screened Monday January 28 2008 on Warner DVD in Weehawken, NJ
George Armstrong Custer: courageous Civil War hero, honorable friend to Native Americans, steadfast lover and martyr to the sins of American avarice. One doesn’t have enough fingers and toes to count the inaccuracies and distortions presented by Raoul Walsh of one of the most dubious heroes of the American West. But if one is looking for the quintessential Walshian hero – rambunctious and goal-driven to the point of heedlessness, charmingly mischievous yet chivalrous and principled – one needn’t look further than here. A rare stab by the crime and action master at the prestige biopic, the film sustains energy throughout its two and a half hours thanks to energetic acting (especially by Flynn, in one of his best roles), a masterful shifting of moods (schoolboy comedy, tender romance, social drama, and of course action Western) that would make the likes of John Ford envious, and an awesome array of dynamic blocking, framing, camera movement and editing, most famously in the climactic enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn, one of the landmark action scenes in Hollywood history, where the frame plays like an open hand closing into a fist, crushing the soldiers trapped within. On purely cinematic terms, the film is a masterpiece both on macro and micro levels, each scene captivating with lively, almost musical exchanges of dialogue and mise-en-scene, building to a story amounting to one man’s massive thrust into destiny.
Ballots for They Died With their Boots On counted towards the TSPDT 1000:
Dragan Jelicic, Sight & Sound (1992)
Javier Aguirresarobe, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Javier Coma, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Jeremy Fox, ymdb.com (2002)
Augusto Martinez Torres, El Mundo (1995)
Cesar Santos Fontenla, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Easily the single most valuable resource on this film to be found online is provided by Don McKerns, who created an extensive site on the film while as an undergraduate at Lehigh University. The site includes a thorough scene by scene synopsis, a list of memorable lines from the script, quotes from several reviews of the film, exhaustive bibliographies on Custer, an extensive scene analysis, and an essay reflecting on the meanings and interpretations of Custer’s Last Stand. I could practically substitute his site for my webliography, so by all means check it out. His summary analysis:
Raoul Walsh, the director of They Died With Their Boots On, does a marvelous job of making entertainment — exactly what this movie is best used for. On the other hand, what They Died With Their Boots On does to history is completely disgusting. The total mauling of history. I have never seen a total ravaging of the truth like this film partakes in. This movie is an exact depiction of every myth-making element of Custer’s legacy. The still-frames of the scenes could be mounted on the wall of any bar and portray the same sentiment as the Anheiser Busch portrait of the Last Stand. The hero Custer against the villain Indians lead by Crazy Horse. Custer is not a God, he never was—though the myth would trick you into belief. Drawing on many sources, this film has compiled a broad range of Custer’s life. Spanning such topics as Custer at West Point, Custer in the Civil War, Custer the Indian Fighter, and ultimately Custer the martyr. What pains me about this depiction of Custer is that his life was not a sacrifice for the United States of America. He was not a sacrifice for the American Dream. He was not a sacrifice for the ideals of humanity. He was a madman who sacrificed himself because of his own stupidity and an arrogant portrait of himself. They Died With Their Boots On captures the essence of the “Custer Myth,” turns fact into fiction, and builds a shrine to the Custer legacy.
Filmed approximately forty miles north of Los Angeles in a wide valley that resembled the plains of Nebraska and the Dakotas, the film had its share of production misfortunes. Three men were killed during the filming. One fell from a horse and broke his neck. Another stuntman had a heart attack. The third, actor Jack Budlong, insisted on using a real saber to lead a cavalry charge under artillery fire. When an explosive charge sent him flying off his horse, he landed on his sword, impaling himself.
No stranger to freak accidents himself, director Raoul Walsh had lost an eye in a car accident while shooting In Old Arizona in 1929. But his dilemma during the filming of They Died With Their Boots On was of a different nature. He couldn’t find enough real Sioux Indians to play the parts of the attacking savages (only sixteen showed up at the casting call) and was forced to use hundreds of Filipino extras and Caucasians dressed as Sioux warriors in the background. The extra expense incurred by the more than 1,000 extras was one of the reasons the film’s budget soared over $2 million dollars, a huge sum at the time.
- Jeff Stafford for Turner Classic Movies
With all the action of the Civil War sequences, it is not surprising that the intervening account of the General’s domestic life and his battle against political intrigue, which lacks genuine dramatic sustenance, should become a little wearying. After all, two hours and seventeen minutes requires a powerful lot of sustained drama. Mr. Walsh would have had a more compact and compelling entertainment had he whittled a half hour or so out of the script. But he more than makes up for this with his action shots.
- From original New York Times review, November 21, 1941
Never did Walsh’s reputation as an action director and master of period flavour fit more comfortably. Cheerfully agreeing that history is bunk and printing the legend, he turns what is essentially a biopic of George Armstrong Custer (Flynn at his most dashing) from West Point to Little Big Horn into a glorious Western. Few facts here, but what matter when the fiction of Custer as tempestuous cavalier and Indian sympathiser, chivalrously dying to save his army colleagues and simultaneously acknowledge the validity of Crazy Horse’s cause, has the breathless sweep and dash of the last romantic gesture. Absolutely irresistible.
- Time Out
Errol Flynn makes an effectively vain, overbearing, and ambiguously charming George Armstrong Custer in Raoul Walsh’s 1941 biographical epic. Walsh was often at his best with loosely structured screenplays like this one, which follows Custer from West Point to the Little Big Horn–unencumbered by a well-defined story, Walsh sets up a play of pure rhythm, texture, and tone. It may be questionable history (though the film is anything but jingoistic), but it is superb filmmaking, personal and vigorous. Worth particular note is the way Walsh’s camera carves up the space of the final battle scene, sliding between claustrophobic oppressiveness and agoraphobic horror.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
They Died With Their Boots On is the Warners’ style at its peak. There’s enough story here for a ten-hour miniseries, but even though it’s all packed into 140 minutes nothing seems unduly hurried. Every moment gets its just due, and then the story moves on. De Havilland’s noble wife is so well established in some amusing scenes with Hattie McDaniel that her later appearances, mostly expository story-pushers, don’t come off as rushed. Characters like Sydney Greenstreet’s fat General and even Ulysses S. Grant are all given a few moments to make a proper impression. Forward momentum is the key: Nobody stops to rehash events that have already passed.
Errol Flynn’s dashing personality adapts so well to the flamboyant Custer that it is his image that persists even in the face of later attempts to demythologize the (take your pick) hero / villain. Discounting Robert Siodmak’s disastrous Cinerama biography Custer of the West, which can’t seem to get anything right, the outrageous lampoon of Richard Mulligan in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man pleased the revisionists but never caught on… Flynn’s Custer effortlessly contains a ridiculous number of inconsistencies. He’s a born glory-hound but a man of honor who won’t sell out to corruption in business or government. He gladly battles Indians but constantly champions their nobility and injust treatment. He’s a drunkard forever closing the bars … and would rather eat onions than drink anyway…
Only one thing unites audiences in the face of such contradictions, and that’s a good old-fashioned American Death Wish… Custer keeps his dignity even though the Seventh rides to glory by way of a simplified trap that every six year-old in the audience can see coming. In this version, you see, Custer knew it was a trap and so wasn’t really trapped, understand? In a pleasant contrast with The Charge of the Light Brigade, a tale with a very similar structure, Walsh and Flynn don’t play up the heroics in Custer’s violent end.
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk
Apparently tired of working with Michael Curtiz (who had helmed his previous seven projects with Olivia de Havilland), Flynn successfully lobbied for Walsh—a director known for manly, visceral genre pictures—to lead the film’s charge. The filmmaker’s skill at rugged, chaotic action is most forcefully felt during the climactic battle against Chief Sitting Bull (a young Anthony Quinn) and his army of angry indigenous warriors—a fight which, after the stateliness of the preceding set-bound action, erupts with down-and-dirty dynamism. Yet the film’s rollicking fun is unfortunately (though not surprisingly, given the period during which it was made) sullied by distasteful racial attitudes, from Flynn condescendingly referring to both a stuttering black waiter and Sitting Bull as “boy” to Gone With the Wind mammy Hattie McDaniel, as the maid of de Havilland’s Elizabeth “Libby” Bacon (who later became Mrs. Custer), once again portraying the stereotypical “scared, superstitious, and subservient” black woman.
- Nick Schager, Slant Magazine
Despite the film’s wanton distortion of history, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON did paint a fairly sympathetic portrait of the Indians. Director Walsh later stated: “Most westerns had depicted the Indian as a painted, vicious savage. In THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON I tried to show him as an individual who only turned violent when his rights as defined by treaty were violated by white men.”
- TV Guide
THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON also marked the final movie in which Errol Flynn worked with Olivia de Havilland (their farewell scene in ‘BOOTS is particularly poignant, both because the characters know they’ll never see eachother again, and that the actors did as well; the performance is very moving). In their previous film together – SANTA FE TRAIL – Flynn had begun to resent other men on the set interacting with her. He even attempted to have lines of flattery delivered by his character instead of someone else’s. There are even rumours of him having proposed to de Havilland (to which she allegedly – and wisely – declined), but he was still married to Lili Damita. In fact, it was during the making of this film that Flynn and Damita finally divorced (no doubt holding out for his son Sean to be born first).
- From ErrolFlynn.net fansite
Need to write an essay on the film? You can find a 460-word essay on WowEssays.com
Bert Glennon, who shot Stagecoach and seven other John Ford classics, has given this Raoul Walsh biopic of George Armstrong Custer a burnished glow–an evocative interplay of raw sunlight and elegiac shadow like no other vintage Warner Bros. Western. Glennon’s artistry and Walsh’s trademark gusto sustain enthusiasm even as the screenplay beggars belief.
- Richard T. Jameson for Amazon.com
David Aspinall in Audiophilia on Max Steiner’s score:
If Steiner is acknowledged as master of the cliché, then They Died with Their Boots On is his masterpiece. This musical depiction of the fictionalized life of George Armstrong Custer, from West Point to last stand, is right up there with The Charge of the Light Brigade in its cathartic combination of pageant, heart-rending lyricism and heart-stopping climactic tragedy. Indeed, no less a specialist than Tony Thomas cited Boots’ love theme as the “Steiner love theme par excellence”. And a beauty it is, but there’s that undercurrent of impending loss to make it something more. Never more so than in the parting scene of Custer (Errol Flynn) and his wife Libby (Olivia de Havilland), each desperately attempting not to let the other know that they know this is the last goodbye. Solo violin and strings carry the love theme while muted trumpet alarums foreshadow the tragedy to follow, the orchestral climax synchronizing with Libby’s collapse as both Custer and camera abruptly pull away from her and the threshold of their home.
Reviews of the Warner DVD
Erick Profanick for DVD Verdict
Mark Hasan for KQEK
Barrie Maxwell for The Digital Bits
Walsh on the Making of the Film
I think the shooting time was six weeks. In those days they gave the schedule to you by the day. For a short picture you got thirty-two days, and for an extra-long picture they gave you forty-two, maybe forty-three. They would say you’d have five days on location, so you’d go on location and it would rain for five days. They’d put the five days back again, and we’d struggle through it. It was kind of a rough picture to make with all those riders and stuff. Now, in the early days of pictures, I knew of fifty cowboys and good riders that I would request, but the Guild passed a ruling that there could be no requests and that the casting office would supply the riders. Well, half of them couldn’t ride, and there were about two hundred people hurt during production. I’d go down in the morning to watch them getting on the horses and they’d be getting on from the wrong side. They didn’t last long.
There was a young actor playing the part of a lieutenant. When doing a long shot where they have swords, we would supply them with wooden swords with a silver tint to them so it looks like a real blade. When the property man went to take this chap’s real sword away from himand give him the phony sword, he said, “No, I’m going to use this one.” The property boy argued with hima while and couldn’t get anywhere, so he let him keep the real sword. So we shot the scene and there were a couple of explosions on either side, and he was thrown off the horse. The sword was thrown up into the air, came down like that into the ground, and him on top of it. I saw the whole thing and ran down and pulled the sword out of him, called a limousine and sent him to a hospital. Unfortnately his mother wouldn’t sign to let them operate and in three days the boy died. Another cowboy who was pretty drunk fell off a horse and broke his neck. Another fellow was watching the scene and evidently it didn’t look too good because he had a heart attack and died.
I think we spent the better part of a week filming the battle sequences at Little Big Horn. At one time we had seven hundred horses, and I think we averaged three or four hundred extras each day. Most of the ones who got hurt were fellows who had never been on horses before. We had Chinese… everybody. We had four or five doctors going along with the troops, and we left the studio in the mornings in four or five buses, limousines and finally two ambulances, like a traveling circus. Some of the extras would look out the bus and see these ambulances, so one day somebody played a joke and had a hearse follow us. But I did have some good boys there. They did a lot of good falls. That picture was made twenty-five years ago, and I think the top price for a fall in those days was fifteen dollars. If that fall was no good you gave him five dollars. And if it was terrible you got rid of him…
There are about ten different versions of Custer – what he did and what he didn’t do and why he did it. You could go on and make ten pictures with different endings.
- interview at the American Film Institute, February 15, 1972, from Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age: at the American Film Institute, edited by George Stevens Jr., Vintage. pp 20-22, p. 28
The film’s Wikipedia entry gives an extensive list of historical inaccuracies found in the film:
- In the film, Custer and Elizabeth (“Libby”) meet at West Point in 1857. They did not meet until 1862.
- The commandant at West Point before the Civil War is claimed to be Colonel Philip Sheridan, who was a second lieutenant in the Oregon Territory until March 1861. In fact, the superintendent of the Miltary Academy from 1852 to 1855 was Col. Robert E. Lee, and during January 1861, P.G.T. Beauregard, both later Confederate generals.
- Negative references are made about the West Point reputation of Ulysses S. Grant, implying that he was the worst cadet to ever attend the Academy. Grant graduated 21st out of 39 cadets in the Class of 1843.
- Custer served as a messenger at the First Battle of Bull Run; he did not command troops.
- Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott was commander of the United States Army only until November 1861; the film claims he served in this position throughout the war.
- Custer’s promotion to brigadier general was a deliberate act by Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, not a paperwork error as shown in the film, made in conjunction with the promotion of another young captain, Wesley Merritt. Custer, however, was actually quite surprised by the promotion as depicted. Much of the dialogue in the scene where his promotion order arrives, and he assumes his fellow officers are playing a joke on him by addressing him as “General”, is taken from Custer’s memoirs.
- The film inaccurately portrays the sequence of events of the Battle of Gettysburg, claiming that the cavalry action at Hanover was a pivotal part of the battle; in fact, it preceded the Battle of Gettysburg by a day. The sequence of events that supposedly took place at Hanover are actually a relatively accurate description of the actions of Custer and the Michigan Cavalry Brigade at the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg (minus the blow-by-blow telegraph messages to the War Department during the fighting) on July 3, 1863. The film ignores Custer’s arguably more colorful contributions at the Battle of Hunterstown on July 2.
- Custer was never decorated. He did receive brevet (temporary wartime) promotions, customary for officers during the war. Ironically, his younger brother Thomas, who was not depicted in the film but who served under him for nearly all of the time period depicted, was the highest decorated soldier of the Civil War, being one of only four men to receive two separate Medals of Honor in that war.
- Judge Samuel Bacon, Libby’s father, did not die in 1866 and actually outlived his son-in-law.
- Libby Custer didn’t call her husband “George” but, like the rest of his family, called him “Autie”, a nickname derived from his own mispronunciation of his middle name as a child.
- Sabres were not used at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
- The entire sequence of events leading up to the Little Bighorn, as well as the battle itself, is fictionalized. In real life, Custer very much expected a victory when he attacked the Indian camp.
About Raoul Walsh
Biography by Douglas Gomery at Film Reference.com
Quotes taken from the TSPDT page on Walsh:
“Raoul Walsh’s extraordinary career spanned the history of the American motion picture industry from its emergence, through its glory years in the 1930s and 1940s, and into the television era. Like his colleagues Allan Dwan, King Vidor, John Ford, and Henry King, whose careers also covered 50 years, Walsh continuously turned out popular fare, including several extraordinary hits…Raoul Walsh is now accepted as an example of a master Hollywood craftsman who worked with naive skill and an animal energy, a director who was both frustrated and buoyed by the studio system.” – Douglas Gomery (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
“It is time to consider Walsh as rather more than a tough guy, a fellow who likes to laugh, a primitive with rough sentiments. This passionate Shakespearean is a physical film-maker only because he depicts a world of spiritual turmoil. His characters are projected on the world by their own energy and committed to a space that only exists for their actions, fury, spirit, craft, ambition and unbridled dreams.” – Jean Douchet
“‘Action!’, the word that starts the cameras rolling, sums up the career of this American director. Sprawling, brawling, often almost primitive action, teeming across the screen, marks Walsh’s stories of comradeship and battles against the odds. He had a talent for making the densest of action sequences seem uncomplicated and uncluttered and his characters, like the scenes they distinguished, often have a raw, unfettered power.” – David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)
“A supreme action director, Walsh would be regarded as one of the greats of Hollywood’s golden era if not for a long period in the 1930s when he languished with mediocre projects. A number of excellent silent films (What Price Glory?) weren’t followed by work of similar quality until the director went to Warner Brothers in 1939. Walsh rarely gave in to the psychology of his characters, but directed on a pure narrative level which showed what was important without merely telling it in the dialogue.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“The transition from silents to sound pictures didn’t hit me in any way. I just kept the thing moving regardless of the sound…Of course, there was a great upheaval amongst the directors when talking pictures came in. They called me a renegade because I was one of the first ones to do an outdoor talking picture. They said that they’d created such a medium with pantomime, you know, and now this talking stuff was going to destroy it all. I said it was going to destroy us if we didn’t get along and get with it. So they finally all came in.” – Raoul Walsh (Directing the Film, 1976)
Walsh is famous for action. And it’s difficult to think of vaster vistas in the whole of cinema than some of those in The Big Trail and The Tall Men (1955). But most everything in his movies happens on faces. As in Griffith. Griffith invented the face in cinema, insofar as he made an art of it, as he did with parallel montage. But perhaps it is not Griffith but Griffith’s pupil who invented the face gazing into the lens, the point-of-view shot and the geometry of Hollywood editing, and cinema in the first person.
For example, in The Birth of a Nation (on which Walsh had served as Griffith’s assistant and played Booth, 1915), Griffith shows us shots of
/a black soldier watching /Mae Marsh watching /a squirrel.
But we do not see the squirrel from Marsh’s perspective, nor her from the soldier’s; Griffith’s camera stays in the orchestra.
Whereas in Walsh’s first feature, Regeneration, made in 1915 a few months after Birth, Walsh cuts from
/Anna Q. Nilsson beckoning to /some boys on a pier,
and not only do we see the boys from Nilsson’s perspective, but we see her eyes beckoning straight into the lens, directly at us; Walsh’s camera is part of the action, part of the character, and makes us part of them as well. Regeneration, astounding for 1915, marks the start of a new cinema.
Walsh’s cinema is not presentational like Griffith’s, or self-reflexive like Godard’s. It is interactive. In half a dozen movies, characters actually turn and speak to us, the audience, and in The Strawberry Blonde (1941) there are sing-along song boards. Far from liberating us from naive faith in movies’ storybook realism, Walsh makes us complicit. These adventures become almost vicariously our own. For Walsh’s heroes and heroines, while searching the four corners of the world for they-don’t-know-what, search the corners of the lens as well, gazing not just past it, as in many movies, but flirting on its edges, as they flirt with each other — and with me. Suddenly her eyes pierce the lens’s center, baring her soul, interrupting my safe distance from her. I sense the frail creature inside the flamboyant exterior. And when she says “We are lovers and the world is ours,” she will be gazing into my eyes steadily.
- Tag Gallagher, from his Senses of Cinema bio on Walsh
Walsh deserves to be re-seen through a modern looking glass, but to dissolve the studio influence from any discussion of his films leaves him a fantasy figure of this or that rating system, dated, easily read… Walsh’s stagnant, no-promotions role as a Warners factory hand led him inevitably to undercut purportedly Good Thoughts (pro-family, pro-working crew, pro-fidelity and trust) with homely congestion and bitter dailiness. He insists on keeping people away from the center of the event, using endless plays for separating two pals or a married couple, increasing loneliness, the feeling of doom, so that hope is sucked out of the character. Walsh’s inclusion of scenes of daily human pathetique should separate him immediately from American mooring, and especially from the action specialists, Hawks, Farrow, Curtiz, with whom he’s usually classed. A good direction of homeliness, innocence, vulnerability, Walsh can be amazingly direct, forthright, clear, rhythmic, a dedicated-to-folk cousin of Renoir’s Toni, Vigo’s L’Atlante, Brassai’s street-life photographs, with more brisk jocularity than hs French counterparts…
The great traffic cop of movies, keeping things moving, hustling actors around an intersection-like screen that’s generally empty in the center, Walsh’s style is based on traveling over routes which are sometimes accomplished by bodily movement, the passage that a gaze takes, suggested or actually shown, and the movement of a line of dialogue, the route indicated by a gesture… Birthed in films as a Griffith actor and the director of Fairbanks films, his no-shortcut style is steeped in the silent film necessity for excessive, frantic visual explication, taking nothing for granted… If hardwares sold a house paint called Gusto, the number one customer would be Walsh: six decades in film using a jabbing, forthright crispness to occasionally vitalize the crudest hack fiction.
- Manny Farber, from Negative Space
About Errol Flynn
Official site hosted by daughter Rory Flynn
Profile by Turner Classic Movies