Sunday, March 14, 2010


Warner Brothers tampered considerably with American history in "Big Trail" director Raoul Walsh's first-rate western "They Died with Their Boots On," (**** OUT OF ****)a somewhat inaccurate but wholly exhilarating biography of cavalry officer George Armstrong Custer. The film chronicles Custer from the moment that he arrives at West Point Academy until the Indians massacre him at the Little Big Horn. This is one of Errol Flynn's signature roles and one of Raoul Walsh's greatest epics. Walsh and Flynn teamed in quite often afterward, and "They Died with Their Boots On" reunited Olivia de Havilland as Flynn's romantic interest for the last time. They appeared as a couple in seven previous films. This 140-minute, black & white oater is nothing short of brilliant with dynamic action sequences, humorous romantic scenes, and stern dramatic confrontations between our hero and his adversaries. One of the notorious errors involves Colonel Philip Sheridan who is shown as the commandant at West Point before the Civil War. Indeed, Sheridan was a lieutenant at this point. In fact, the commandant was Robert E. Lee as the earlier Flynn film "Santa Fe Trail" showed. Another historical lapse concerns Lieutenant General Whitfield Scott; Scott was not the commander of Union troops throughout the Civil War. Warner Brothers presented Custer as a drinker (probably because Flynn had a reputation for drinking), but in real life Custer neither drank nor smoked. Nevertheless, these as well as other historical goofs do not detract from a truly splendid film.

"They Died with Their Boots On" opens with Custer riding into West Point Military Academy arrayed in a fancy dress uniform with an African-American carrying his luggage and tending his dogs. After the sergeant of the guard realizes that he has turned out a honor guard for a future plebe instead of a high-ranking foreign general, the sergeant turns Custer over to a ranking cadet Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy of "City for Conquest") to take charge of him. Sharp plays a practical job on Custer by installing him in the quarters of Major Romulus Taipe (Stanley Ridges of "Task Force") who promptly runs Custer out. Naturally, the volatile Custer attacks Sharp in a public brawl. General Phil Sheridan (John Litel of "The Sons of Katie Elder") is prepared to dismiss Custer from West Point for conduct unbecoming. As it turns out, Sheridan cannot expel Custer because Custer has not enrolled. Once he enrolls, Custer establishes a mediocre academic reputation with alacrity to fight and accumulate demerits galore. When the American Civil War erupts, West Point graduates cadets who have not completed their education and rushes them into combat. One of the last cadets hustled off to war is Custer. Avid as he is to get into the fight, Custer encounters his future wife, Elizabeth 'Libby' Bacon (Olivia de Havilland of "Santa Fe Trail"), and they pledge themselves to each other, despite Mr. Bacon (Gene Lockhart of "Carousel") who detests the sight of Custer. It seems that Bacon ran across Custer at a saloon and insulted one of Custer's friends and our hero reprimanded Bacon.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Custer desperately seeks a transfer to a regiment, but Major Taipe has him cooling his heels. Custer befriends rotund Lieutenant General Winfield Scott (Sidney Greenstreet of "The Maltese Falcon") and they share an appetite for creamed Bermuda onions that becomes one of Custer's characteristics. Not only does Scott see to it that Taipe assigns Custer to the Second Cavalry, but also Custer appropriates Taipe's horse to get to his command. During the Battle of Bull Run, 21 July 1861, Custer disobeys orders from none other than Sharp, strikes his superior officer and holds a bridge so the infantry can cross it. Wounded in the shoulder and sent to the hospital, Custer receives a medal rather than a court-martial. When Confederate General Jeb Stuart threatens the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, Scott is shocked by the chance that the South may triumph. When a brigadier general cannot be found, Scott goads Taipe into promoting the first available officer. A mistake is made and Custer is promoted. Incredulous at first, Custer embraces the moment and cracks Stuart's advance. After the war, Custer idles down and starts boozing it up with the boys at the local saloons. Sharp shows up as a crooked railroad promoter and with his father they try to enlist Custer to serve as the president of their railway so that they can obtain funds. Eventually, Libby intercedes on his behalf with General Sheridan, who was in command of the army, and gets him back on active duty as the commander of the 7th Cavalry. When he takes command, Custer finds the 7th cavalry a drunken lot and is not surprised that Sharp commands the liquor at the fort. Meanwhile, Custer has his first run in with Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn of "The Guns of Navarone") and takes him into custody. Of course, Crazy Horse escapes, becomes Custer's adversary, and they fight.

Once Custer has quelled Crazy Horse and the Indians, Sharp with Taipe as a government agent conspire to destroy a peace treaty with the Sioux and other Indian nations. They also see to it that Custer is brought up on charges for striking Taipe in a saloon brawl. On his way to Washington, Custer discovers the perfidy of Sharp and Taipe who have drummed up a gold strike in the sacred Black Hills. Settlers rampage in and the Indians hit the warpath. Custer sacrifices himself and his 600 men at the Little Big Horn in a slam-bang showdown against six-thousand redskins. "Stagecoach" lenser Bert Glennon captures both the grit and the glory. The long shot of the 7th Cavalry leaving the fort at dawn is spectacular. As an added premonition of Custer's imminent demise, Libby faints after he leaves their quarters for the Little Big Horn. "They Died with Their Boots On" benefits from a top-notch Max Steiner score that incorporates the regimental tune "Gary Owen."

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