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Douglas C. Jones book and this film came out at about the time of the Cuter Centennial in 1976. This Hallmark Hall of Fame movie dares to ask the question what if? What if General Custer had survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn and stood trial for negligence. You have to keep reminding yourself this didn't acutally happen. I guess that is the greatest compliment you can pay. THe actor playing Custer really doesn't bring him to life, but Brian Kieth and Ken Howard are great as opposing counsel especially in their great summations. Was Custer a great leader or a glory-hungry fool who risked his men's lives. This movie lets us be the judge. Not as good as The Caine Mutiny Court Martial or The Andersonville Trial (or A Few Good Men) but definitely worth your time. Look for an early performance by Blythe Danner.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the man, believe it or not, who coined the
term "iffy history". He was being disparaging - he did not care what
would have happened if certain great events were prevented by chances
that did not occur in reality. To him it was meaningless speculation -
and many agree with him. Yet it always fascinates us. It has been the
source of many successful fictional novels. For example, PRINCE
CHARLIE'S BLUFF, a novel written about thirty years ago, suggested that
after the failure of the Jacobite Revolt of 1746 at Culloden, Bonnie
Prince Charlie is living in Italy when approached (in the 1760s) by
disgruntled Virginians in the wake of the Stamp Act Crisis. As a result
Charlie succeeds in North America, recreating the Stuart Monarchy in
the Kingdom of Virginia. Preposterous idea? Well, probably, but Charlie
might have been approached. Sometimes the effect is not done seriously
but as comedy. James Thurber did a classic, "IF GRANT HAD BEEN DRINKING
AT APPOMATOX", where an intoxicated "Unconditional Surrender" annoys a
typically neat and austere General Lee, but sadly hands the astonished
"Master Robert" his saber, and says, "We almost licked you General...if
we had been feeling better we would have licked you!" Douglas C. Jones
novel was a best seller of the late 1970s. In it, he does not alter the
resulting tragedy of June 24, 1876. The Indians win the Battle of the
Little Big Horn, but there is one major difference. Instead of killing
"Yellow Hair" (as they did), they tie him up and leave him alive for
the Americans to find when the relief columns show up. Actually, had
Crazy Horse, Gaul, and Sitting Bull thought of it, it would have been a
far more devilish punishment for Custer than dying on the battlefield
with his men, and gaining historical stature and immortality.
Carefully Jones shows the resulting mess that the Government would have on it's hands. In June 1876 Custer was not a favorite of the Grant Administration because earlier in the year he had spoken out against the corruption in the War Department under Secretary of War General William Belknap. Belknap was in charge at that time of Indian Reservations, and he and his wife made a small fortune selling the trading posts to various people, who proceeded to cheat the Government and the Indians on the values of the various goods stocked at the posts. Custer's revelations helped lead to the resignation of Belknap (the Secretary handed it in within hours of Congress considering impeaching him - they did impeach him, but they were told that if he resigned first the impeachment could not count because it was an indictment to present to the Senate to remove Belknap, who was now removed anyway).
Belknap had been a friend of General William T. Sherman, Grant's closest friend and Civil War collaborator. Sherman was General in Chief. So Custer's service exposing Belknap made Sherman and Grant his enemies (it is believed that his weakened position in the military may have affected his judgment on the campaign of 1876, and that led to his mistakes at Little Big Horn).
The cast given here is a little wrong and fails to note one actor. Sherman is played by J. D. Cannon in the film, and the reality of the tragedy and the irritation at what the Indians have left the Government with by sparing Custer are given full effect in typical Cannon fashion. He orders the trial to be held on Governor's Island, the headquarters of the Military Department of the East, by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock, one of the best Corps Commanders of the Civil War (and one of the few Democratic War Heroes from the North) is in charge of the court-martial. The choice of the Democrat Hancock is typical of sneaky political considerations (he is constantly suggested as a Presidential candidate by the Democrats - who do nominate him in 1880). If he presides and a popular hero like Custer is condemned, it does not do Hancock's chances much good.
Another mistake in the cast - Brian Keith was the defense counsel, not the prosecutor. Hired by Libby Custer (Blythe Danner) to defend her darling George, Keith finds things murkier and murkier the deeper he looks into the disaster. He thinks there is information of value that Anthony Zerbe may have, but Zerbe (a cynical opportunist) may not have anything after all. Worse is the defendant. Custer is not the gallant hero of a hundred Civil War battles, the youngest Northern General of the War. He is physically all right but mentally something is amiss. He behaves slightly outlandishly at the court martial sessions, and when he gives a written testimony of the battle speaks barely above a whisper as he reads his testimony at a fast pace.
Other witnesses include one of the few Indian guides who survived the battle - and apparently warned Custer to be doubly careful before he reached the battlefield. Also, of course, is Major Marcus Reno (William Daniels, in a splendid cameo appearance) who is still mentally seeing that desperate struggle he and Benteen had miles from the main battlefield.
The story reaches it's climax by reminding the viewers and the court of 1876 that to blame Custer is singularly unfair given larger slaughters and disasters of the war, and the fact that commanders like Burnside, Pope, Hooker, McClellan, were not tried for their errors of judgment. As it is fiction, I will say that the decision makes sense, as does the end of the story: sometimes a courtroom decision may not be the worst thing that can happen to a person. Certainly that proves to be the case here.
if i could give this movie a negative score i would. One example of the book being greater than the movie. The books is great. the movie brought up the standard for sucking. A friend who has rad the book and heard about the movie says i should cut it a break because hallmark made it and kept it family friendly. OK i get that. But why hasn't anybody tried to do a remake? do it like north and south and do it as a miniseries. anything but this travesty of the book. They didn't have benteen, they didn't have custer actually do much, the actor while most of them are good actors didn't really do the movie justice. do this as a mini series or not as a hall Mark movie i'd of given it a 10 out of 10. And don't even get me started on no battle scene. that would have made the movie from great to among best of all time.
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