Son of the Morning Star (ABC TV, 1991)
Son of the Morning Star was a two-part TV mini-series screened by ABC in February 1991. It is said to be a dramatization of Evan S Connell’s 1984 non-fiction work Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, which was a critical and commercial success, “and other accounts”. Every generation, or even half-generation, has to do a Custer movie and have its say, usually repeating the old clichés and errors but occasionally trying to say something new, or at least give us the old story in a new way. This one aimed to give a perspective from both sides, by having Elisabeth Custer, on the one hand, and Kate Bighead, a young Cheyenne woman, on the other, both tell the story. Rosanna Arquette was Mrs Custer, too coquettish, I think, and Kimberly Guerrero, voiced by Buffy Sainte-Marie, was satisfactory as Kate.
With a total runtime of 187 minutes, the film had the scope – and a considerable budget - to explore the myth/fact in some detail. Sadly, however, much of this runtime was not used for that purpose and the pace of the film is sluggish at best. It got low ratings, though it has received praise for some authenticity.
It was directed by Mike Robe, the Return to Lonesome Dove chap, and was his first Western (of four). The screenplay was by Melissa Mathison, Mrs Harrison Ford, well known for ET but this was her only Western.
George Armstrong Custer is played by Gary Cole (V-P Bob Russell in The West Wing) in his only Western. He isn’t bad and they do try to get the look right. Kevin Costner was to have been Custer but he danced with wolves instead and got his Sioux fix that way.
The story starts in Montana in June 1876, as Terry and Gibbon discover the military disaster, and flashbacks begin. Key moments of Custer’s life (his life on the Plains, that is; the Civil War is not dealt with) are shown, often through the eyes of Libbie or Kate. Apparently Son of the morning star who attacks at dawn is a name the Crow gave to Custer, though why Kate, a Southern Cheyenne, should be so keen on it is hard to say.
Various key moments are illustrated: Crazy Horse at 14 having a vision, the so-called Fetterman Massacre, the Washita in 1868.
Custer has a child with a Cheyenne woman. Maybe he did, although not if you believe his wife in our last Custer picture, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer (click for review) because in that she strongly hints that Custer was impotent.
They try to get details right, for once. For example, Custer correctly has a brace of British Webley pistols, not the silver Colts he is usually shown with.
Visually the film is attractive, though what the Tetons are doing in Montana isn’t easy to say. In the (absurdly long) list of credits, where they tell you who supplied hamburgers to the driver of the hairdresser’s assistant, you find that Amsterdammer Kees Van Oostrum was the DP. This was his first Western. Later he also did a good job on Return to Lonesome Dove. Much of the film was shot on private property near the Little Bighorn National Monument near Billings in Montana, where a fort was built at a cost of $200,000. Filming also took place in South Dakota at Buffalo Gap and in the Badlands National Park. 150 American Indians were hired as extras and 400 horses were used. The 7th Cavalry consisted of 100 historical re-enactors who also doubled as technical advisers for the film. So it was a big production.
Part 2 opens in the Dakota Territory in the winter of 1875. We also see Sherman (George Dickerson), Sheridan (Dean Stockwell) and Grant (Stanley Anderson) in DC. Sherman calls Grant ‘Ulysses’ (a name he disliked). Little Bighorn approaches. We see Custer leaving Fort Lincoln, flashy in white buckskins and still with long hair (though not as long as the startlingly blond Captain Benteen’s). Libby has a premonition and there are other slightly New Wavy portents. Tom Custer (Tim Ransom) counsels caution, reminding brother Autie that containment is the aim, not battle, and adding, “You don’t have to go after them on your own.”
David Strathairn plays Benteen and manages to be really quite sinister.
Michael Medeiros grossly overdoes the panic of Major Reno, to an extent that he appears (unintentionally) comic. He's almost as bad as Joseph Cotten's dreadful Reno in The Great Sioux Massacre.
The actor who did Crazy Horse as an adult is the excellent Rodney A Grant, and one of the plus points of the movie is the quite sensitive way Crazy Horse is portrayed.
Floyd Red Crow Westerman’s Sitting Bull was also convincing, and I liked the way Bull was not shown as a Napoleonic commanding general, as he is often depicted. In fact, unlike most Custer films, in this one the Indians are shown as separate tribes and real people, not just whooping extras to be shot down.
After the battle there is a quick recap of the deaths of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and a mention of Wounded Knee. It all seems terribly rushed after 187 minutes of screen time, as if they thought, oh, we’d better put in something about what happened afterwards, I suppose.
This is a worthy effort, and closer to the facts than many film treatments. Honestly, though, it drags a bit. Perhaps it would have been better with Costner in it, though had he directed it the film would have probably been even longer.
Variety loved it, calling it "a master work", praising especially production, direction, cinematography and editing. New York magazine compared it with the recently released Dances with Wolves and said that the Son of the Morning Star version of Custer "deals in delusions instead of dreams". It won four 1991 Emmy Awards, and it has its partisans, often drawn by the relatively pro-Indian slant and the authenticity of detail.
It’s strange, though, and sad in a way, that a film which tries for accuracy should be so ponderous and border on the turgid, while a historically preposterous farrago such as They Died With Their Boots On should be such fun.
As so often, we would probably be better off reading the book. Page Stenger in The New York Times said that it was "impressive in its massive presentation of information" and added that "its prose is elegant, its tone the voice of dry wit, its meandering narrative skillfully crafted." The Washington Post reviewer said that "Son of the Morning Star leaves the reader astonished," and The Wall Street Journal called it "a scintillating book, thoroughly researched and brilliantly constructed."