Saturday, March 1, 2014

They Died With Their Boots On

The Misremembering History Series

THC recently stumbled into watching They Died With Their Boots On, a 1941 film starring Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer.  Hollywood movies have always had a strained relationship with historical accuracy but this film may be the champion.  There was nothing even vaguely related to real events (with one exception noted below) though there was, indeed, a George Armstrong Custer and he wound up on the losing side at the Little Big Horn.

According to the movie, General Custer turned the tide of the Civil War and won the battle of Gettysburg with his brave cavalry charge.  And in his Western service he was faultless in his judgement.  Even the night before the Little Big Horn he knew he was doomed due to circumstances beyond his control but gallantly went ahead the next morning, though in actuality he did not even know there was a Sioux encampment nearby.

Along with the stunning historical fabrications there was another aspect that THC had not picked up the last time he watched the movie on TV as a child - the treatment of Indians.  It turns out that it is much more sympathetic to the Indians than THC remembered and certainly more favorable than what has become the popular version since the 1970s that prior to then Hollywood always portrayed Indians as as untrustworthy savages.

This is seen throughout the film but most pointedly in a scene that take place the night before the Little Big Horn.  In it, Custer attempts to send a British military observer attached to his command (Lt Butler) to the rear with a message.  Butler refuses and the following dialogue ensues.

Lt. Butler: Why are you asking me to go back with it?
Custer: Well, for one thing you're an Englishman, not an American.
Lt Butler: Not an American! What do you Yankees think you are? The only REAL Americans in this merry old parish are on the other side of the hill with feathers in their hair.
Custer: You're probably right about that. 
Butler stays with Custer and dies the next day.  Of course, there was not really a British military observer with Custer.  And, for that matter, George Armstrong Custer did not speak with an English accent, as Errol Flynn does in the movie!

In They Died With Their Boots On, the Indians are portrayed as honest and brave.  The villains are the white traders and politicians who are corrupt and cheating the Indians and the plot of the film revolves around Custer's attempt to expose this chicanery and to help the tribesmen.  The movie sets the origin of the Little Bighorn campaign as a plot by the traders and politicians to trigger an Indian war so that their land can be seized.  Come to think of it, that's probably the most accurate part of the film..

Here's the trailer for the film.  It's a hoot.

They Died With Their Boots On is not the only movie of the period that looks a little different when watched today.  John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda, is also sympathetic to the Indians.   In this movie, a new cavalry commander arrives at Fort Apache, Lt Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is a martinet who despises the Indians and runs his command by the book. Capt Kirby York (John Wayne) has been at the post for many years and tries to get Thursday to treat the Apaches, led by Cochise (Miguel Iglan) with respect and to replace the corrupt Indian agent who is driving the Apaches to revolt.  And Shirley Temple is in the film!

You can watch below some scenes from Fort Apache, along with commentary from AO Scott of the NY Times that strains a little too hard for current day relevance.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read THC! Loved the video and commentary, too. dm