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CUSTER OF THE WEST (director: Robert Siodmak; screenwriters: Bernard Gordon/Julian Zimet; cinematographer: Cecilio Paniagua; editors: Peter Parasheles/Maurice Rootes; music: Bernardo Segall; cast: Robert Shaw (General George Armstrong Custer), Mary Ure (Elizabeth Custer), Ty Hardin (Maj. Marcus Reno), Kieron Moore (Dull Knife), Jeffrey Hunter (Capt. Benteen), Lawrence Tierney (Gen. Philip Sheridan), Robert Ryan (The Goldminer); Runtime: 143; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Irving Lerner/Philip Yordan; MGM/UA Home Entertainment; 1967-USA/UK/Spain-in English)
“A lumbering biopic on the misunderstood courageous Civil War and Indian fighter General George Armstrong Custer.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The noted German-born director Robert Siodmak’s (“The Killers”/”The Spiral Staircase”/”The Dark Mirror”) penultimate film is shot in Cinerama (filmed in Spain) and has ambitions to be a classical epic, but flattens out as a lumbering biopic on the misunderstood courageous Civil War and Indian fighter General George Armstrong Custer. This big-budget stylish film compares poorly to his great noir thrillers of the ’40s. Siodmak seemed hesitant in how exactly he wanted to portray his controversial protagonist, and left his characterization of Custer both muddled and strident. It results in a dreary and inaccurate Western (wrongly has Custer fighting an earlier battle with the Cheyenne) and one that seemed to be more interested in capturing exciting but useless shots (a runaway train and a soldier escaping an Indian attack down the rapids) for its glossy Cinerama presentation than conveying an impactful historical tale. Originally Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was slated to be director, but he bowed out (must have read the script!). It would have been interesting to see what he could have done with this Hollywood version of American history. It’s weakly written by Bernard Gordon and Julian Zimet, who give us a lot of psychological babble about Custer as a vain glory-hunter but a sincere and dutiful soldier. Robert Shaw plays Custer in an unaffecting manner, and brings a terrible Western accent to his character. Shaw’s real wife, Mary Ure, plays his sweet adoring wife in the film, but is so wooden that it was hard to believe they were either a film or real couple. The only lively thesp in the pic was Robert Ryan, playing the role of a gold-hungry deserter sergeant.

It tells of a young heroic soldier of the Civil War named Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who goes West after the Civil War because he demands action and is accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth, to take command of the 7th Cavalry. His mission is to subdue the Indians in the Dakota Territory, who are in revolt over the government’s unfair reservation policies. His Civil War commander, Gen. Philip Sheridan (Lawrence Tierney), arrives on the quiet to order him to attack a Cheyenne village as an appeasement for Washington politicians he’s trading favors with. The troops run amok and massacre women and children, and a patrol deserts when they discover gold. Custer is not conciliatory to the plight of the Indians, but he does believe greedy private interests must be curbed if peace is to be secured. When Washington refuses to obey the treaties they signed with the Indians, the Cheyenne react by massacring those on a train heading West. Custer is made the scapegoat for the attack and loses his command of the 7th Cavalry to his underling, the hard-drinking Indian hater Major Reno (Ty Hardin), but when called before Congress he has a field day blasting those in high places, including President Grant’s brother, accusing them of corruption, taking bribes and war profiteering. Custer’s too popular among the citizens to kick out of the Army, but after a month in Washington without a command he gets his old friend Sheridan to give him back his old command just as they prepare for war with the Indians (combined forces of the Lakota-Northern Cheyenne) at Little Bighorn. The rest is history, with Custer being the last of his 210 or so men to die in that legendary disastrous battle.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”