With General Custer at Little Big Horn (Aywon Film, 1926)
After Francis Ford’s Custer’s Last Fight in 1912 (click the link for our review), there was a comedy two years later, Colonel Custard’s Last Stand, from the St Louis Motion Picture Company, with Lloyd Hamilton as Custard, of which The Moving Picture World of the day said, “the whole picture, while not a strong production, brings out a succession of smiles.” It was interesting that the mickey could already be taken out of a national hero.
That was followed by Vitagraph’s Britton of the Seventh, with Ned Finley as Custer, in which “Major Reno is sent with four troops to attack the Indians in the rear, but his fatal hesitation results in the tragic Battle of the Big Horn and the annihilation of Custer's brave command”.
Then in 1921 we got Bob Hampton of Placer, with TD Crittenden as Custer, and in 1924 Al Forbes was Custer in Wide Open Spaces, starring none other than Stan Laurel, but of this picture we know next to nothing. The next Custer was the famous Dustin Farnum, in The Flaming Frontier (1926). This was a Hoot Gibson epic at Universal. Hoot is an old friend of Custer’s from West Point, and at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the general sends Bob with a message for aid, and Bob becomes the only survivor of the battle. This plot was remarkably similar to that of another 1926 Custer picture, which, unlike most Custer silent movies, is available, the Aywon Films production With General Custer at Little Big Horn.
This time Lem Hawks is the bold scout sent by Custer in the heat of battle to find Terry and bring help. He does make contact with the relief force, so is another survivor, but is too late to save the 7th. They find Custer’s corpse next to a fallen stars and stripes and they cover him with it. Hawks was played by popular screen cowboy of the day Roy Stewart, who the same year would be Buffalo Bill in another Aywon picture, With Buffalo Bill on the UP Trail. Aywon made a lot of Westerns at this time, several directed by our old pal RN Bradbury (Bob Steele’s dad).
With General Custer at Little Big Horn was directed by Harry L Fraser, veteran of 99 feature Westerns between 1925 and 1951, including that notable artwork Randy Rides Alone, with John Wayne.
Actually, With General Custer at Little Big Horn, a 55-minute gripper later re-released with the snappier title of Custer of Big Horn, is significantly slowed down by a love triangle, Lem and Captain Harry Page (Edmund Cobb) being rivals for the hand of the fair Betty (Helen Lynch), and said Betty not able to decide whom she loves more. As the brave captain perishes on the battle field after gallantly declaring that Lem was the better man, while Lem is saved, she has an easier choice, and indeed the last image is of the lovers embracing, aahh.
Custer was played by John Beck – it was his biggest role – and he has a slight air of a Carradine about him, Keith, maybe.
There’s no idea of military blunder, or rashness, or anything like that, and though we are told on a title card that Custer split his troops, we are not told why, and there is no comment on it.
Sitting Bull, “the brain of the Sioux nation”, is played by a certain Running Deer, in his only known film. There’s no Crazy Horse but Little Horse (played by Black Hawk) is his Cheyenne second-in-command. We also meet Gall, who has a dead-or-alive reward out for him, played by Felix Whitefeather. At least they used American Indian actors, even if the Sioux are slightingly treated. “Peaceful methods with the American Indian could no longer be employed”, we are told, and Custer’s job was to “bring warring Indian chiefs to their senses.” Good luck with that, George. When Custer is surrounded, we are told that “Retreat was impossible. On every hand appeared the naked savage.”
They used lots of extras, there’s much smoke, and the terrain does look quite Montana-ish.
Truth is stretched more than somewhat when we read at the end that “Sitting Bull escaped but was captured and confined on a reservation until his death”.
Well, I guess it was no worse than many Westerns of the day, and at least we can actually watch it.
That was the last silent movie featuring Custer. Next time we shall move on to talkie Custers.