It's about time we had another major movie about George Armstrong Custer. We're overdue. It's 130 years last week since Custer made his mark on history in the only way he could, by dying for his country. Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.
Movies about Custer, he of the Last Stand and the 7th Cavalry, crop up every fifteen years or so, and they can tell you a lot about American cultural values of their time. I'm not talking Custer as a walk-on secondary character, either, like in Sante Fe Trail, where a genial Ronald Reagan shows up as Custer in a story about John Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry (and which the historical Custer never went near). No, I'm talking films that concentrate on that most famous American tale of the one battle the Indians indisputably won.
In the silent era, Custer was a tragic hero, the gentleman-soldier who sacrificed his life to bring civilization to the benighted neolithic savages of the Great Plains. And never was heard the discouraging words, "incompetent screw-up."
Mostly, this was because his widow, Elizabeth, lived until 1933, doing everything she could to promote her late husband's reputation, often at the expense of the reputations of his two surviving associates, Major Reno and Captain Benteen. In Custer stories there is an inverse relationship working between Reno/Benteen and Custer. Any increase in Custer's rep is taken out of their account, and any decrease goes to their credit.
But she outlived them both, and laid the blame for Custer's bad decisions on their shoulders. Even today, the Wikipedia listing writes of Reno's "retreating after a timid charge with the loss of a quarter of his command." Folks, losing a quarter of your force isn't timidity. The phrase that spring to mind is blood bath. It would wait until after the death of Elizabeth Custer before the cracks started to appear in Custer's image.
They Died with Their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn as Custer, was the High Hollywood treatment of the story. Custer's flaws start to appear in this version, but are portrayed as harmless foibles. It isn't that he's willing to get men killed to make a name for himself, it's just that he takes a boyish glee in seeing his OWN NAME printed in the newspapers. It isn't that he has a strong streak of vainglory--it's just that he has a magpie's love of uniforms with SHINY EPAULETTES (oooooo!).
Custer's failure as a leader in this version, suitable for Errol Flynn to play, was that he was just too damn brave for his own good, charging without thinking, too confident in his own abilities to be properly wary of his enemy. Flynn is particularly effective playing a character who doesn't think. It is mostly an action film, glossing over Custer's defeat as a mostly noble affair, not a flaw in character, although a regrettable error in judgment.
Just nine years later, in 1948, filmmakers who'd been off fighting a war weren't so willing to dismiss or forgive the incompetence of an officer who managed to get his command killed off. Albeit they call their protagonist "Owen Thursday" in Fort Apache, he's Custer with the serial numbers filed off. And his failure, at long last, is directly attributable to his own flaws of character.
It helps that Fort Apache is a first-rate film in all respects, with good actors (Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Ward Bond), a good script, and a good director (John Ford). Thursday/Custer (Henry Fonda) is a bitter, vain-glorious martinet, dishonest when it suits his purposes, and tending not to credit anyone around him, whether enemy or subordinate. When he leads his men into the trap that is all too obvious to everyone around him, he at least has the good grace to die gallantly, though at that point he doesn't have much choice. And, in a cynical nod to the way these things happen, the survivors (led by John Wayne) play up the false story of his heroism, for the Greater Good of the Service. It was pretty much the last word on the subject for many years.
There is also an unquestioned assumption in Fort Apache that taking the West away from the Indians was the right thing to do. Even though the film portrays Indians as noble and admirable, it also sees them as in the way, and expendable.
In the confused America of the 1960's, values had started to shift. Hollywood producers could no longer count on a mass audience to admire a man simply for his willingness to commit genocide against the Indians. So we got the deeply silly Custer of the West, with Robert Shaw playing Custer. This one has Custer expressing sympathy for the Indians, but sadly bound by his duty to the Army policy of exterminating them. Custer in his lifetime never expressed anything but contempt for Indians, and was famous for ignoring and bending his orders whenever it suited him.
Custer of the West plays the man as a tragic hero, knowing exactly where Army policies are leading, and helpless in his thrall to his duty to stop it. Of course, Benteen and Reno are severely libelled and maligned, betraying and abandoning Custer when the going gets tough. It achieved the impressive distinction of being the least historically accurate re-telling of the story, and was a moderate hit.
The next big-budget treatment of Custer is also the funniest, Richard Mulligan's all-stops-out performance as Custer in Little Big Man. This is Custer as full, irredeemable loony, literally unable to perceive reality even as it's chewing him up and spitting him out. It's also an important cultural transition, wherein sympathy for the Indians trumps everything else.
Mulligan's Custer is the antithesis of the heroic Custer of the earliest films. He knows nothing and cares nothing about the Indians, who he sees as merely a means to his desired end of a successful political career. That much, at least, does seem accurate to the historical Custer, although his cluelessness is much exaggerated in this spirited, revisionist take on the story. It fits the style of the film, which is all sweeping generalizations and caricature. Love it or hate it, his portrayal is indelible. This is Custer as he would have been drawn by Swift.
The underlying view of American history and motives is similarly savage, the heroic American cavalry is no longer riding to the rescue of the besieged victims, a la Stagecoach, but riding through the tepees slaughtering old men, women and children, to the cheery strains of "Garry Owen."
At that point, the history became too fraught with conflicting opinion for anyone to treat with the subject. What few movies we got were dull affairs that tried not to offend anyone, and ended up being forgettable. The primary example is The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer. This 1977 TV-movie takes such a balanced well-on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other approach to its subject, you start to forget it before it's even ended. It takes a fanciful approach, Custer having survived the battle somehow, and there now being a trial looking into his actions at the Little Big Horn.
There followed silence on the subject for many years, until Son of the Morning Star, in the early 1990's. This was based on Evan S. Connell's attempt to get to the truth behind the story. Custer, in his telling, was a brave man who was simply promoted too young into the positions of responsibility that made it possible for him to cause the death of so many US troops. Gary Cole almost manages to sell the idea of this inadvertent incompetence, but it is still a pallid affair, trying too hard not to offend anyone, with the usual result of not being very good or very memorable.
Oliver Stone has now bought the rights to Son of the Morning Star, to make his own view of the story. It will probably be a lot more vivid, but heaven knows what resemblance it will have to any part of the history, or what take Stone will have on the story.
So, we're overdue for another movie about Custer. But to do a modern film about Custer, the filmmakers would have to find some way to take the tale of a good-looking, lucky, but completely incompetent boob with an insanely high opinion of himself who blundered into overwhelming military catastrophe, and find some way to make it relevant to a modern audience.
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originally posted: 07/06/06 00:10:01
last updated: 07/28/06 18:58:11