Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Wally Kline & Aeneas MacKenzie
George A. Custer is one of this country’s most notorious folk heroes. Massacred, along with his men, at Little Big Horn in 1876, Custer is remembered mostly for this folly, when in reality he was a decorated Civil War veteran who played a pivotal role in the Union’s defeat of the Confederacy. They Dies with Their Boots On covers the entirety of Custer’s career, as opposed to focusing in on the one event he has become most well known for. Spanning his time at West Point, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Sante Fe Trail from earlier in this marathon, as that film too involved Custer and training at West Point. While the focus of that film was Errol Flynn as Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart, and not Custer, the two films still feel connected, if for no other reason than that they are both mediocre.
George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) arrives at West Point as brash and flamboyant as any other cadet in the academy’s history. Dressed as his hero, Custer is pranked into taking a commander’s quarters, an offense he is initially booted out of West Point for until it is realized that he hadn’t yet enrolled. His flash doesn’t end there. He meets Libbie (Olivia de Havilland), and even after upsetting his commanders time and again, eventually works his way up to be a general in the Union Army after multiple successful battles during the Civil War. Finally he is stationed to Fort Lincoln, where he encounters an old foe, Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy), who would like nothing else but to bring Custer off his high horse. Showing understanding for the Indians, Custer protects Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn) and his desire to keep the Black Hills. But when false rumor spreads that there is gold there, Custer’s hand is forced.
So much of what plagues They Died with Their Boots On is the simple fact that it feels too preoccupied by telling everything there is to know about Custer, and doing so in such a loving retelling of his life, that it doesn’t have any room to breath. There is too much focus on point A to point B, and so on, that Flynn rarely gets to fully inhabit Custer as a real man, as a full bodied character and not some put upon caricature. Flynn’s charisma and on screen presence is what I like most about him, and should be well suited for a role such as the flamboyant Custer, but here he feels lazy, and not quite as dedicated as I have seen him in past roles. He is going through the motions, only this time while wearing a mullet.
As the film makes sure to hit all of the touchstones, it forgets its character moments. Director Raoul Walsh spends way too much of his time assuring us that Custer is indeed an American hero as opposed to some tremendous folly that he forgets about the stakes of the film. Ned Sharpe and Crazy Horse feel like afterthoughts in this narrative when they could have provided an additional, strong, central presence. Even the romance between Flynn and de Havilland feels lacking, which will for always be a shame whenever the duo appears on screen together. By the end of the film, which is otherwise highly fictionalized as well, all I could muster was a “so what?” The fictionalization doesn’t bother me as much as the lack of fizz to this picture.
I was extremely excited to see Errol Flynn play a man of the west, and was delighted by his lead turns in both Virginia City and Dodge City, his first two westerns. But since, I can’t help but feel like he has been either underutilized for his abilities and on screen talents, or has lost interest in being a western star at this point in his career. In his defense, They Died with Their Boots On is only marginally a western, and despite being celebrated as one of the better ones of its era, I stand firmly in the camp that this overly long (140 minutes), surprisingly vapid film is only enough for very mild entertainment, lacking in most ways other westerns in this journey have come to impress me and engage me.