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You've heard the mantra against THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON...That the
only facts they got right were that there WAS a George Armstrong Custer, he
DID serve in the Civil War, and he DID die at the Little Big Horn. This is
all true, but what of it? Hollywood has never been obsessed with making
historically accurate epics (particularly concerning the West), and, at the
time of filming, with America recently plunged into WWII, the WB knew that
escapism was essential for film audiences. What better way to take an
audiences mind off the depressing war news for a couple of hours than with a
grand adventure starring their biggest action star?
Errol Flynn, coming off two minor 1941 releases (the blandly pleasant comedy FOOTSTEPS IN THE DARK, and his first war-related title, DIVE BOMBER) was due for a more 'swashbuckling' role, but the actor flatly refused to work with Michael Curtiz, again. While the Hungarian-born director had guided the actor to stardom, he was a very hard taskmaster, and a mutual hatred between the pair had developed, fueled by Flynn's carousing and lazy work habits. Veteran director Raoul Walsh was called in, and the hard-living director and star would develop an immediate rapport, both on and off-camera (Walsh would go on to direct Flynn in eight films, and drink and ride motorcycles with him between projects).
Another milestone of THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON was that this would be Flynn's last teaming with long-time co-star Olivia de Havilland. Although the pair were friends, de Havilland had become a major star in her own right, and she demanded more important roles than just being Flynn's 'love interest', a decision Flynn supported, wholeheartedly. The fact that the stars knew this during the shooting gave their scenes, particularly the final one, a poignancy that is unmatched in any of their other films.
Flynn's Custer was a larger-than-life cavalier, prone to getting in trouble with his superiors, but so charismatic that one enlisted man remarks, "We'd follow him to hell." Barely allowed to leave West Point to serve in the Civil War (his academic record is the worst in West Point's history, "even worse than Ulysses S. Grant" one instructor laments), the new lieutenant is accidentally promoted to Brigadier General, and uses his rank to lead his command in a series of charges at Gettysburg, ultimately saving the day, and the Union, in the process.
Mustered out at the conclusion of the war, inactivity leads the soldier to drinking and despondency, so wife Libby pulls some strings, and gets him a new command, in the Black Hills, leading the Seventh Cavalry. Finding them an undisciplined lot, he closes the bar, introduces discipline, and a new unit song (the immortal 'Garry Owen'). In no time, his unit is a crack outfit.
Custer also befriends Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn), and promises to keep the sacred Black Hills free of white settlers. Unfortunately, greedy land speculators fake reports of a gold strike there, creating a 'rush', and Custer discovers that the corruption runs all the way to Washington. Unable to prevent the impending slaughter (Congress will only accept his charges if presented as a 'dying declaration'), and facing court martial, Custer bullies President Grant into allowing him to return to his command...and leads the Seventh to the Little Big Horn...
The final charge at the Little Big Horn, concluding with 'Custer's Last Stand' is truly spectacular (Iron Eyes Cody, one of the Indians participating in the sequence, told a great story of an inebriated Flynn, surrounded by his dwindling forces, enthusiastically cussing and firing away, even after director Walsh yelled "Cut!"), and, aided by Max Steiner's decisive music, is one of the most rousing scenes in film history.
Accurate? Are you kidding? But THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, flaws and all, is still cherished as one of Errol Flynn's finest films, during his years as a top star for the WB.
All in all, an excellent movie from that time and source (coming from
Brothers as it was peaking in craftsmanship and style just before WWII),
provided you don't take it at all seriously. The movie really makes no
to being historically accurate, and is certainly no more or less accurate
believable than say, JFK. (This one may actually be more honest about it,
though, as it essentially admits along the way that it's not to be taken
particularly fact-based, but more of a stylishly semi-heroic portrayal.)
It's worth noting that audiences of the time were no more naive about the
story than we are today; the NY Times review conceded that audiences would
"dismiss factual inaccuracies sprinkled throughout the film," described
biographical account of Custer's life as "fanciful," and pointed out that
the presentation of Custer's motivations regarding the final events were
odds with various historical accounts. They could have really gone
in building up Custer, one supposes, but they succeed admirably in
him as not necessarily the sharpest or most diligent guy around, but
appropriately determined, principled and inspirational.
Flynn and DeHavilland, doing their 8th movie together in 7 years (and their last), are so comfortable together, and play off each other so easily at this point, that it's not too difficult to overlook how thinly their courtship is written here. With a first-time pairing, it would be hard to imagine what could really draw Elizabeth to Custer, but these two make it work. The movie is also missing their director from their previous seven films together (the greatly underrated Michael Curtiz), but given that he had worked with them on the previous year's similar-themed Santa Fe Trail, it's understandable if he chose to opt out of this one. (They all started together with Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade - both terrific - so we can't really blame them if they started having a tough time keeping it all fresh.)
Raoul Walsh, the director here, is certainly more comfortable with the action sequences - which are outstanding - and everything else outdoors. The interior scenes are a little more uneven, but the studio craftsmen succeed in compensating for that very well, as does Warner Bros' outstanding cast of "usual suspects" and new faces (Greenstreet, Gene Lockhart, Anthony Quinn, Arthur Kennedy, etc). I would have liked it better if Kennedy's character had been a bit less standard (I generally like his work), but here he seems to be hitting roughly the same notes in every scene; the part could have been better written - and I suppose they might have been unsure of what he could handle, as he'd only been in films for one year (Walsh probably took him for this after doing High Sierra together).
Various highlights include the depiction (probably imagined) of the genesis of "Garryowen" as the cavalry theme. The last half hour is particularly outstanding, especially with the parting of the leads echoing the end of their screen partnership, followed by the final battle scenes. A thoroughly rousing adventure.
8 of 10
Dashing Errol Flynn brings his usual flair for drama in this historically flawed but entertaining film of the life of George Armstrong Custer. The dashing, jovial Flynn essays Custer from his days at West Point as a reckless, headstrong cadet, through the Civil War years in an extraordinarily generous and partisan interpretation of history, and finally as the nonpareil Indian fighter whose blunder at the Little Big Horn is excused as a sacrifice by Custer of his command as a way of exposing the corruption of government officials and post traders as well as a protest of the unfair treatment of the Plains Indians. Olivia de Havilland, Flynn's co-star in several other films, scores as the devoted, adoring Libby Bacon, and Anthony Quinn looks the part as the fierce Sioux chief Crazy Horse. The film's battle scenes are excellent. The Civil War battles are brief and are shown as several vignettes in which Custer, seemingly supported by just a handful of troopers, hammers the Confederate army into submission. Custer's last fight against the Indians is a grand spectacle, a savage clash between red men and white, with no quarter given in a wild mix of military might between determined fighting men. Great direction, cinematography, casting and wonderful music by Max Steiner make this film a Hollywood classic.
This is Custer's last stand, through the Warner Brothers' mill. As a
'biopic', "They Died With Their Boots On" is pure poppycock. One cannot
help but admit, however, that Errol Flynn was the ideal choice to play the
part of the dashing leader of the doomed 7th Cavalry. Of course, the part
wasn't exactly a stretch for him. After all, Flynn had already led "The
Charge of the Light Brigade" and portrayed George Armstrong Custer's
real-life enemy, Confederate Cavalry General Jeb Stuart, in "Sante Fe Trail"
(in which future-President Ronald Reagan depicted Custer).
Appearing opposite Flynn is his ubiquitous co-star, Olivia De Havilland, as Custer's faithful wife Liddy. It has often been said that behind every great man lies a great woman. In Custer's case, that was true to a large extent. The real Liddy Custer spent the rest of her life promoting her late husband's larger-than-life heroic reputation. In that sense, the genesis of this fanciful film might be laid at her door.
Rounding out the fine cast is a young Anthony Quinn as a surprisingly sympathetic (for a 1940s movie) version of Chief Crazy Horse. In fact, Crazy Horse actually comes off as the most sympathetic character in the entire film. Quinn delivered a rather more restrained performance here than was usual in many of his later films. Of course this wasn't the first time he had appeared as a Native American in a movie, but this role was a definite step up because this time Quinn got to play a Native American as a character, and actually deliver some lines.
Of course, action is what any Errol Flynn movie is all about and, in that respect, "They Died With Their Boots On" delivers in spades. Warner Brothers must have collected every horse, rider and pair of boots in Hollywood for the spectacular climax. Surely Custer himself would have approved of Flynn's final scene. One can almost imagine Custer's ghost saying; "Even if that wasn't the way I really died, it certainly is the way I should have".
The Custer Legend, a la Warner Brothers Epic. There's no casting against type here, with the flamboyant Flynn as the flamboyant Custer in this rousing tribute, not only to Custer, but to the men of the 7th Cavalry. The story traces the life of the famed 'Boy General" from his turbulent days at West Point to his final fight at the Little Big Horn. Great liberties are taken with facts here, and we are presented with a Custer that is much more sympathetic to the plight of the redman than history relates. But this one is done on such a grand scale, the battle scenes alone provided employment for every extra in Hollywood. Down beat ending and all, this is great fun!
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw this film over Christmas, and what a great film it was! It tells
the story of Custer (played by Errol Flynn) during and after his
graduation from Westpoint. Although I've heard that the film isn't very
historically accurate (Hollywood never is) I still enjoyed it as I knew
little of the real events anyway.
I thought Errol Flynn was brilliant as Custer and has since become my favourite actor! His acting alongside Olivia De Havilland was brilliant and the ending was fantastic! It brought me close to tears as he and Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) rode to their deaths on little big horn.
I had always known that Errol Flynn was a brilliant actor as he was my dads favourite actor, and I grew up watching his films as a child. But it wasn't until I watched this film that I realised how great he actually was.
I'll give this film 10 out of 10!!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a wonderful film as a film - it gets an 8 out of 10. As a
filmed piece of accurate history...one wishes to be more loving, but it
is a 5 out of 10. And I think I am actually being very charitable.
What was he like - that man of horse and saber who was the youngest "boy" general in the Union Army of the American Civil War, and ended dying with all his command in the greatest military victory of the North American Indian tribes? Opinionated, militant, bumptious, bloody-handed, ambitious, clever, too-clever, Indian-foe, Indian-friend(?), and national hero. His death in 1876 was treated as a national tragedy and pushed him into a position of fame equal to Washington, Lincoln, Jackson, and Grant/Lee, and Sherman/Jackson. It is only with a growing awareness of the mistakes made in his career - the overly ambitious hot-spur, that his reputation declined. Yet to this day, George Armstrong Custer remains the best recalled figure in our history's military annals to lose his last battle (I can't really think of a similar one - maybe General Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, forced to stay with his men on the Bataan Death March - but Wainwright survived the March and the Second World War).
Custer has appeared in more films than far better generals, due to the Western adventures and Little Big Horn. Pity that the details of the real career were never handled so lovingly as Raoul Walsh and Errol Flynn handled them in this film. But even in 1941 the legend was still potent. Olivia De Haviland portrayed Libby Custer, who was recently pointed out in another film review on this thread survived George until 1933, so her effective handling of the story was still in place eight years later. Custer was seen as our wayward but brave knight errant, and with the shadow of World War II looming closer we had to keep the myth and bury the truth. John Ford would have fully understood this and approved it.
So we get the view that he was a hot-spur, but he was patriotic. Although almost pushed out of West Point by demerits (which was true), Custer was in the class of 1861, and it would have been really stupid to be picky about such a fighter that year. You see, most of the so-called military talent from West Point (from Robert E. Lee down) was southern, and joined the Confederacy. The Union needed every northern "Point" man they could find.
Custer's Civil War career should be given closer study - he was attached to the staff of General - In - Chief George B. McClellan, and distinguished himself in the Peninsula Campaign and other eastern front warfare. But he was a cavalryman - and he would rise under the watchful eyes of Grant and Sherman's buddy Phil Sheridan in the latter parts of the war. In particular he served with dash and distinction at the battle of Cedar Creek, which ended the threat of the Confederacy in the Shenandoah Valley. It also hit Custer hard on a personal level (his close West Point friend, Stephen Ramseur, joined the Confederacy and rose to a position like Custer - mortally wounded, Custer sat with Ramseur all through the latter's last night alive).
Following the war things fell apart. He wanted to make his brevet - Major Generalship permanent (it wasn't, as it was a battlefield promotion). They only had a Lt. Colonelship to give him in the shrunken army along the frontier. He tried to play politics, making the error of supporting President Andrew Johnson on a political trip in 1866, and finding most Northerners hated Johnson as an inept idiot. He supposedly admired the Indians (he certainly was eloquent in writing of them and the West), but he caused a genuine military massacre in 1868 of Indian women and children that ended with a court martial. Later, during the 1870s he would support Indian claims against a ring of politicians (that went up to the Secretary of War, William Belknap) who bought and sold Indian trading posts for profit. It ruined Belknap, and left a black eye on the Grant Administration. It put him into the doghouse with Grant and Sherman (who was Belknap's former commander), and Sheridan barely saved his career. Then he was sent on the final Big Horn Campaign. And immortality arrived.
That career is worth a real film, but would it be too critical? Should we hold a man of the 1850s - 1876 to the standards of 2007? Would we like that done to us in a hundred years? Certainly it could happen, but I'm not sure we'd like it.
Custer (1941 style) fit Flynn like a glove, with his giving the closest to a "dance" performance in any of his major films. His final movie with Olivia De Haviland is underlined with a melancholy due to the fate of the hero's character. In support actors like Sidney Greenstreet, Stanley Ridges, Arthur Kennedy and Anthony Quinn did very nicely as friends, foes, or even treacherous sneaks (Kennedy). As an entertaining piece of myth making it remains high - but as a study of a complex military hero it is not what it should be.
Although this film changes reality to make it more heroic and entertaining, sometimes fantasy is more enjoyable than real life, and also nothing could be more real than Errol Flynn playing Custer. This remains the best film made about Custer. The music of Max Steiner is magnificent and also all through the film the Irish song "Gerry Owen", which was a favourite of Custer is played. The film should have more villains, because they try to concentrate all the bad guys in Arthur Kennedy. The relationship between Flynn and De Havilland flows like in no other off their films together, and director Raoul Walsh with his experience in outside scenes with a lot of actors is at his best.
Whether one views him as a gallant cavalier of the plains or a glory
hunting egomaniac, debates about the life and military career of George
Armstrong Custer continue down to the present day. They Died With Their
Boots On presents certain facts of the Custer story and has taken
liberty with others.
He did in fact graduate at the bottom of his class at West Point and got this overnight promotion on the battlefield to Brigadier General. His record leading the Michigan Regiment under his command was one of brilliance.
It was also true that his marriage to Libby Bacon was one of the great love matches of the 19th century. Libby and George were married for 12 years until The Little Big Horn. What's not known to today's audience is that Libby survived until 1933. During that time she was the custodian of the Custer legend. By dint of her own iron will and force of personality her late husband became a hero because she would not allow him to be remembered in any other way.
I think Raoul Walsh and Warner Brothers missed a good opportunity to have the Custer career told in flashback. Olivia DeHavilland should have been made up the way Jeanette MacDonald was in Maytime, and be telling the story of her husband and her marriage from the point of view of nostalgia and remembrance. Even then the cracks in the Custer legend were appearing, but if done from Libby's point of view, they could be understood and forgiven.
Sydney Greenstreet gave a fine performance as General Winfield Scott. The only problem was that Scott had nothing whatsoever to do with Custer, he was retired and replaced by George B. McClellan in late 1861 while Custer was still at West Point. I'm not sure they ever met. But Greenstreet does a good characterization of the ponderous and powerful Winfield Scott. A nice Mexican War story should have been what they gave Greenstreet instead for his very accurate portrayal of old Fuss and Feathers.
The film though is carried by one of the great romantic teams of cinema, Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. This was the last of eight films they did together. The last scene they ever did for the cameras was Libby's farewell to George as he leaves to join his regiment for what will prove to be his last campaign. Both their performances, Olivia's especially, was a high point in their careers at Warner Brothers. We know through history that Custer is riding to his doom, that and the fact that this was their last screen teaming give this scene such a special poignancy. If your eyes don't moisten you are made of marble.
As history They Died With Their Boots On leaves a lot to be desired. As western adventure that successfully mixes romance with the action, you can't beat this film at all.
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