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THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (director: Raoul Walsh; screenwriters: Wally Klein/Aeneas MacKenzie; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; editor: William Holmes; music: Max Steiner; cast: Errol Flynn (General Custer), Olivia de Havilland (Elizabeth Bacon), Arthur Kennedy (Ned Sharp), Charley Grapewin (California Joe), Gene Lockhart (Samuel Bacon), Anthony Quinn (Crazy Horse), Sidney Greenstreet (General Scott), Stanley Ridges (Major Romulus Taipe), John Litel (General Phil Sheridan), George P. Huntley Jr. (Lieut. Butler), Regis Toomey (Fitzhugh Lee); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hal B. Wallis; Warner Brothers; 1941)
“A rousing Western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fictionalized biopic of General George Armstrong Custer, that’s filmed by director Raoul Walsh (“High Sierra”/”The Big Trail”/”Gentleman Jim”)as a rousing Western. It’s more interested in entertaining than being historically correct, as it mixes fact and fiction.It has no problem admitting its history is so much bull–even making out Custer was an Indian sympathizer, that he chivalrously led his troops on a suicide mission in 1876 at Little Big Horn to save the troops of his army colleague and that it was a few bad apples and not a greedy government Indian policy that caused the war. The lively screenplay byWally Klein and Aeneas MacKenzie play to Walsh’s strength as an action director. It features a dashing Errol Flynn at his most adventurous.

The film opens showing the incoming plebes at West Point in 1857, that includes George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) dressed flamboyantly and sporting long curls. Bad boy Custer says he wants to experience the glory of war.

Cadet Custer gets low grades and commits many infractions at the Point, and while on a ‘punishment tour’ meets Elizabeth ‘Libby’ Bacon (Olivia de Havilland). After graduation, Custer talks his way into getting a commission to fight in the Civil War, with the help of a general friend. At the Battle of Bull Run on 21 July 1861, Custer disobeys orders and leads a charge into enemy lines. Wounded in battle, Custer receives a medal for his valor. Sent home to recover, he hooks up again with Libby and proposes. But her father (Gene Lockhart) refuses to give his permission. Custer then rejoins his regiment and mistakenly is made a brigadier general of the voluntary Michigan Brigade. Custer, at the Battle of Gettysburg, again attacks against orders and the brigade suffers many causalities even as it drives Confederate general Jeb Stuart back. After the war concludes, Libby marries Custer.

The film’s second half sets the stage for Custer’s last stand with the Indians.

With no war, Custer is unemployed. But one of Custer’s fellow cadets, Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy), is now a developer in the Dakota Territory and offers Custer a gig as president of his corporation. But when Custer realizes he’s just a figurehead, he refuses to take the job. Again General Scott (Sidney Greenstreet) comes to rescue Custer’s military career and gets him a post at Fort Lincoln in the Dakota Territory. The fort is rundown at Custer’s arrival, and Sharp has opened a trading post on the fort that sells rifles to the Indians and he also runs a bar that keeps the cavalrymen drunk and unfit for duty. Custer closes the bar and shapes up his troops, as under his charge the Seventh U.S. Cavalry prepares for war in the Black Hills with the Sioux. Meanwhile Sharp and his business partner father, hook up with crooked Washington D.C. insiders to get Custer removed from his post command. But with Sitting Bull on the warpath, Custer gets back his command and the rest is more or less history.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”