Watching: The Great Woody Strode

A Black character actor of formidable presence.

By The Watching Team

Dear Watchers,

We know your watching time is limited. And the amount of things available to watch … is not. Looking for a movie? Nearly any movie ever made? It’s probably streaming somewhere. That’s a lot of movies.

Below, we’re suggesting two of them, the latest of our weekly double-feature recommendations. We think the movies will pair well — with each other and with you.

Your weekly double feature: Woody Strode

Woody Strode in a scene from the 1960 film “Sergeant Rutledge.”Warner Bros., via the Criterion Channel

‘Sergeant Rutledge’ and ‘Spartacus’

Before his decades as a character actor, Woody Strode was a decathlete and football star, sharing the backfield with Jackie Robinson on the 1939 U.C.L.A. Bruins and later becoming one of the first Black players in the National Football League. His mere presence onscreen commanded so much attention that his characters tended not to speak more than necessary, which is why Sergio Leone cast him in a wordless role as a menacing, larger-than-life gunslinger in the famous opening to “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

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In John Ford’s Technicolor western “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960), currently streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of its Black Westerns series, Strode is cast as an exemplar of dignity and strength amid a sea of fulminating white persecutors. On trial for the rape and murder of a white woman, Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Strode) has a conspicuously powerless role in his own fate, which is left to his crusading lawyer (Jeffrey Hunter), a key witness (Constance Towers) and the court-martial committee. Ford tells the story through testimony and flashbacks, which gradually pay tribute to the “Buffalo Soldiers” who served the Army in the late 1800s. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether Ford’s decision to relegate his hero to the sidelines of the drama is a shrewd narrative strategy or a racial blind spot.

Although Strode appears in Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandal epic “Spartacus” (1960) for only a few of its 197 minutes, he makes such a powerful impression that it may be his most widely remembered role. In that film, Strode plays Draba, an African gladiator forced to fight to the death with Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus for the edification of Roman elites. With a trident and net in a hand — and a massive size advantage — Draba gets the better of Spartacus in the ring, but his fatal decision to turn on his oppressors in the crowd, rather than deliver a finishing blow, is the spark that ignites a slave rebellion. SCOTT TOBIAS

Stream “Sergeant Rutledge” on the Criterion Channel. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

Rent “Spartacus” on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

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