They Died With Their Boots On Review

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Impetuous George Custer goes to West Point, becomes a hero in the Civil War is appointed commander of the Seventh Cavalry in the West and rides to his death in a battle with the Sioux at Little Big Horn.


A lavish, guts‑or‑glory biopic of General George Custer, with Errol Flynn as the dashing braggart who turns up at West Point in a self-designed uniform modelled on that of Marshal Murat and impresses his superiors as 'the worst cadet we've seen since Ulysses S. Grant'.

It’s an unusual epic: the first half is a knockabout comedy, even during the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, with a hero who is as absurd as he is daring; but it turns serious as Custer heads out West to take command of the rag-tag Seventh Cavalry, turning them into a crack outfit and riding to doom at Little Big Horn.

Flynn's slightly hollow, smirking, self-loving style is exactly right for the most wrong-headed of all American heroes, but this 1942 film bizarrely paints Custer as a friend to Indians (Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse) an an enemy to politicians (scurvy Arthur Kennedy), blaming the Indian Wars on unethical businessman from 'back East' trespassing on tribal lands and then leaving the poor old cavalry to sort things out.

  • All lies, of course, but a triumph of classic era Hollywood filmmaking, with every scene built around some entertaining contrivance or eccentric guest star (Sydney Greenstreet as a general, Hattie McDaniel as a tealeaf-reading housekeeper, Charley Grapewin as a Western coot). Director Raoul Walsh stages thrilling big scale battles to the tune of 'Garry Owen' but the talk scenes are fun too, with Olivia de Havilland as usual well-matched against Flynn as the General's long-suffering wife. The last stand is the definitive print-the-legend version. *

An unusual epic, the first half is a knockabout comedy, but thoroughly entertaining.