Custer of the West (1967)

Robert Shaw (George Armstrong Custer), Mary Ure (Elizabeth Custer), Ty Hardin (Major Marcus Reno), Jeffrey Hunter (Captain Frederick Benteen), Lawrence Tierney (General Philip Sheridan), Kieron Moore (Chief Dull Knife), Robert Ryan (Sgt. Mulligan)

An overlong, episodic biopic of the controversial Civil War veteran and Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer. It was supposed to be directed by Akira Kurosawa, but he was replaced by Robert Siodmark. Custer had been portrayed as an idealist in Walsh’s They Died with their Boots on and would be portrayed as a vainglorious fool in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. Custer of the West tries to cover a middle ground, but is less successful in this aspect than the 1991 TV Miniseries Son of Morning Star.

The movie opens with a short montage depicting Custer’s Civil War exploits and follows his career until his famous Last Stand at the Little Big Horn, on June 26, 1976. After the war, Custer is offered a couple of easy jobs by his Civil War commander general Sheridan, but he prefers action. He’s then sent West to secure the peace at the frontier (by the man who thinks the only good Indian is a dead Indian) and told that his job won’t be a pleasant one. The script depicts him, at the same time, as a glory-hunting opportunist and a loyal, sincere army man, prepared to make unpopular decisions if necessary. He is blamed, by his superiors, for the onslaught on a peaceful Cheyenne village, but newspapers on the East Coast have turned him into a folk hero, and when he clashes with people in high places (among them the president’s brother) he has become too popular to be kicked out of the army. His unheroic death on the battlefield will finally turn him into a legend.

Custer, George Armstrong
Custer remains a historic person whose character and motives are difficult to fathom; most commentators have described him as a ‘media personality’: he valued good public relations and took care of his image; he hated politicians but had political ambitions himself; he was stringent, tenacious, hard to himself and to others, and while he could be generous to friends, he was bitter and implacable to enemies (1). Portraying such a enigmatic and controversial personality, is always risky. Little Big Man and Son of Morning Star probably work better because they are first-person narratives: Little Big Man is ‘told’ by Jack Crabb, supposedly the last survivor of Custer’s Last Stand, Son of Morning Star is told by two different characters who have known Custer. While a third person narrative suggests objectivity, a first-person narrative leaves more room for interpretation: it is essentially subjective, presenting the facts from a personal angle (and in the case of Jack Crabb we have reasons to believe that the facts have been given a twist in his personal account).

Custer, Robert Shaw
Most of these qualities attributed to the historical character, are highlighted in the script (there’s a protracted scene in which Custer imposes his own tenacity on his men) but there’s too much psycho-babble and the script also mixes historic events with fictional incidents, such as an Indian attack on a train and a man escaping down rapids; some of these sequences are spectacular (the escape down the rapids is edge-of-your-seat material), others seem to be there only for the intended Cinerama presentation. Robert Ryan has a nice cameo as a gold-hungry deserter, but his sequence feels detached from the rest of the movie.

Shaw almost overcomes the script’s indecisiveness with a strong performance and Ty Hardin and Jeffrey Hunter aren’t too bad as his two junior officers, one of them a hard-drinking Indian hater, the other a more pensive type, susceptible to the plight of the Indians. Produced by Philip Yordan, it might have been intended as an epic in the style of Lawrence of Arabia rather than a western (2). Some of the cinematography of the Spanish landscape (falling in for the Dakotas) is impressive, and the film is well-produced, but Lawrence it ain’t. The action scenes are quite violent for a movie aimed at large audiences and the representation of the conclusive battle at the Little Big Horn may not be accurate (we don’t know how Custer died but he most certainly wasn’t ‘saved for the last’) but it’s an exciting spectacle and the final scene, Custer overlooking the battlefield, refusing the walk away from it alive when he’s offered to do so, has a certain grandeur and a sense of fatality that the rest of the movie lacks.

Little Big Horn, Spain


* (1)
* (2) Custer Of the West, DVD Savant Review by Glenn Erickson