribe, blood and nation never squares with the social worker drumbeat or the street take on ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’
Too many characters, too long, too much plot but, at its root, lacking a meaningful theme. This is what I think about Marvel’s exhausting new comics movie for Disney, Black Panther, which pounces, confuses and contradicts.
Five tribes converge in an African kingdom where a substance called vibranium once crash-landed, leaving the tribal nation rich in this superpowerful resource, which must be mined and developed to perform wonders. This place is called Wakanda and Wakandans hoard the stuff, which they mine, keep and profit from for themselves, concealing it from the world, despite its healing abilities. Some might say ‘but it’s only a comics movie’ and dismiss any other thought. As for me, I did wonder, and you might, too, about what Wakanda’s closely guarded windfall could do for people with cancer, for instance.
This is the main problem with the politically tinged Black Panther, which mixes nationalism, genetics and collectivism to address, question and challenge ideas without dealing with them. Being a Marvel movie, many merely want to know if Black Panther has fights, fun, humor, cleverness and action, all the marks of Disney’s Marvel Studios brand. So, yes, it has those to varying, uneven and inconsistent degrees. Humor is flip and scattered. Fun comes in spurts. Fights are too fast, cleverness isn’t clever enough and action is solid. Visuals are, as usual, computer-generated.
Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the Fruitvale Station director (using a Bay Area angle here, too), Black Panther doesn’t settle on a theme. It ends up in a squishy mix of notions summed up by the arbitrary term social justice. It might have been called ‘Social Justice Warrior’, though this would run afoul of those who claim that title. Black Panther, with no overt relation to the 1960s black supremacist movement, opens with its first social justice mission to ‘bring back our girls’, the phrase associated with a campaign to reclaim girls kidnapped and raped by Islamic terrorists in Africa and forced to become veiled Moslems. The campaign omitted those facts and so does the movie, instead using the initial mission to introduce its leading lady and gentleman, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Chadwick Boseman as her ex-boyfriend, Wakanda’s leading monarch. Knowing what the audience knows could happen to the girls, this packs stakes, severity and context into the plot. Boseman, Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, and Nyong’o, Patsy the raped slave in 12 Years a Slave, rise above the script.
They’re not in Black Panther enough. Yet they carry the movie while sharing it with too many characters. Angela Bassett plays the king’s mother, Andy Serkis plays a wild-eyed villain who comes off like a drunken Englishman, Forest Whitaker plays a kind of referee, Letitia Wright (Cake) plays a sassy royal sister with amazing tech skills and Winston Duke (Dwight on Modern Family) plays a rival tribal leader. Sterling K. Brown has an important role. Danai Gurira steals every scene as a warrior. Michael B. Jordan (NBC’s Parenthood), who played the title character in Coogler’s Creed, plays the arch-villain. There are several other characters, too, including a tribal farm leader played by Daniel Kaluuya. They are each overwhelmed.
With horseback riding across the countryside and a sweeping score that briefly replaces the predominant drumbeat, the audience enters the great kingdom introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Wakanda comes with clipped, cliched narration as the story begins. A king is designated, then challenged (also cliched) during a waterfalls conference with leaders and warriors from the five tribes. All of this royal shuffle arcs into a plot to smuggle the powerful substance, which leads to the perils of poverty, presumed errors in judgment and what went down during that tie-in to the Bay Area. Wakandans speak English with foreign accents yet they also speak in a foreign language with subtitles and it’s never clear why. There are bands of all-female or all-male warriors — with all this same sex togetherness, I looked for gays in the military with none in plain sight — and the only enlistment shared by both sexes is subservience to nation, blood and the rule of the monarch.
For all the palace intrigue, it is natural to want to know who’s behind Wakanda’s smuggling amid painted faces and masks, decorative gear and furnishings and body and facial mutilation. Also, why are ritualistic displays practiced in a country so modern, enlightened and technologically advanced? An answer partly comes with the closest Wakanda has to a national slogan: Praise the ancestors! Even when sponsoring gladiator-style fighting to determine the nation’s ruler — this is intended as admirable? — familialism is as rampant as in Buckingham Palace … or [the] Trump White House.
Black Panther tries too hard to have its genres, plot points and philosophies every which way.
Boseman’s ripped king gets tricked out with James Bond gadgets, Euro-electronica ala Bourne Identity accompanies an elaborate car chase, and a trip to South Korea (does every action movie have to have an Asian connection? Is South America off limits?) goes awry. Fast-cutting fights are disorienting. Drumbeats pummel the audience. Subplots turn over and over. This onslaught slips into sameness and gets stale. The plot spins and spins, lulling the audience into a bit of a slumber. In Marvel’s universe of wise-cracking white men gussied up in industrial gear and snapping lines to one another, a movie about a mythical African nation and its aristocratic superhero ought to achieve a distinctive quality or uniqueness, no? Does no one in Wakanda listen to jazz? The men go around shirtless, why not the women? Is no one in Wakanda gay? Not a single Wakandan apparently watches television, goes swimming or grooves to Lou Rawls, Sade or Johnny Mathis. Does every Wakandan have to be a 24/7 ‘badass’?
A late second wind gets Black Panther’s game on. When Michael B. Jordan’s angry urban black man finally kicks in, Boseman’s king finally gets some screen time and begins to doubt the ancestry worship, though never down too deep. Blood as defining one’s identity never gets challenged. Instead, it is mixed with mysticism. Black Panther, like last year’s Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok and most Marvel movies, is agnostic about ideas. Question your country is a platitude which competes with the question of foreign entanglements but it’s all housed in lightness, wizardry and fanfare. The delicacy of Black Panther‘s social justice warriorism clashes with its sporadic sense of fun, suctioning the conflict of any sense of good versus evil. This might be the point, that all are redeemable, but the reign of duty to tribe, blood and nation never squares with the social worker drumbeat or the street take on ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’
Thoughtfully halting after uttering the word duty, which she nearly brings herself to doubt, Lupita Nyong’o’s character rests on acting “for what I love.” Nakia’s is an affirmation of a real King’s noble line about being judged by the content of one’s character. One senses in Black Panther‘s restless pacing and prowling that it’s stalling to keep from being stalked, hunted and downed by the social justice bunch.
Director John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is an exciting, pioneering epic Western for several distinctive reasons. This is foremost a movie which seeks to be both entertaining and great. I first saw the black and white film on television as a boy; I was instantly enthralled. With complicated characters of all types, in a tight but intricate plot with serious themes, thrilling action and a streak of subversive heroism, Stagecoach bundles and integrates ideas with mythology and old-fashioned storytelling.
Watching this film for the first time in 35mm at the Autry Museum of the American West, appropriately enough, in the Wells Fargo Theater (the bank, which once operated a stagecoach line, gets a cameo in the movie, too), Stagecoach still packs a powerful punch.
Don’t miss its opening titles and setup in a town called Tonto, Arizona, which establishes that the herd, collective or society represents fundamental villainy in this dusty, enigmatic tale. Whatever John Ford’s politics, his movies in general, and this film in particular, favor individualism over collectivism. The scolding, prissy nags that run two decent people out of town as Stagecoach opens stand for Puritanism, in this case, against alcohol and sex. Soon, it is clear that they’ve got compliciity in certain passengers boarding the stagecoach but the band of vicious bullies — a sisterhood, it must be noted, who are always together, never apart, and express a kind of physical terror at the notion of standing alone or apart — form the moral center of that which threatens the good: the mentality of the mob.
It is interesting, for this reason, and John Ford’s alcohol consumption is relevant here, that the 1939 movie was released in the aftermath of many, many years of women’s harping through Christian temperance against the freedom to drink alcohol. Their actual goal, whatever their purported motives, was a total ban on alcohol. The band of Puritanical women infamously succeeded. So, Stagecoach was released and is best understood in the wake of Prohibition, the Constitutional ban on alcohol which originated with the premise that alcohol ought to be outlawed (the amendment was repealed in 1933).
The first third of Stagecoach differentiates seven passengers (and, to a lesser extent, two drivers). Who will fall in or out of the herd becomes the movie’s main, implicit conflict, though a distant and looming threat stands by in an attack by a bloodthirsty band of Geronimo’s Apache Indians. Nested within each of the seven characters, to Mr. Ford’s and screenwriter Dudley Nichols’ credit, is an additional inner conflict to be examined, dramatized, climaxed and resolved.
Stagecoach gains momentum as it barrels from Tonto to its final destination, compounding a sickening specter of doom.
It is in this sense that one begins to see the origins of future classic movies and genres in John Ford’s Stagecoach. The ethos of the ensemble, in particular the disaster movie, with strangers thrown together amid secrets and mutual or opposing values and clashing motives takes root here. From Lifeboat (1944) and Titanic (1953) to Airport (1970) and Hotel (1967), including movies such as Separate Tables (1958) and Crash (2005), the story of revolving and intersecting lives entangled in a single place, event or day, advances in earnest and on an epic scale with Stagecoach. It remains one of the first serious, dramatic Westerns to earn profits at the box office.
With everyone on board, the stage is fully set, packed and layered for the journey to a town called Lordsburg, which includes secondary tales of the U.S. cavalry. Though in 1939 Claire Trevor’s saloon-type character, who goes by the name Dallas, wouldn’t be called a prostitute, and Louise Platt’s morally ambiguous Mrs. Mallory, wife of a cavalry officer whom she’s traveling to visit, wouldn’t be depicted as apparently pregnant (“she’s unwell”), Stagecoach paces and loads action and dialogue intervals so that action doesn’t overwhelm and drama doesn’t ripen into melodrama.
In the motion picture which essentially launched his movie star career, John Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, a wrongly jailed and escaped convict who seeks to avenge his murdered family. His first scene is breathtaking for its ability to convey without words that he’s physically superior, skilled as a gunman and self-confident and that he is fiercely independent and untainted by his downward experience. John Wayne’s Ringo Kid remains upright, honest and innocent. Everything the audience learns about him builds from Ringo’s first facial expression.
That the character comes a bit later in the movie marks him as the new, modern, rebellious man’s man; the non-conformist who stands alone against society and its dominant ideals. Mr. Wayne’s is a clear, focused and thoughtful performance; as the strong, silent type whose moral judgment is contained in his reactions, he is the most watchable character in the movie. Whenever he delivers a line, a look or an action, it is with ease, depth and intention. Watch John Wayne’s Ringo Kid for the beginning of an exceptionally underrated acting career. His heroes are at least as interesting as the villains, usually more so, which is opposite most of today’s movies. This brand of quiet, studied and unyielding heroism against the herd, a hallmark of Westerns for years to come, starts with Stagecoach.
The other four passengers are the gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) a dastardly looking dandy who treats Mrs. Mallory with great gallantry, usually at the expense of others, Gatewood (Berton Churchill), an embezzling banker, Peacock (Donald Meek), a bookish salesman, and Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a drunk with a sharp tongue and a taste for tobacco. They ride at reins held by croaky Buck (Andy Devine) and under the watchful eye of Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft).
Each relationship carries a code. For example, the two women form an unspoken pact which deepens without closing any deal. Dallas and Ringo come to an understanding, too, which seems at once impossible and hard to dismiss. Doc Boone and Peacock bond over Doc’s addiction at first, though the wimpy salesman, a father of five whom no one seems to want to notice, let alone appreciate, represents an outsider of his own kind. This man may have limits but he thinks for himself. Peacock shows his own brand of kindness, independence and grit, at one point gently but firmly urging the drunk: “Please don’t drink.” Hatfield and Mrs. Mallory represent traditionalism in their stealthy, almost seedy non-courtship, both being from the South and, it’s implied, sympathetic to and mutually stained by the crushed and defeated Confederacy. There’s a quietly deliberate moral judgment rendered on them for that. But Mr. Ford makes sure that you’re the one making it (or not).
With epic views of the Overland stagecoach crossing into Monument Valley and a romantically recurring, though not overplayed musical score, morality seeds the mythology of the American West: the rogue individualist, the hardy, liberated woman, the heroic cavalry, barbarism and, above all, the noble pursuit of free travel and trade, justice and happiness toward the goal of a life, property and work to call one’s own.
Stagecoach repudiates the Confederacy, ‘going along to get along’ and Puritanism. It shows that thriving in life means thinking for oneself, being benevolent and diverging from the beaten path. But John Ford does not, contrary to what some claim, overromanticize the West. While jaunty music lightens and accentuates the voyage to Lordsburg, the ride is rough. The danger is real. No one takes or elects to risk the wrath of the Apaches lightly. Danger, dust, smoke, heat and discomfort — even enduring Buck’s whining and rambling — interfere again and again. Something always disrupts and depletes the trip. None of the obstacles, from warpath Indians to crime and persecution, are overcome too easily, if at all. Stagecoach plainly depicts, and with a degree of realism, the challenges of intercultural marriage, from Mexican-Apache to Mexican-American unions. For all the complaining about its romanticizing the American West, the film’s only song’s sung in a foreign language. Ringo makes home in Mexico.
Despite this liberalism, in the best and proper sense of the term, Stagecoach does not exist to portray Indians — let alone Americans — as above reproach. Dallas speaks of her family being massacred by Indians on Superstition Mountain. Turned-out Dallas is weary and her briefly but bluntly shared backstory explains why and how she might’ve ended up in a saloon. By the time Dallas figures she might have a shot at a romance with Ringo, the only passenger to dare to show her kindness, she seeks Doc’s blessing. For the cartoonish depiction of the banker — rarely is there ever a positive portrayal of this crucial and dignified profession — it is Devine’s grating if benign Buck who talks about charging a baby half fare, which mitigates seeing banker Gatewood, the least realistic character in the film, as the greedy capitalist. But the banker’s a cardboard cutout type. There are other flaws, too.
In terms of dramatizing a ride across the West — how buying a passage on the stagecoach moves and accounts for or liberates seven people’s lives — Stagecoach pioneers in the most inventive and exciting ways. Stunning exterior photography and stunt work (look for stuntman Yakima Canutt’s remarkable work when Geronimo’s Indians strike), an innovative river crossing, years before Howard Hawks filmed Red River, and unique and compelling characterizations add up to an equally thrilling and absorbing Western. Before John Ford made his now-revered film The Searchers (1956), he shot two main characters in Stagecoach walking together in contrast to their previous silhouettes walking in proximity but strikingly singular and alone. This type of pictorial commentary about man as a social and rational being, coupled with his seasoned view of man’s flawed, long march toward progress (look for a last minute jab at the media for getting facts wrong), and its thrills, layers and innuendo mark Stagecoach as an epic and excellent motion picture.
The scholar who introduced the 35mm screening at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park noted that this picture offers Hollywood’s first view of Monument Valley. He said he also sees John Ford’s Stagecoach as being wary of civilization, which, in a sense, is a legitimate point. However, I think of Stagecoach more precisely as being suspicious of man’s ability to sustain civilization. There is a difference. The Autry intellectual rightly pegs Stagecoach as a microcosm of American society and points out that the 1939 movie is based on a short story by Ernest Haycox (1899-1950) titled “Stage to Lordsburg”.
When a major movie studio paid a young artist over $17 million for his movie about a slave who planned and led a bloody rebellion, actor, co-writer and director Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation became the talk of Hollywood. Epic, new dramatizations of American historical events are rare and Parker’s movie garnered serious attention, interest and praise.
That the film became controversial after Parker’s past became an issue—he had once been accused of rape and the accuser, it was later disclosed, committed suicide—overshadowed the rare, historical depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion.
Scott Holleran: Is Nat Turner’s rebellion fundamental to the history of American slavery?
Alexander Marriott: That’s been debated by historians. Yes, in the sense that resistance to slavery is a fundamental part of that story and to Nat Turner’s rebellion. In terms of how many people were killed [during the insurrection], according to Thomas Gray, the lawyer who took Turner’s confessions, the death toll among the whites was 55—12 men, 18 women, 25 children—I do not see wide variations in any of the accounts for this figure and the breakdown. As for the number of people killed in the aftermath of the rebellion, this is open to some historical conjecture. According to the most recent monograph on the rebellion by Patrick Breen, the number of blacks killed and/or executed after Nat Turner’s rebellion has been overstated by previous historians. Instead of ranging from 100-200 in the Southampton area, Breen pegs the number of blacks killed without trial in the 30s; [Breen asserts that] 17 were tried and sentenced to death, including [Nat] Turner. Even the most inflationary accounts do not suggest women and children among the enslaved were lynched and hung. Breen makes a compelling case that their status as valuable property impelled authorities to quickly reign in any vengeful impulses of panicked Virginians to protect their slaves from annihilation. Turner’s is also the most spectacular form of rebellion. It’s the only one that came off that does target women, children and babies and, because slaves in Haiti had rebelled in 1790 and word of that had traveled, its nondiscriminatory nature realized the nightmares of American southerners of what a slave rebellion would look like.
Alexander Marriott: There could possibly be a French film, but as far as English-language cinema goes, I’m not aware of any dramatic film adaptation, which is too bad. It’s an intensely complicated story. At the time it happened in the early part of the 19th century after the 1790 slave rebellion in Haiti, Nat Turner’s rebellion certainly gave pause to white Southerners who had been speaking openly about white Southern society and how slavery could be integrated in the American South. Could a large population of former slaves live among their former slaveowners? The answer after the Haitian rebellion seemed to be No. Nat Turner’s rebellion did trigger a debate among Virginians about abolition.
Depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion
Scott Holleran: Did Nat Turner’s insurrection ultimately hurt or help the cause for abolition?
Alexander Marriott: If the cause is the immediate end of slavery then Turner’s rebellion probably did not do anything to that cause one way or the other. Turner’s rebellion fits into the failure of the American Revolution to eliminate slavery, which is part of the cause of the Civil War. Slavery was a contradiction to America’s founding. If you take [abolitionist] William Lloyd Garrison when news arrived about Southampton County in Boston, he pointed out that what Nat Turner had done was the inevitable consequence of slavery. It’s dark but illustrative. Among black abolitionists, Turner was not viewed as a villain. I’ve never come across any long remarks that Frederick Douglass produced on Nat Turner. Douglass certainly would not have morally condemned Turner.
Scott Holleran: Was Nat Turner a religious zealot, as the movie portrays?
Alexander Marriott: Everything we have to go on suggests that the answer is Yes, though no more so than other preachers in 1831. There were a lot of [Christian] revivals by both races for evangelism.
Scott Holleran: Is the scene in which slave preacher Nat Turner delivers baptism to a white man accurate?
Alexander Marriott: That did indeed occur and it was a controversial thing—even the most debased white person would not have [typically] come to a slave for baptism but Turner had built up a real reputation. Most whites would have been amused that a scoundrel [as depicted in the film] was being baptized by a slave preacher. The baptism contributed to the sense among Southampton County whites that Turner was not a particular threat. The sense was that he was specially marked. This was known by whites as well as slaves.
Alexander Marriott: Did rape occur under slavery? Yes. Was Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry, raped? No, according to historical records but if she had been there would have been no reason to note it and every reason to avoid noting it—with the exception of Nat Turner himself, who was literate—but Turner’s bible was not burned and he did write things down in the bible. As the rapes are portrayed in the movie, there’s nothing historically wrong with either of those portrayals. The notion that [rape] wasn’t happening all the time is not supported. Rape was not talked about—it was beautifully but horrifically portrayed in 12 Years a Slave that [slave] Patsy was being raped [by the slavemaster] and everyone knew it but didn’t talk about it. Thomas Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings is herself the product of Jefferson’s father-in-law. One of the other ways we know it happened is the color dynamics—darker field hands and lighter skinned house slaves—the evidence is everywhere around us.
Scott Holleran: How did his father’s escape from slavery impact Nat Turner and what happened to his father?
Alexander Marriott: We don’t know—we do know that Turner’s father ran away and was successful—and it’s hard to have records. The same is true with 12 Years a Slave author Solomon Northrup.
Scott Holleran: Is Parker’s portrayal of Nat Turner accurate?
Alexander Marriott: I don’t object to it in any formal way—there’s enough ambiguity and gap in the historical record that he can be a lot of things, which is why Nate Parker could make Nat Turner whatever he wanted. My own read on Turner is that Parker could have and should have focused a lot more on black preaching and how African Americans interacted with Christianity and [put more emphasis on the] gathering [of slaves in religious congregation] in the barn. Most of Turner’s [preaching] competition was not well read and Turner cut his teeth by listening to other black exhorters. Religion was not an attempt to repent in church on Sunday. So the black church would have been emotive and demonstrative and you don’t have any of that [in The Birth of a Nation] and [showing the demonstrativeness] would have made a lot more sense. Among themselves, certainly church was a very musical ceremony, which is an important part of blacks’ religious experience.
Scott Holleran: Did Turner’s rebellion target white women, children and babies?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. What makes the Turner rebellion so terrible and catastrophic is that it’s absolutely everything Southerners had always feared—it’s the worst-case scenario—an attack in which women and children were murdered. There’s no question that [Gabriel] Prosser’s [earlier slave rebellion] was a military style rebellion, so there were no attempts to terrorize and there’s no question that Turner was going to go on the Old Testament-style wrath as God’s sword, meaning killing babies and women and children. They killed the [slaveowning] Travis family in their beds and went back to kill the baby. In the movie, the only children seen killed on screen are blacks. But we know that a little [white] boy had his head chopped off while running away from a slave. In the movie, we see Turner himself kill [slavemaster] Sam Turner but [in fact] the only person I’m aware that Turner killed is a small [white] girl who was running away. He bludgeoned the child to death with a fence post.
Scott Holleran: Was Turner rational?
Alexander Marriott: Yes, to the extent that he knew his position in the world and that anyone who turns to evangelism can remain rational. The first date he originally planned for the rebellion was the Fourth of July—Turner became sick with anxiety and couldn’t do it—and that date could not have been randomly selected. His reputation was that he had always been planning things. He was coming up with plans to steal foods—he was the one to go to for plans and he’d established himself as a leader, not as a doer. And, apparently, the rebel slaves did not have a problem with Turner not doing the killing.
Scott Holleran: Was Nat Turner’s attention to detail captured in the movie?
Alexander Marriott: No. In the film, suddenly, there was a meeting in the woods—without Nat Turner vetting anyone who participated in the rebellion. You couldn’t regard The Birth of a Nation as a biopic because it leaves the history behind.
Scott Holleran: Is Nat Turner’s grandmother accurately depicted?
Alexander Marriott: She did exist and she was a direct captive from Africa. But we know so little about these slaves that writers can just create types. During the siege, Turner did skip [attacking] the plantation where [his wife] Cherry lived. Turner literally claimed that the ability to read and write came to him [from God]. After his unusual ability was discovered, he was given formal education though it was not as formal as portrayed in the movie. We know that he could read so he could have read whatever he got his hands on.
Scott Holleran: How do you regard Nat Turner’s confessions?
Alexander Marriott: One of the interesting questions anyone who studies Nat Turner has to grapple with is [historical documents]. In Nat Turner’s case, we get a long confession that gives insight into his thoughts. Thomas Gray was the lawyer [who interviewed Turner and elicited the confession] and he certainly did have an agenda—he could make money from the document or, as a white Southerner, he may have been tempted to downplay that, when asked if [slavemaster] Travis a good master, Nat Turner said Yes. So, if Travis was not a bad master, why [did Nat Turner] not spare him and his family? Not everyone who was killed was bad. So, when you read the confession document, you have to read it carefully. I tend to think [Gray] seems interested in trying to figure out what made Nat Turner tick. The Nat Turner that emerges from the confession document does come off as a possibly delusional, religious madman—does this mean that slavery is not that bad?—and Southerners could get some level of calm out of that. Some skeptical scholars might wonder why Turner doesn’t talk about all the horrors of slavery he’s seen. But the confession document is regarded as potentially useful document when it’s subjected to corroboration, not as a fraud. It’s also regarded as Turner’s confession filtered through a white man in Virginia in 1831. And, of course, Frederick Douglass did talk about these horrors of slavery. Turner would have seen really, really awful things done to him and to others, too. If you read 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup does not beat around the bush about [what happened to] Patsy. But he did it in a way it could be published.
Scott Holleran: Is the theme of The Birth of a Nation and/or Nat Turner’s rebellion that the ends justify the means?
Alexander Marriott: My impression is that Nate Parker thinks that resistance requires direct action, not sitting back and accepting what’s happening. From Nat Turner’s standpoint of the rebellion itself, he must have believed that this was an Old Testament-style [calling] and that he was delivering the wrath that God called for and that the system and deliverance from it required total annihilation, which is why he could [order a baby being killed] and why Turner never expressed remorse for it. Even Gray does not portray Nat Turner as meek or repentant.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that Nat Turner was hung, skinned and beheaded?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. Southerners made sure that no one would be coming to Nat Turner’s grave.
Scott Holleran: Rebel slaves are depicted killing with beheadings, too. Was this common practice?
Alexander Marriott: Remember the French Revolution. Beheading is a visceral way of warning [enemies] that this could happen. In England, it became the method for executing aristocrats. Going to public executions was common.
Scott Holleran: How should one regard slavery?
Alexander Marriott: Slavery is too easy to think of as endless fields of cotton for the South or as unending misery, toil and human squalor for the slaves. In some ways, it was worse and in some ways it was better and it wasn’t just the South—slavery was originally legal everywhere—it explains why the country has the heterogeneous racial quality it does, which is a strength, not a weakness. The United States had to overcome this problem and there’s a point at which Americans did start to get along reasonably well. We’re not all killing each other in the streets. Almost everyone gets that slavery is wrong. If you read Frederick Douglass, he wrote about his enslavement that the worst moments were when he was treated the best.
Scott Holleran: Is Frederick Douglass a good starting point for someone who takes slavery seriously while putting slavery in a proper American historical context?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. You couldn’t do any better. The one caveat to that is that Douglass is fairly unusual—he was not a Deep South slave, so he did not have the worst experiences as a slave. Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a good way to get a different perspective from a slave in New Orleans. She writes about her life as an urban slave woman. For a perspective from a Deep South field slave read Solomon Northrup’s account of enslavement on sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana in 12 Years a Slave. One of the great things about the abolition movement is that abolitionists went out and found people who could write. They left us with a body of literature.
Alexander Marriott: The [depiction of the] rebellion itself is all wrong, which is sad because the silliest thing was the confrontation in Jerusalem [Virginia] when they end up having the big showdown—nothing like that ever occurred. The U.S. Army did not show up. The movie doesn’t show Turner’s time as a fugitive. It portrays that he gave himself up and that’s completely wrong. He did not surrender. It was happenstance that when he was found he was emaciated. It had been eight weeks. Also, Nat Turner was not beaten up by the townspeople as portrayed.
Alexander Marriott: The first bit about Nat Turner [as a boy] with his grandmother and mother and their concern with his African heritage and what the bumps [on Turner’s] body mean—that they [thought the body bumps] meant he was going to be a leader—that was true. The plantation’s houseguest getting a slave to [have sex] with—that’s pretty accurate. And, if anyone comes away from this movie thinking that slavery was unpleasant and harsher than they thought, that’s good.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he remade with superior results in 1956, is a solid, suspenseful thriller. I saw the picture at a screening in Sid Grauman’s recently renovated movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard, The Egyptian, on a nitrate print owned by David O. Selznick and featured at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The British movie was introduced by director Martin Scorsese (Silence, Raging Bull, The Aviator).
A couple vacationing in Switzerland with their only child becomes ensnared in an intriguing assassination plot that leads to their daughter being kidnapped, a frantic attempt to get her back from the evil kidnappers in a London church and a volatile climax in which mother, father and daughter are potentially caught in the crossfire in a shootout between police and assassins. The black and white, 75-minute movie begins with a thrilling and elegant series of scenes in the Swiss Alps, establishing the efficacy of the mother (Edna Best), moving to police headquarters, a dentist’s office in London and a church cult in working class London where the freakish leader Abbott (Germany’s Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role since fleeing National Socialism) and his freakish female companion Agnes (Cicely Oates) lure and confront the heroic father (Leslie Banks, shining in the role). A tense scene at the Royal Albert Hall uses the same cymbal-themed music as the 1956 remake with Doris Day and James Stewart.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is a brisk, lucid and economic exercise in filmmaking and it is involving but at times it does feel like an exercise. By the time Best’s mother character does her mea culpa for having castigated the wayward daughter (Nova Pilbeam, the last surviving cast member until she died last summer) early in the movie, the gunfight has gone on too long and at the expense of the drama. The motherhood theme is nonetheless powerful, though her character emotionally pitches too soon at Albert Hall without a properly threaded and balanced exposition. Best aces the pivotal street scene, which elicited triumphant applause during the screening at the Egyptian, and Banks, too, in a chair-smashing scene at the Tabernacle of the Sun, is breathtaking. The most absorbing psychological progression, however, occurs between Agnes and Abbott during the showdown with London police.
This takes place after curiously engaging set-up scenes at church, where Banks’s father and Lorre’s child-robber go back and forth over the mind becoming blank, courtesy of a character named Clive (Hugh Wakefield) who functions here as a light comic relief. Clive, too, develops the plot-theme of redemption for authority after his passionate attempts to convince policemen are laughed off and rejected—he is dismissed as a kook or conspiracy theorist, as how could harm come to a child in church?—until police must face the deadly consequences of their denial.
Indeed, given how The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) ends, it plays as a serious reproach of London police, who literally miss the mark when it matters. Trust and count on no one (especially the government), both Hitchcock movie versions really say, above your own reasoning mind, judgment and skill. I prefer his Americanized 1956 version, which I agree with the master of suspense is the better movie. But the original is also extremely good.