They Died With Their Boots On (Warner Bros, 1942)
This was a real Raoul Walsh film, dashing, macho and boisterous. He did a good line in whitewash biopics - look at his absurd treatment of John Wesley Hardin in The Lawless Breed, for example. But most of his Westerns are huge fun and full of zip. Errol Flynn was the ideal star for him (they were alike in many ways; it is said that Walsh once borrowed John Barrymore’s corpse from a funeral parlor to frighten a drunken Flynn) and while Flynn never really convinced as a Westerner in the way that, say, Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda did, and indeed Errol rather despised the genre, still he carried off this kind of role with aplomb. Actually, Flynn did aplomb.
It’s a very long film, 134 minutes, and it tells the whole career of George Armstrong Custer from his wild West Point days, through the Civil War and up to his death at Little Big Horn. There is a risk here, as there was in such Earp biopics as Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) or Wyatt Earp (1994). Such pictures can drag a bit, and maybe it’s better to concentrate on the key episode of these characters’ Western careers. The New York Times of the day said, “Mr. Walsh would have had a more compact and compelling entertainment had he whittled a half hour or so out of the script.” But to be fair, They Died rips right along, and we don’t seem to get time to yawn. There’s lots of action and even in the talky bits there seems to be movement and energy.
We go right back to West Point, then the Civil War. Young George falls for Elizabeth Bacon, soon to become Mrs Custer. That’s Olivia de Havilland, of course. This was their eighth (and final) partnership. She was Errol’s Ginger Rogers.
Of course, it’s total bunk historically. Custer can do no wrong. He gives his word that no white man shall invade the sacred Black Hills but behind his back the villains falsely claim that gold has been found there so they can run their railroad through (railroad barons are always safe to cast as villains and these ones not only sell whisky and rifles to the Indians, they have caddish mustaches too). Custer knows he is going to his death in ’76 but he does it anyway to buy time for the Army to bring up its infantry. But as I have said before, Westerns should not be criticized for historical inaccuracy, except when they claim historical accuracy. This Hal Wallis production is a romantic, swashbuckling, dramatic spectacle and it charges along at a gallop. The black & white photography by Bert Glennon is fine. We might have hoped for color, and in fact a colorized version was released in the 1980s, but they never work, somehow, do they? The locations are evidently Californian but an attempt is made at Dakota and Montana.
The Max Steiner score (with plenty of Garry Owen, of course) is stirring.
The support acting is excellent and one particularly notices Sydney Greenstreet, ideal as the hugely fat General Winfield Scott. Arthur Kennedy is a hissable villain who nevertheless redeems himself in the end, dying bravely at Little Big Horn. Monocled GP Huntley is entertaining as the British Lt Butler (he was about as British as a Bostonian can be) and Charley Grapewin has the amusing old timer role as California Joe (a sort of Walter Brennan/Arthur Hunnicutt part). Anthony Quinn is suitably noble as Crazy Horse (he'd started Westerns as an Indian, for Cecil B DeMille in The Plainsman).
This is one movie where you already know the ending so I don’t feel guilty about letting the cat out of the bag. But guess who is the last man standing and guess who is the one who shoots him down?
The scene where Custer says goodbye to his wife is actually rather moving. Perhaps Flynn and de Havilland knew it was their last pairing.
They Died With Their Boots On (great title!) is preposterous twaddle but hugely entertaining. Flynn’s best Western, it is a classic of the cavalry genre and a worthy depiction of the mythologized Custer.
Reviewer ‘TMP’ in The New York Times wrote, justly, “Dismiss factual inaccuracies liberally sprinkled throughout the film's more than two-hour length and you have an adventure tale of frontier days which for sheer scope, if not dramatic impact, it would be hard to equal.”
Variety said something similar: “The liberties which the screen writers have taken with well established and authenticated facts are likely to be a bit trying in spots. But the test of the yarn is not its accuracy, but its speed and excitement. Of these it has plenty.”
Later critics enjoyed it. The BFI Companion to the Western says, “It’s Flynn and Warners first, Custer and history second, but the final result is still a fine action brew.” Brian Garfield called it “good stuff” and said it was “grand entertainment – Flynn’s best Western by far.” Herb Fagen in The Encyclopedia of the Western calls it “superb and grandiose entertainment.”
That great critic Jeff Arnold said it was "rip-roaring" and "compulsory viewing."
Shot in the fall of 1941, released on New Year’s Day ’42, it was one of the year’s top grossing pictures, making over $4m on its $1.35m budget, so that was a good day for Warners.
One day someone will make a good film about Custer which combines great drama, even tragedy, with verisimilitude. But it hasn’t happened yet.
We might look at some other celluloid Custers in future posts, though entering the swamps of Custerology is dangerous, as it is with Earpiana, Billy the Kiddery, and so on. People seem to get very exercised about these figures.