Cultural depictions of George Armstrong Custer

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George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) was a United States Army cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. He was defeated and killed by the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Paintings[edit]

In 1896, Anheuser-Busch commissioned from Otto Becker a lithographed, modified version of Cassilly Adams' painting Custer's Last Fight, which was distributed as a print to saloons all over America.[1] It is reputed to still be in some bars today. Edgar Samuel Paxson completed his painting Custer's Last Stand in 1899. In 1963 Harold McCracken, director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, deemed Paxson's painting "the best pictoral representation of the battle" and "from a purely artistic standpoint...one of the best if not the finest pictures which have been created to immortalize that dramatic event."[2]

Films[edit]

Television[edit]

Fictional portrayals[edit]

A number of Westerns have featured characters that, while not specifically Custer, are very closely based on his character. Some of the more noteworthy examples:

  • Fort Apache (1948, John Ford) featured Henry Fonda as Colonel Owen Thursday, a West Point-educated cavalryman . Similarities between Thursday and Custer include the following (a)Thursday is presented as having been a heroic Civil War cavalry leader (he is presented as genuinely talented - cf his ambush of the first Apache band, which is effective though takes unacceptable risks with his men's lives; (b) In the run-up to the battle with Cochise's Apaches he suggests dividing his forces to attack the main Indian encampment from two sides - as Custer did at Little Big Horn.
  • The Glory Guys (1965, Arnold Laven) saw Andrew Duggan playing General Frederick McCabe, a US cavalry officer who leads his outfit in a suicidal campaign against the Apaches. The battle scenario in the climax is nearly identical to that at Little Bighorn.
  • Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002, Kelly Asbury/Lorna Cook), an animated film, features a story told from the perspective of a wild horse living on the American Frontier in the late 19th century. One of the major characters in the film, a U.S. Army officer known only as "the Colonel," is apparently based on Custer.
  • Don't Touch The White Woman! is a 1974 French/Italian absurd "Western" set in Paris, with a farcical portrayal by Marcello Mastroianni as a vain and bumbling General George Armstrong Custer.
  • Custer was portrayed by Bill Hader in the 2009 film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. He is a museum piece brought to life (along with other historical characters and museum pieces) and leads a charge against the villains. He is portrayed as a born leader but bumbling and unintelligent.

Literature[edit]

Alternate history[edit]

The mythic quality of Custer's life has made him a popular subject for several alternate history stories.

  • Custer at the Alamo is an alternate history novel by Gregory Urbach. Sent 40 years in the past by a spell cast by Chief Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry join Davy Crockett to defend the Alamo against Mexican forces under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
  • In the "Fallen Cloud Saga," a series of five novels by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani, George Armstrong Custer survives an alternate campaign against the Plains Indians, becomes President of the United States, and confronts his own son as the two sides battle toward a resolution.
  • The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, a novel by Douglas C. Jones, is set in an alternate history built on the premise that George Armstrong Custer did not die at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Instead, he was found close to death at the scene of the defeat and was brought to trial for his actions. Blending fact and fiction, the novel portrays what might have happened at that trial. It was made into a TV movie in 1977 with James Olson as Custer and Blythe Danner as his wife Libbie.
  • The short story "Custer's Last Jump" by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley is set in an alternate history that takes as its point of departure the use of aircraft in the American Civil War.
  • In Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory Series alternate history novels, the Little Bighorn did not take place, and Custer became a Colonel in Kansas by 1881, chasing Indians and then doing battle with rebel Mormons in Utah Territory and an Anglo-Canadian column invading Montana in the Second Mexican War, becoming a war hero. In World War I, he led a tank offensive that crushed the Confederate States of America, and later became Governor-General of occupied Canada, dying of old age in early 1930. Turtledove's version of Custer is loosely based on the German military figure and statesman Paul von Hindenburg.
  • Wes Anderson satirizes such portrayals of Custer-as-survivor in his film The Royal Tenenbaums, in which the character Eli Cash writes a book called “Old Custer".
  • In the collection of short alternate history stories Drakas!, Custer became persona non grata after refusing to lead troops against apparently overwhelming Indian forces. Drummed out of the military in America, he responded to the invitation of an old associate to go to Africa where the Draka empire was looking for experienced field officers.
  • In Percival Everett's novel God's Country, Custer is portrayed as a cross-dressing homosexual who eats raw meat.
  • A 1960 episode of Peabody's Improbable History has the General surviving the battle. When his boy Sherman questions Peabody about this historical twist, the dog points out a vendor's pushcart as being the actual Custer's Last "Stand".

Music[edit]

  • The first and probably best-known Custer pop song was "Mister Custer" ("Please Mister Custer, I don't wanna go"), a Billboard #1 novelty hit of 1960 for performer Larry Verne, in which "a voice from the rear" of the Seventh Cavalry charge asks "What'm I doing here?" and "Mind if I be excused the rest of the afternoon?" The song's words and music were by Fred Darian, Al DeLory, and Joe Van Winkle. In the UK, it was successfully covered by Charlie Drake.
  • The Kingston Trio recorded a song on their 1963 album The New Frontier titled "Some Fool Made A Soldier Of Me". The song's final verse has a trooper complaining of thirst to "General Custer", who retorts "...have no fear/There's a big river near."
  • On Johnny Cash's 1964 album Bitter Tears, the song "Custer" mocks the popular veneration of George Custer. A truncated version of the song has been covered in concert by Buffy Sainte-Marie as "Custer Song".
  • The Native American rock band Redbone recorded the song "Custer Had It Coming" in 1989.
  • General Custer's legacy was memorialized by the Italo disco group Swan in their 1986 hit "General Custer".
  • Custer is prominently featured in Johnny Horton's 1960 song "Jim Bridger": "He spoke with General Custer and said 'Listen Yellow Hair/'The Sioux are a great nation, so treat 'em fair and square/'Sit in on their war council, don't laugh away their pride'/But Custer didn't listen, and at Little Big Horn Custer died."
  • Experimental-pop group Perky Custer derived their name from General George Custer and a generic version of Dr Pepper.
  • Influential American punk/alternative band The Minutemen mocked Custer's defeat and questioned the dignity - or lack thereof - in which he died during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on the title track of their 1981 LP The Punch Line: "I believe when they found the body of General George A. Custer/Quilled like a porcupine with Indian arrows/He didn't die with any honor, dignity, or valor/I believe when they found the body of George A. Custer/American general, patriot, and Indian fighter/That he died with shit in his pants."
  • The Arrogant Worms's song "History Is Made by Stupid People" mocks him with the line "General Custer's a national hero, for not knowing when to run."
  • On his 1996 album Cowboy Celtic, Canadian singer David Wilkie sang "Custer Died A-Runnin'".
  • A 1991 album, Blazon Stone, by the German Heavy metal band Running Wild, includes a song about Custer's final battle called "Little Big Horn". It starts with the words "Hey Mr. Custer, why did you dare the hand of fate?"
  • In the 1997 song "Banner Year", ska band Five Iron Frenzy blames the death of Black Kettle, at the Battle of Washita, on Custer. "Where Custer shot and killed Black Kettle."
  • The 1999 song Bulimic Beats by the Indie rock band Catatonia includes the line "A front line with labels where I witness custard's last stand".
  • American composer and musicologist Kyle Gann created a multimedia work titled Custer and Sitting Bull in which monologues by the two figures are recited, accompanied by a microtonal musical score and projected images from the time period. The piece premiered in Los Angeles in 1999 and played in New York to positive reviews in the year 2000.
  • The rapper Nelly mentioned Custer in his song "Heart of a Champion" from his 2004 album Sweat: "My last stance be a stance of a General Custer, I hot dog cause I can, I got the cheese and mustard."
  • Custer is one of only two Army officers to be referenced in the army song (the other is George Patton).
  • The satirical song "I Love America", in which Alice Cooper portrays a stereotypical American as naïve and ignorant (even when it comes to his own country's history), includes the lyrics "I love what the Indians did to Custer".
  • A 2004 album, Stripping Cane, by singer/songwriter Jeffrey Foucault, includes a song called "Pearl Handled Pistol". It mentions G.A. Custer and Buffalo Bill: "He was a mighty handsome man. He loved dogs and children, he loved the military band."
  • In the 2009 Dave Matthews Band song "Little Red Bird" off their bonus disc to Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, Custer is mentioned in the second verse. "General Custer is sad / Overestimated his abilities to win / Sitting Bull turned the table on him / A comfort to count the battles won after the war is lost / Little red bird".
  • In 2013, underground rapper Will $teel of the hip-hop group Kush Klan released a tribute song titled "General Custer"[4]

Video games[edit]

  • In Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs, Custer makes an appearance, but is seen as a stubborn leader who declares war on the Sioux. In the end, the player defeats him and his army with help from the Sioux.
  • A controversial adult video game, known as Custer's Revenge, was published for the Atari 2600. This game consisted of Custer's moving from the left hand side of the screen to the right hand side of the screen through a barrage of arrows emerging from the top of the screen. Once Custer reaches the right hand side of the screen, he sexually assaults a Native American woman who is tied to a cactus.
  • In the game Duke Nukem: Zero Hour, the level Fort Rosewell features Custer as an enemy of the protagonist.
  • In the game Darkest of Days, the player starts out as a member of the 7th Cavalry with Custer at the Little Big Horn. The player is saved by a time-travel organization just as Custer is killed in the background.
  • Custer is mentioned in the game Turok; when Turok finishes a flashback about using a compound bow, Slade responds, "That would be a great weapon, if we were fighting Colonel Custer".
  • In the game Fallout: New Vegas, an achievement called "General Custer" is awarded to players who lead all of their companions to their death. It was cut from the final version.

References[edit]