Custer: The Truth Behind the Silver Screen Myth | HistoryNet MENU

Custer: The Truth Behind the Silver Screen Myth

By Louis Kraft
5/8/2018 • American History Magazine

In They Died With Their Boots On, Errol Flynn’s Custer reflects the true essence of the controversial American legend in spite of the film’s seriously flawed history.

In 1941 Warner Brothers had the perfect role for its biggest star: Swashbuckling hero Errol Flynn would play George Armstrong Custer in the studio’s epic biographical film They Died With Their Boots On. Film historians described the Custer character as “tall, lithe, and slender, a man of rare charm, mischievously given to pranks, gregarious and boyish”—qualities that applied equally to Flynn, then at the peak of his film career. Flynn’s performance captured the spirit of the dashing yet reckless general and set a benchmark against which all future Hollywood Custers would be measured.

The movie, however, almost didn’t get made. At 32, Flynn appeared to be a prime physical specimen, but in truth his health was bad. Many ailments—including a heart murmur, recurrent malaria and chronic pulmonary tuberculosis—would later contribute to his 4F classification during World War II. In early August 1941, one month after filming began, Flynn was suffering from such severe sinus headaches that he entered the hospital. On August 8, studio head Jack Warner ordered production manager Tenny Wright to film around Flynn, who was expected to remain in the hospital at least another week. Flynn’s health had been a source of concern in the past, but Warner was getting nervous. The studio had already invested a great deal of time and money in They Died With Their Boots On, and without its star, Warner Brothers had no picture. On the 13th, Warner informed Wright, “Tomorrow by 2:30 we must decide if we are going to continue ‘THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON.’ ” Production went ahead, although Flynn missed every day of shooting between August 5 and August 15.

Flynn returned to work on August 20, but frequent medical appointments soon interrupted the shooting schedule. On September 12, while on his way to see his doctor, Flynn collapsed in an elevator and was hospitalized with “nervous exhaustion.” The next day production shut down: The second unit was almost ready to begin filming Custer’s Last Stand, but there was no way to shoot around the absent star. When production finally wrapped at the end of September, the film was 26 days behind schedule and its budget had jumped from $1 million to $1.4 million. Flynn took the heat for the delays and the additional costs.

A pre-release publicity spread on the film in the December 8, 1941, issue of Life caught the attention of E.S. Luce, superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument in southeastern Montana. Luce wrote Warner Brothers a scathing three-page letter ripping  the film’s accuracy, even though he had not seen it. Basing his criticisms on the 12 historic images and 10 publicity photos from the film that comprised the four-page Life spread, Luce focused his attack on details that most moviegoers would never notice, such as the use of infantry not cavalry accouterment. Still, he chastised the studio: “Children go to see these pictures and in the general run believe what you flash on the screen. Isn’t it about time that true facts be presented to the public and not fictionized?”

Warner Brothers assigned Aeneas MacKenzie, one of the screenplay writers, to draft a response to Luce’s accusations, many of them laughable. MacKenzie’s carefully worded reply stated: “First let me point out that you have not yet seen our film and that your letter confuses certain period pictures and comments in the…issue of Life….Your general criticism is premature, though much of what you say with regard to mere technical detail is well founded.”

When They Died With Their Boots On was released later in December, critics largely agreed that it was an entertaining, though historically flawed romp. “The test of the yarn is not its accuracy, but its speed and excitement,” concluded Variety. “Of these it has plenty.” Time took a dimmer view: “Warner’s claims that its version of the [Little Bighorn] massacre is a faithful copy of Custer’s Last Fight, done by Cassilly Adams for Budweiser Beer in 1888 and a standby of U.S. saloons, parlors, outhouses ever since. If so, Errol Flynn has magnificently died in vain; for the one thing that everyone agrees upon is that the painting is all wrong.”

Producer Hal Wallis also had sensed something was wrong with MacKenzie and fellow screenwriter Wally Kline’s script. Shortly after filming began on July 2, 1941, Wallis brought in writer Lenore Coffee to “doctor” Custer’s relationship with his wife, Elizabeth. Coffee was contracted to Warner Brothers and had been nominated for an Academy Award for her work on 1938’s Four Daughters, which Wallis had produced.

After doing some research, Coffee pointed out what she considered “a number of really shocking inaccuracies.” The complete list of deviations from the truth is long, but three of the errors are glaring: 1) Although the script often called for him to imbibe, Custer actually swore off drinking after one final binge in 1862; 2) Custer did not become a civilian at the end of the Civil War; and 3) Custer’s first western assignment after the Civil War was not to the Dakota Territory as depicted in the film. Custer accepted the lieutenant colonelcy of the 7th Cavalry in 1866 and was dispatched the following year to Kansas as part of Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s expedition to the Great Plains. He would serve in Kansas, Nebraska, Indian Territory, Texas and Kentucky before being sent to Dakota in June 1873 as part of the Yellowstone Expedition.

Coffee also realized that in the final draft of the script, dated June 17, 1941, the writers mistakenly referred to Elizabeth Custer as “Beth.” She correctly pointed out that Mrs. Custer was known as “Libbie.” Despite her numerous contributions to the project, Coffee’s name does not appear on the picture. On September 17, MacKenzie wrote to Hal Wallis that he and Kline did not want to share screenwriting credit with Coffee. They got their way.

Even though They Died With Their Boots On is poor history, it does get three important elements of Custer’s life right: his struggle with authority, his view of American Indians and his love for Libbie.

That struggle with authority is captured in the relationship between Custer and the fictional Ned Sharp, played by Arthur Kennedy, who represents the evils of Manifest Destiny. Custer and Sharp are in conflict from the moment they meet at West Point. During one of the film’s early Civil War scenes, Custer, a lieutenant, is ordered to retreat, but he halts on a hill to protect a bridge while Union infantry troops attempt to cross. Sharp, now a captain, appears and reminds Custer of his orders. Custer: “I’m going to hold that bridge until the Infantry get across.” Sharp: “You had your orders. ‘G’Troop! Prepare to retire!” Custer: “As you were, ‘G’ Troop!” to which Sharp snaps, “I’m in command here, Custer…just as long as I can stand.” Custer replies, “That suits me,” and knocks Sharp from his horse. Custer and Sharp’s exchange of power for power is the spine of the film. Their relationship accentuates not only the essence of Custer, but his private war for what he thinks is right.

Later, after the Civil War ends, Sharp becomes the post trader at Fort Lincoln in Dakota Territory. He and his father, Sen. William Sharp (played by Walter Hampden), set up a trading monopoly on the frontier. They offer Custer $10,000 so that they can use his name to give the project credibility. When Custer is not interested, Ned Sharp says: “Can a man of your distinction bear the thought of living off his wife’s estate? I know the thought hasn’t occurred to you, General, but….” “It’s occurred to me,” Custer replies. Sen. Sharp then attempts to convince Custer of the validity of the project, but Custer stops him: “That’s enough…I’ll gamble. I’ll gamble with anything, my money, my sword—my life if necessary. But there’s one thing I’ll not gamble with—my good name.”

Indeed, in real life, Custer was forever conscious of the image his name represented to the world. After a disastrous 1867 campaign on the Plains, which eventually led to his suspension from the army for one year without pay, Custer began writing for magazines such as Turf, Field and Farm and Galaxy. It was hard, demanding work, but he enjoyed it. He also enjoyed the celebrity it generated. This would not be a passing fancy, and writing consumed a major part of his time for the remainder of his life.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Custer legend is his relationship with the Indians. In 1969 Vine Deloria Jr., an Indian educator and activist, published his manifesto Custer Died for Your Sins. His biased yet passionate battle cry for Indians to unite coincided with the emergence of the American Indian Movement (AIM) the previous year. Suddenly Custer represented all the evils of Manifest Destiny. The media and entertainment industries joined the bandwagon: They almost always present Custer as little more than a racist who craves Indian blood.

Contrary to popular belief, Custer respected the Indians. In his 1874 book My Life on the Plains, he wrote, “If I were an Indian, I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people adhered to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation.” In an unfinished 1876 article, Custer claimed, “No person who at all comprehends the necessities of the Indian question [and is a member of ] a Christian and civilized nation [could] say a word in favor of extermination.”

They Died With Their Boots On comes very close to portraying the real Custer’s viewpoint on Indians. In the film, Custer sets out for Dakota Territory to assume command of Fort Lincoln, when he is attacked by a war party. He confronts and captures the Oglala Sioux chieftain Crazy Horse, played by Anthony Quinn. Upon arrival at the post, Custer finds the dregs of society hiding inside the stockade, fearful of warring Indians, instead of the battle-ready regiment he expected. He displays his captive prize and, as the mob closes in on Crazy Horse, eager to hang the chief, a mounted Custer rushes the rabble and scatters them.

Crazy Horse says, “You give word, Long Hair, you shoot now; no rope.” To which Custer replies, “I give word, Crazy Horse—I keep my word.” Soon after, Custer watches as Crazy Horse makes a spectacular mounted escape. He turns to California Joe Milner (played by Charley Grapewin) and says: “You know, Joe, in a way I don’t mind that Indian getting off. He’s the only cavalryman I’ve seen around this fort so far.”

Before setting out to explore the Black Hills in 1874, the real Custer sent peaceful messages to all the tribes that he thought he might encounter in an attempt to avoid hostilities. At the conclusion of the expedition, when asked by reporters if he were disappointed that he did not get the chance to fight Indians, Custer answered: “Yes…I was disappointed and am heartily glad of it. Some thought I coveted an engagement— such was not the case, and I congratulate myself and the country on the safe return of the Expedition without bloodshed.”

In 1875 the Sioux of Standing Rock Agency in present-day North Dakota were nearing starvation. Custer applied to feed them with government-issued rations, but he was stopped by Secretary of War William W. Belknap.

Here fiction and history cross paths once again. In the film, the Sharps’ ultimate goal is to open the Black Hills to immigration by creating a false gold rush. Since the Sioux own the land, Ned Sharp and his father the senator realize that for their plan to succeed, they must eliminate Custer, who is likely to support the Indians’ claim. “Get him fighting mad and there isn’t anything he won’t do,” says Ned Sharp. “And if he gives the word, there isn’t anything his regiment won’t do—blockade Bismarck—blow the railroad bridges.”

So the Sharps enlist the services of Romulus Taipe, the special commissioner to coordinate the civil and military administration of Indian affairs. When Taipe, played by Stanley Ridges, visits Fort Lincoln, Custer arranges for a regimental dress parade in his honor. However, the night before, Ned Sharp reopens the post bar, which has been closed, and the next morning the soldiers are a drunken disgrace.

Furious, Custer goes berserk and begins to destroy the bar. When Taipe demands he stop, Custer attacks him. As a result, he is summoned to Washington to answer charges of striking a representative of the U.S. government. While en route, Custer sees a newspaper headline about a gold strike in the Black Hills and realizes that Sharp and Taipe had to get rid of him before they could put their plan into action. He immediately goes after them in the press, and this leads to a congressional inquiry where Custer testifies: “If I were an Indian I’d fight beside Crazy Horse to the last drop of my blood.”

This is a fictionalized version of Belknap’s Indian Ring scandal. Secretary of War Belknap was involved in an Indian agent-post tradership scam that defrauded both Indians and soldiers while making its participants rich. Since all official army complaints about the trading posts were channeled through Belknap’s office, he effectively blocked all criticism. In March and April 1876, Custer was actually called to Washington, D.C., to testify before the House Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, which investigated the scheme. Articles of impeachment against Belknap eventually were presented to the Senate, and the secretary resigned, another casualty in President Ulysses S. Grant’s scandal-ridden administration. Grant was furious with Custer, whose testimony also implicated the president’s brother Orvil and helped scuttle plans for a third term in office. In the film, Grant’s animosity is related by General Philip Sheridan, played by John Litel, who tells Custer: “Ulysses S. Grant hates the sound of your name.”

The incident at the post bar has fatal consequences for Custer’s film nemesis Ned Sharp. When he returns from Washington, Custer gets Sharp drunk the night before leaving for the Little Bighorn. Sharp awakes, bound and gagged, in the back of a wagon on its way to the fateful confrontation with the Sioux. Faced with being abandoned in hostile territory, Sharp decides to ride on with the 7th Cavalry to, in Custer’s words, “hell…or to glory. It depends on one’s point of view.”

George Armstrong Custer’s love for his wife, Libbie, is well documented. The mutual but unfulfilled attraction between Errol Flynn and frequent co-star Olivia de Havilland, who plays Libbie in the film, is also well documented. They Died With Their Boots On marked the eighth and final time Flynn and de Havilland worked together. Although it has been reported that their break up as an acting duo added another dimension to their performances in the movie, which peaked in the climactic “diary scene,” in reality neither actor knew during filming that this would be their last on-screen pairing.

The diary scene, however, almost didn’t happen. Unit manager Frank Mattison reported on July 30, “Yesterday after we got all ready to shoot the INT. BEDROOM sequence, rewritten for this show, it was decided this was to be cut out of the picture.” Lenore Coffee had indeed rewritten the scene, but it wasn’t cut. On August 21, Flynn and de Havilland began filming the diary scene, a long and involved sequence that was not completed until the next day.

The scene’s dialogue in the film is much different from the final draft of the script. De Havilland wrote in 2003: “I do not…recall improvising the dialogue on the set—but rewriting certainly must have taken place somewhere and I strongly suspect the main work was done by Lenore Coffee—with, possibly, contributions from [director Raoul] Walsh, Flynn, and myself.” Coffee had done her homework. What the original scene needed—and got—was primary source material from Boots and Saddles, Elizabeth Custer’s book about her life with the general in Dakota Territory.

In the film, Libbie helps Custer pack as he prepares to depart for the Little Bighorn, a routine they must have performed every time he left on campaign. She wraps his cartridge belt around his waist and says: “I’m sure you are the first soldier that ever became a general without letting out his belt.” “Ho-ho,” Custer says, “but you wait until we get that staff job in Washington after this campaign is over. I’m going to grow a big tummy on me, like General Scott you know—ho, ho, ho.” She says, “We’ll grow fat and happy together.” “Together,” he replies. “You have been happy here, haven’t you, Libbie?” “Don’t I look happy?” she asks.

When Custer opens a drawer to get his orders, he discovers a book. “What’s this? ‘My Life With General Custer.’” “Oh, darling,” Libbie says, “that’s my diary.” He opens it and turns to the last entry. “Tomorrow my husband leaves, and I cannot help but feel my last happy days are ended. The premonition of disaster such as I have never known is wearing me down.” In Boots and Saddles, Elizabeth Custer wrote: “With my husband’s departure my last happy days in garrison were ended, as a premonition of disaster that I had never known before weighed me down.”

Both actors strove for an unattainable gaiety and casualness in the parting scene, underplaying the tragic undertones. The results are extraordinary. The scene is arguably the most romantic, and also the most touching, of Flynn’s film career. Libbie says: “You know, I probably wrote that, or something like it, every time you went away….Every parting has its own fears and anxieties.” “Of course,” Custer says, “I often feel like that myself….The more sadness in parting—the more joy in the reunion.” A trumpet call sounds; it is time to leave. “Boots and saddles,” Libbie says. “Good-bye,” Custer replies. The two embrace. “Walking through life with you, ma’am,” he says, “has been a very gracious thing.” After one last embrace, Custer exits to meet his destiny and, as the camera pulls back, Libbie faints.

Anticipating his death at the Little Bighorn, Custer makes one last attempt to save the Black Hills for the Sioux, thus setting up a final confrontation between Sen. Sharp, Taipe and General Sheridan. In the closing scene of They Died With Their Boots On, Sheridan brings Libbie into a meeting with Sharp and Taipe, and she reveals a letter Custer wrote on the morning of the battle that exposes their land-grabbing plot. “If this letter gets out, we’ll be lynched!” says Taipe. Sen. Sharp replies: “It doesn’t seem to matter, Taipe….My son chose to go to his death with the Seventh Cavalry.” With no other choice, Taipe resigns, and the trading company is dissolved.

On behalf of her husband, Libbie also extracts a pledge from General Sheridan: “The administration must make good its word to Crazy Horse. The Indians must be protected in the right to an existence in their own country.”

“I have the authority to answer that…from the president himself,” Sheridan responds. “Your soldier won his last fight after all.” The scene dissolves into a close-up of Custer superimposed over a long shot of the 7th Cavalry marching to Little Bighorn while the regiment’s theme song, “Garryowen,” plays.

However far off the mark the film is on facts, it is remarkably close in spirit, and the driving force behind that spirit is Errol Flynn’s performance. He worked hard at his craft, and by the time he played Custer, he was prepared to convey what Flynn biographer Peter Valenti defined as the general’s “idiosyncratic nature…through the character’s outrageously excessive vanity and confidence…[while] gradually becom[ing] less selfish, more altruistic and idealistic, as he takes the side of the Indians against…unscrupulous [whites].”

After seeing the first rough cut of the film, Warner executive Edward Selzer wrote Jack Warner and Hal Wallis: “Errol Flynn…is magnificent, he surpasses anything he has ever done.” William Randolph Hearst telegrammed Warner: “DEAR JACK: ‘THEY DIED WITH THE BOOTS ON’ IS THE GREATEST PICTURE WE HAVE EVER SEEN. THIS IS THE SECOND TIME [MARION DAVIES AND I] HAVE SEEN IT AND IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN THE FIRST TIME.” Warner agreed with Selzer and Hearst, telling director Raoul Walsh: “That is one of Flynn’s best. If Custer really died like that, history should applaud him.”

Custer has appeared (mostly as a supporting character) on film 91 times. Originally, those portrayals were positive, but with the growing negativity toward traditional American icons and the pointed attempt to denigrate the heroes of the idealized West that escalated during the 1960s, Custer’s film legacy has taken a major turn for the worse.

Since They Died With Their Boots On, only two films have dared to present leading-player Custer in a positive light, and both productions were less than sparkling. In Custer of the West (1968), Robert Shaw’s Custer stands firmly against genocide. Unfortunately, the European production becomes farcical when, at the end of the film, Custer sits tall and alone on a white horse as the Indians close in on him in a totally un-Little Bighorn-like landscape until he disappears. Son of the Morning Star (1991), a TV mini-series based on Evan Connell’s bestselling biography of the same name, attempts to treat Custer’s Indian years fairly, but Gary Cole’s bombastic and boorish interpretation lacks charisma and credibility.

The general’s image might be getting a fresh look, however. Michael Blake, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay Dances With Wolves, once viewed Custer as an Indian-killer. He made a complete turnabout in Marching to Valhalla, a novel based on extensive research that gives a positive portrayal of Custer in the weeks leading up to the Little Bighorn campaign. Blake’s subsequent screenplay has drawn interest from the likes of director Oliver Stone (Platoon), actor Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and producer Barry Spikings (The Deer Hunter). Leonardo Di Caprio would be a perfect candidate for the lead role, as would Ben Foster, who playes Russell Crowe’s chief henchman in the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma.

Whoever plays Custer on film in the future will be working in the very long shadow cast by Errol Flynn. Looking back on his career in 1956, Flynn, who erroneously thought he was miscast in westerns, said: “[I will] be…remembered for Robin Hood, but Custer was one of [my] best characterizations.” Indeed. Flynn captured the iconic spirit of Custer in They Died With Their Boots On. Both the film and his performance have stood the test of time. Flynn’s Custer stands alone as the one to which all other Custer portrayals are compared—no small acting feat.

 

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.  

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