Highly fictionalized account (see 'goofs' for examples) of the life of George Armstrong Custer from his arrival at West Point in 1857 to his death at the battle of the Little Big Horn in ... See full summary »
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Highly fictionalized account (see 'goofs' for examples) of the life of George Armstrong Custer from his arrival at West Point in 1857 to his death at the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. He has little discipline at the academy but is prepared to stand up to the senior cadet, Ned Sharp, who makes his life miserable. While there he catches the eye of the commandant, Col. (later General) Phil Sheridan and also meets his future bride, Elizabeth Bacon. Graduating early due to the Civil War, it is only through a chance meeting with General Winfield Scott that he finally gets assigned to a cavalry regiment. He served with distinction during the war and when he is promoted to Brigadier General in error, he leads his troops in a decisive victory. He has little to do after the war turning down lucrative positions in private industry and it's his wife who arranges with Gen. Scott for him to be appointed a Lt. Colonel and given command of the 7th Cavalry. He is depicted as a friend of the ... Written by
Naturally, along with everyone else, I was primed to expect a lot of Hollywood fantasy revisionism in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON over the legend of Custer. Just having someone like Errol Flynn play Custer is enough of a clue that the legend has precedence over the truth in this production. And for the most part my expectations were fulfilled (in an admittedly rousing and entertaining way).
Yet even in this obviously biased (and much criticized) retelling of the Custer story, I was struck by some of the points made in this movie that, sometimes subtly but nevertheless solidly, seemed to counter the typical clichés of manifest destiny and unvarnished heroism usually found in Westerns of the early 20th century.
For instance, even while this film attempted to whitewash it's hero, certain scenes still suggested the more flawed and foolish character of the real-life Custer:
1) His initial entrance at the West Point front gate, in which his arrogance and pompousness is a clear aspect of his character.
2) His miserable record at West Point, which seems to be attributed as much to Custer's cluelessness about the demands of military service as any other factor; there are moments in the way Flynn plays Custer at West Point where he seems downright stupid.
3) Custer's promotion to General is not only presented as a ridiculous mistake, but it plays out as slapstick comedy. I half-expected to see the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello wander into the scene.
4) Custer's stand against Jeb Stuart at Gettysburg is not whitewashed as brilliant military tactical leadership, but is presented as reckless and wildly lucky.
5) Custer's drinking problem is certainly not ignored.
And although the music and some of the ways the Indians were shown in this film were certainly reinforcements of the racist stereotype of the ignorant savage, it still came as a surprise to me that the movie actually went into some detail as to why the Indians were justified in attacking the whites who were moving into their land, and fairly explicitly laid the blame for the battles in the Black Hills squarely at the foot of the white man. In fact, no one can argue that the clear villain of the piece is not Anthony Quinn as Sitting Bull, but Arthur Kennedy & Co. as the white devils making the false claim of gold in the Black Hills. Sure, that part of the story is true, but I didn't expect to see it portrayed quite so unequivically in a movie like this.
And one other thing: usually in these films it is the Indians who are portrayed en masse as drunken animals seemingly incapable of the basic common sense to avoid getting falling down drunk any time they get near alcohol. In this movie, it is actually the troops of the 7th Cavalry, and not the Indians, who in at least two scenes are portrayed this way.
All in all, this movie slips in some surprising moments in the midst of the Hollywood bunk.
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