They Died With Their Boots On (1941)



Director:   Raoul Walsh.

Starring:   Errol Flynn (George Armstrong Custer), Olivia de Havilland (Elizabeth Bacon Custer), Arthur Kennedy (Ned Sharp), Charley Grapewin (California Joe), Gene Lockhart (Samuel Bacon), Anthony Quinn (Crazy Horse), Stanley Ridges (Maj. Romolus Taipe), John Litel (Gen. Phil Sheridan), Walter Hampden (Sen. Sharp), Sydney Greenstreet (Gen. Winfield Scott), Regis Toomey (Fitzhugh Lee), Hattie McDaniel (Callie), G.P. Huntley Jr. (Lt. Butler), Frank Wilcox (Capt. Webb), Joe Sawyer (Sgt. Doolittle), Minor Watson (Sen. Smith), Gig Young (Lt. Roberts), John Ridgely (2nd Lt. Davis), Joseph Crehan (President Grant).

The movie is pretty good.  It takes a more honest look at Custer than later movies poisoned by the new left spirit of the 1960s. 


Spoiler Warning:

The movie starts at West Point and they rightfully caught Custer's playfulness and more cavalier attitude to the spit and polish of the army, which earned him a great number of demerits.  In the Civil War Custer was an extremely bold cavalry leader.  He was fearless in battle leading the charges from the front with many a horse shot out from under him.  He was an northern hero in the war and was celebrated as such. 

He and his wife Libby were extremely close and at times Custer would get in trouble (court-martialed once) for too rapidly leaving for home to get back to his wife.  After Custer's death, no one dared criticize the cavalry hero for fear that the writer Libby would unleash herself on them. 

The movie had to shorten Custer's military record for he and the seventh cavalry got around the Great Plains area.

The only part where the movie goes wrong is on the treatment of the battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876.

The greatest concern of the Army was not the difficulty of defeating the Sioux, but in being able to catch them so they could be a fight.  They were not worried about defeating the Indians, but in just finding them.

Custer was a bold, fearless cavalry commander.  He was chosen by Sheridan because Sheridan knew that Custer would most likely be the leader who could catch the Sioux Indians.  Custer had his commander's full trust.  His order were to find the Indians and then proceed from there as other US forces were also sent into the area.

And here is perhaps the most important part of the story.  No one, I repeat no one, knew that there was going to be a massive meeting of the Sioux and Cheyenne on the banks of the Little Big Horn in Montana. 

From a small mountain, Custer's Indian scouts saw an Indian village in the distance, but they could only see a small part of the whole as the view was blocked by the higher ground along one side of the Little Big Horn River. 

Custer split his forces into three parts, one under himself, another under Reno and the third under Benteen, because he did not want the Indians to get away from him.  Not knowing how many Indians were out there, he proceeded with just a part of his forces.  (Perhaps he should have sent out a scout to check on the number of Indians, but, again, Custer rushed to catch the Indians never imagining he would run into the largest congregation of Plains Indians ever assembled.)    

One of the things that defeated Custer, was the terrain.  I have visited the battlefield and the Indians had all the advantages of terrain.  They were settled on the low, flat ground by the River.  Custer was to descend down upon them from very gullied terrain.  The guides tell visitors that horses tire out extremely fast on this type of terrain.

Anyway, Custer descended on the unsuspecting village and immediately realized that he and his troops were in trouble.  They turned around to get back to the high ground.  In the process the troops got very scattered.  Bodies and places with lots of shell cartridges have been found widely spread out on the battlefield.  Things happened so fast that Custer could not set up an effective defensive position.  Crazy Horse used the terrain for his advantage because he and his forces were able to cross the escape at a point ahead of Custer and then come back to the cavalry leader. 

Custer's body was found with the largest group of dead troupers.  If I remember correctly, he was shot once in the chest and once in the head.  His body was one of the few not terribly mutilated.  

While this was going on, Reno had arrived at the Indian village, but out of sight and hearing distance from Custer's force.  He attacked the village and soon discovered that the village was huge.  The men had to fight their way back up hill to the higher terrain as the Indians started overwhelming them.  Reno was able to set up a defensive position and fend off the Indians long enough to be saved by the Indian's desire to flee the area for fear that more troops were in the area.  

America was mad and very upset on hearing the news of Custer's defeat.  This was the Centennial year and the big celebrations were soon to start.  And then they received the horrible news of the massacre of part of the Seventh Cavalry under the American war hero, George Armstrong Custer.  As mad as the nation was, it is no wonder that they sent enough soldiers out to completely subdue the Indians of the Plains.  Except for the affair of the Ghost Dance, the Indians were no longer a great threat to the area of the Great Plains.


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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