Custer of the West (Security Pictures, 1967)
Dreary and fake
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George Armstrong Custer, as we have seen recently on this blog, appeared frequently in Westerns, but for the most part he was a peripheral character in a story about other people. Even pictures with titles such as With General Custer at Little Big Horn (1926) or Custer’s Last Stand (1936) did not feature Custer as the central character. A full biopic such as the Raoul Walsh/Errol Flynn farrago They Died With Their Boots On (1941) was a rare event. Some pictures had Custer as a sort of ‘presence’ but the general didn’t actually appear at all – Chief Crazy Horse, for example.
But in the mid 1960s Fox announced plans to make a film all about Custer called The Day Custer Fell, to be directed by Fred Zinneman. Robert Mitchum was talked of for Custer!
It was cancelled on grounds of cost but producer/writer Philip Yordan, already noted in our genre for the likes of Johnny Guitar, Broken Lance (for which he won an Oscar) and The Man from Laramie, decided to make his own Custer movie and hired Bernard Gordon and Julian Zimet to write the screenplay. According to Zimet, “The original brief was to turn out a typical Western sainted-hero martyr script, which Gordon and I duly delivered. But Robert Shaw figured he would make it over to suit himself. Which he did. He turned Custer into a sadist of Shakespearean depth.” According to Gordon, "Production stumbled along on Custer as Julian and I tried to give the Indians a fair shake. Robert Shaw was helpful. A bright man and a fine writer, he approved of our point of view of that the Indians were victims right to the end. He even wrote one speech for Custer… that made this point sharply.”
Yordan said he needed a known star and director to raise the funds to make the movie. English Shakespearean actor Robert Shaw had earned a big name for himself (and an Oscar nomination) as a ruthless Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons in 1966 and later he would be memorable as Quint in Jaws, but he certainly wasn’t an obvious choice for the role of Custer. Indeed, Custer of the West and a later junk Telly Savalas Mexican revolution picture were his only forays into the genre.
Similarly, Robert Siodmak, the director chosen, was a Jewish expressionist director who fled Hitler’s Germany and found himself working in Hollywood on thrillers and horrors. The stylish noir The Spiral Staircase (1946) was generally recognized as his masterpiece, and the same year he directed The Killers, based on Ernest Hemingway’s story. So he too was well known but had never made a Western (unless you count Pyramid of the Sun God or Treasure of the Aztecs).
Zimet later commented, “Shaw took care of the battle scenes himself. Siodmak preferred directing ballroom scenes, which he had done so often in his long career they required no invention.”
It is said that Kurosawa was considered as director but he pulled out. Now that would have been interesting.
The film was originally known as Custer's West. It was one of two big screen epics made by Security Pictures (a company co-owned by Yordan) in Cinerama, the other being Krakatoa, East of Java. The company borrowed $6 million from the First National Bank to make the films and gave distribution rights to Cinerama. Cinerama then sold 50% of the movie to ABC Films.
They shot it in Spain, on grounds of cost, Almeria doing duty for Montana. The DP was Spanish, Cecilio Paniagua, (who later did the fun 100 Rifles). The photography isn’t bad, though The New York Times review said, “the quality of the print is abysmal”.
I quite liked the modern, slightly jazzy orchestral score by Bernardo Segall. Completely anachronistic, of course, but when is the music on a Western movie anything else? Rarely.
Though made in the summer of 1966, the picture wasn’t released in the US till 1968 and in some other countries later still.
As with all Custer films, it bears little relation to history. Custer trains up the 7th Cavalry himself (he didn’t) with grueling physical punishment. He is against the railroad interests (the exact opposite of the truth), is only informed later on of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills (nonsense) and is totally against the miners encroaching on Indian lands (balderdash). Custer meets Dull Knife (Kieron Moore) just before the battle (he didn’t, of course) and tries to persuade him to go back to the reservation. In return, Dull Knife gives Custer (the last man standing, obviously) the chance to depart alive, which he refuses. Major Reno takes no part in the fighting and withdraws immediately into trees. The message urging Reno and Benteen to "come up quick" never reaches the intended recipients, the dispatch riders being killed by the Indians. And so on.
There's no 'royal family', the nepotist Custer network, his brother Tom and so on, and there are no pro- and anti-Custer cliques. Details are inaccurate: for example, much is made of the Stars and Stripes but a 50-star version is used, Custer wields a saber at Little Bighorn, he uses a silver Colt revolver and his troops have Winchester repeater rifles. It’s all wrong. In some ways these are minor matters but cumulatively they just make the whole thing look fake.
And why does Shaw give Custer an Irish accent?
Telescoping Custer’s short but very full career into manageable screen time (in most cuts this picture runs 143 minutes) is notoriously difficult especially if you try, as Walsh and Flynn did, to show his whole life. Why then, one wonders, fill up valuable screen time with invented and apparently unrelated happenings? The escape of a sergeant from Sioux by hugging a log as it hurtles down a water chute into a lake goes on for minutes and minutes. There’s a desert crossing in pursuit of Indians and the firing of a cannon on them. A train is attacked by Indians and crashes off a burning trestle. There’s the massacre by Indians of hundreds of civilians in a town on Independence Day. The tedious episode with the deserter ‘Mulligan’ gives us a good opportunity to appreciate the great Robert Ryan (doing it free while on holiday as a favor to his friend Yordan) but it is totally extraneous to the plot and furthermore is poorly written with meandering, pointless dialogue, Gordon and Zimet failing badly here.
Honestly, the direction, editing and writing were lousy. The New York Times said, on its US release, “So much strange cutting and botching went into the job that it is nearly impossible to follow the story and that the moment of Custer's great crisis of some sort is completely impossible to understand.”
Furthermore, the acting is sub-standard. Alcoholic Major Reno is played by Ty Hardin with 1960s facial hair. Captain Benteen is portrayed as passionately pro-Indian by Jeffrey Hunter in a Beverly Hills tan.
Glaswegian Mary Ure (Mrs John Osborne but the future Mrs Shaw) in her only Western is an extremely unconvincing Libbie.
None of these characters is helped by the poor lines he or she is obliged to deliver (at one point Custer says to Dull Knife, "I know you got human rights"). About the best is Lawrence Tierney as Sheridan, who figures largely in the story.
The film met with a largely negative reaction from critics and only made $400,000 in the United States and Canada. Variety was about the kindest, but even its critic was hardly enthusiastic. The review was quite polite about the acting: “Robert Shaw gives Custer a simple forthrightness and dash that is effective, despite its naive context. Other thesp support is adequate.”
Later critics have not been kinder. Brian Garfield said, “The sprawling production scenes and expensive, elaborate battle sequences don’t make up for the interminable and ponderous between-action scenes.” Dennis Schwartz calls it “a lumbering biopic” and “a dreary and inaccurate Western”. At Rotten Tomatoes it gets only a 25% rotten-rating.
I’d give it a miss. You'd be much better off with Errol Flynn, an equally false portrayal historically speaking but at least They Died… is well made and huge fun. Custer of the West is just a tedious, inaccurate, overlong, poorly acted movie spiced up with some invented action, much of it ridiculous. It sends out a mixed message, wanting both the penny and the bun, by siding with the American Indians yet still celebrating Custer as a misunderstood outsider.