It’s curious in a way how few actual biopics there have been of George Armstrong Custer, who is, after all, a major figure of American history and myth – certainly far fewer than films about other greats of Old West fact and folklore such as Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and so on. Most of the movies that featured the general have him as an ancillary character. The hero of the stories is another, often a scout, for example, who perhaps escapes the slaughter at Little Bighorn and lives to tell the tale (and get the girl). The Custers in these tales, with few exceptions, are not the central characters.
One of the very first Custers, Francis Ford in Custer’s Last Fight (1912) – click for our review – was one such exception. It wasn’t a whole-life biopic but at least Custer was the hero and top-billed star. Another was Warners’ 1941-shot picture with Errol Flynn as a dashing Custer, a long film (133 minutes in one cut) that attempted to tell the whole life story of the famous soldier, from his youth and West Point days through the Civil War heroics to the Plains campaign and eventual defeat and death in 1876.
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.”
The title is redolent of Wild West legend. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says that from the late 17th century until the early 19th century the expression die with your boots on meant “to be hanged.” Most sources, such as the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, say that the phrase probably originally alluded to soldiers who died on active duty. The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms says: “Die with your boots on was apparently first used in the late 19th century of deaths of cowboys and others in the American West who were killed in gun battles or hanged.” In Western movies some cowboys don’t want to perish in bed, of illness, with their boots off; others, dying on the prairie, ask their pals to remove their boots because they promised their mothers they wouldn’t die with their boots on.
They Died With Their Boots On was a Raoul Walsh film, dashing, macho and boisterous. Walsh did a good line in whitewash biopics (look at his absurd treatment of John Wesley Hardin in The Lawless Breed, for example). But his films are often huge fun and full of zip. Errol Flynn was the ideal star for him. They were alike in many ways. Flynn called Walsh ‘Uncle’ and Walsh called Flynn ‘the Baron’ – possibly after Baron von Munchausen. It is said that Walsh once borrowed John Barrymore’s corpse from a funeral parlor to frighten a drunken Flynn.
While it is true that Flynn never really convinced as a Westerner in the way that, say, Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck or Henry Fonda did, still he carried off this kind of role with aplomb. Actually, Flynn did aplomb. In any case, They Died… wasn’t a classic Western in the way that, say, Dodge City had been; it was more of a period war film.
Jack Warner first assigned Michael Curtiz as director but although Flynn and Curtiz had worked so much together, including on Flynn’s first three Westerns, Flynn had definitively fallen out with the domineering Curtiz, and wanted Walsh. By now had enough clout to get his way.
The movie is fast-paced and does not drag, even at two and a quarter hours. There’s lots of action and even in the talky bits there seems to be movement and energy.
Custer, we all know, fell for Elizabeth Bacon, soon to become his lady wife. That’s Olivia de Havilland, of course. In fact she too had fallen out with Flynn, sick of his rudeness, egoism and bad behavior, and told him on the set of Santa Fe Trail that she wouldn’t work with him again. But she relented for this part, which was their eighth and final partnership. The public almost thought of them as a double act, a sort of romantic Laurel & Hardy. The scene where Custer says goodbye to his wife is actually rather moving. Perhaps Flynn and de Havilland knew it was their last pairing. Or maybe it was just good writing and acting. During a later re-showing, after Flynn’s death, de Havilland welled up at the scene and had to leave.
Of course, though screenwriters Wally Kline and Aeneas MacKenzie claimed to have done three months’ research before writing the script, it’s all total bunk historically. One critic has said that “More errors riddle this biopic of General Custer than bullets flew at the Battle of Little Big Horn”. It is said that Flynn was disappointed with the finished film, as he had wanted a more realistic approach. Can’t imagine why. 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 bad guys 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 is a romantic, swashbuckling, dramatic spectacle and it charges along at a gallop. The black & white photography by Bert Glennon is fine and the Max Steiner score (with plenty of Garry Owen, of course) is stirring. The locations are evidently Californian but an attempt is made at Dakota and Montana.
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 Bighorn. Monocled GP Huntley is entertaining as a kind of Keogh/Cooke composite, the British Lieutenant Butler (Huntley 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).
Oddly, there was no Sitting Bull. The principal Indian foe is Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn, suitably noble; he’d started Westerns as an Indian, for Cecil B DeMille in The Plainsman). One story told is that Walsh had a genius casting idea and approached Buster Keaton to play Sitting Bull. Jack Warner was aghast. “Custer beaten by Buster Keaton?” That was the end of that.
The picture was made between July and September 1941, premièred on November 20 and it received general release in the US on New Year’s Day 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor. It struck a patriotic chord, with a tale of American military gallantry – although whether a story of defeat and death at the hands of (what was seen as) a barbaric foe was quite the thing right then, who knows?
The critics liked it. Variety correctly opined that “The test of the yarn is not its accuracy, but its speed and excitement. Of these it has plenty.”
The public liked it too. The picture grossed $1.87m in the US and $2.14m overseas. Its total receipts of $4m + were Warners’ third largest of the season and it made the studio a profit of $1.5m.
Not everyone thought it wonderful. Critic “TMP” in The New York Times of the day praised the action, calling the picture “an adventure tale of frontier days which for sheer scope, if not dramatic impact, it would be hard to equal. Wave upon wave of cavalry charges packed with breath-taking thrills have been handled in masterly fashion by Director Raoul Walsh, and they alone are worth the price of admission.” But the review went on to say “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.”
Later critics enjoyed it, though. 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.”
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? Many Custer movies had this trope. There being no white survivors to describe the scene and thus no certain knowledge of who was the first or last to die, we must allow for dramatic, poetic or painterly license as far as this goes. It’s a Hollywood need, not a historical fact.
Iron Eyes Cody, who was one of the stuntmen, says of Flynn, “I think this was his gin period, and he’d guzzle the stuff like orange juice first thing in the morning, continuing throughout the day. Every day. By the time we got to this last crucial scene, he was staggering about, bleary-eyed and dazed, waving his saber recklessly. He was the perfect Custer, half-crazy from battle fatigue, rallying non-existent troops in a horse, gin-soaked voice.”
Actually, Flynn was the perfect Custer. Both were vain and arrogant braggarts who were idols to the public, and both had more than a little glamor and stardust about them.
A colorized version was released on VHS in the 1980s but there’s now a very nice rendition of the superior black & white version on DVD, which I recommend.
They Died With Their Boots On 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. Compulsory viewing, I’d say.