They Died With Their Boots On

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THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON —with a title like that, no self-respecting, red-blooded action fan or classic western aficionado would miss out seeing this 1941 standby, particularly the last twenty minutes, the climax when director Raoul Walsh delivers one of the great movie wipeouts, a lavish, thunderingly heroic version of Custer’s Last Stand. Its setting and staging don’t embrace the historical truth, of course, but it matches the legends in exuberant fury as every male extra and reliable horse on the Warner’s payroll bites the dust to an arrow or bullet.

The two-hour build-up (the film runs 140 minutes) to this whopper is a handsomely produced ($2,200,000) but slow and talky array of vignettes, all hopelessly fictitious, as the story covers George Armstrong Custer from his days at West Point, through the Civil War and out to the Black Hills and glory.

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Formerly idealized as a charismatic hero, then vilified as an ambitious murderer, the real Custer was somewhere in the middle, but as played here by the dashing Errol Flynn, he’s a first-rate cavalier, blended by Errol’s own panache into a vigorous characterization of Custer as maybe he should have been.

CUSTER: “You may be right about money, Sharp; quite right. But there’s one thing to be said for glory.”   SHARP: Yeah, what’s that?  CUSTER: You can take glory with you when it’s your time to go.

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The fabrications are outrageous, the omissions glaring, so don’t vainly seek accuracy.*  This was the last of eight screen teamings of the Tasmanian wild man with Olivia De Havilland, and their scenes together are all well done, especially their touching farewell moment before the 7th rides out into the horizon. Flynn loved the actress, she cared for him, and their affection shows through. “Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.

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Arthur Kennedy is on board as a gun-running cur, Charley Grapewin as a chaw-chewin’ scout and Anthony Quinn molds himself into Crazy Horse, trying to maintain his dignity with lines like “Crazy Horse, war chief Sioux, speak with Long Hair, war chief Great White Father.” (needless to say, we’re not exactly reaping p.c here).

Custer’s two younger brothers and a cousin, present and lost at the Little Big Horn, are nowhere to be found. The other quarrelsome real-life officers of the 7th cavalry, Reno, Benteen, Keogh and the rest are all left aside in favor of a sop to the British war effort in the form of G.P. Huntley, playing an English transplant, complete with ruddy awful accent (Huntley was from Boston but mimicked our older cousins from across the Atlantic in hits like Beau Geste and The Charge Of The Light Brigade, no doubt to cringes and guffaws from audiences in London).

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Max Steiner’s score is rousing and romantic, with the fabled marching tune of the regiment, “Garry Owen”, done up in stirring fashion. Steiner’s instantly familiar ‘Indian theme’ also gets an introductory workout: he’d re-use variations of it in several later westerns.

The full-tilt charging and melee at the end resulted in more than 80 extras injured—three men were killed.  Pearl Harbor-aroused audiences, pounded with bad news, flocked to some reassurance of national mythology and this entertaining foray came in a strong #14 with $6,000,000.

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With John Litel, Stanley Ridges, Sydney Greenstreet, Hattie McDaniel, Walter Hampden, Gene Lockhart, Joseph Sawyer, Regis Toomey, Gig Young, Frank Ferguson and Ray Teal.  Jim Thorpe and Louis Zamperini were among the passel of extras.

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*Best book this buff has found on the always controversial Custer and his fiasco at the Little Big Horn is the fascinating “A Terrible Glory” by James Donovan. It does an impartial job of trying to set competing and contradictory records and opinions straight (and, no, good as it was, Little Big Man fudged things up as well).  It’s a haunting experience to walk around the lonely battleground in Montana, and one thing becomes apparent from the get-go: “Oh, there’s like, no place to hide or run to. Oops.”

My grandparents were rock-hounds and sometime back in the late 1940s they were poking around in the area.  They found a half-dozen spent Springfield rifle cartridges from that hot June 25, 1876 afternoon:  poignant pieces of lethal history.  And not all that distant: when my father was born it had only been 37 years since Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Rain-In-The-Face and Gall led their Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho braves into what was not the biggest, but was certainly the most forever famous victory in Native American history. “Hoka hey“, a ‘good day to die’ was a Bad Day for the 7th.

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