They Died with Their Boots On
|They Died with Their Boots On|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Raoul Walsh|
|Music by||Max Steiner|
|Editing by||William Holmes|
|Studio||Warner Bros. Pictures|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros. Pictures|
|Running time||140 minutes|
|Box office||$2.55 million (USA)|
They Died with Their Boots On is a 1941 American western film directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Written by Æneas MacKenzie and Wally Kline, the film is a highly fictionalized account of the life of General George Armstrong Custer, from the time he enters West Point military academy, through the American Civil War, and finally to his death at Little Big Horn. The battle against Chief Crazy Horse is portrayed as a crooked deal between politicians and a corporation that wants the land Custer gave to the Indians. Despite its historical inaccuracies, the film was one of the top-grossing films of the year. They Died with Their Boots On was the eighth and final film collaboration between Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
Like Flynn's earlier film Sea Hawk, this film was digitally colorized in the early 1990s. This version was released on VHS tape in 1998. Only the black-and-white version of this film has been released on DVD.
The film follows the life of George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) including his attending the West Point Military Academy, his wooing of Elizabeth "Libby" Bacon (Olivia de Havilland) who becomes his loving wife, and his participation in the American Civil War and the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Custer enters West Point and quickly establishes himself as a troublemaker, after showing up in an outfit he designed himself that made him appear as a visiting officer. After he is almost kicked out of West Point for the misunderstanding, he signs up as a cadet, and stacks up demerits for pranks, unruliness, and disregard of rules. When the Civil War breaks out his class at West Point is graduated early, including Custer who graduates at the bottom of the class, and is ordered to report to Washington, D.C..
Custer's relationship with Libby Bacon begins at West Point, when he is walking a punishment tour around the campus. On punishment, he is not allowed to talk, but he is approached by Libby who is looking for directions. As soon as his punishment is over, he runs after her, and tells her he will meet her at her front porch that evening. Because of his orders to travel to Washington, Custer misses his meeting with her.
Once in Washington, Custer befriends General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) who aids him in being placed with the 2nd Cavalry. He becomes a war hero after disregarding his superiors' orders in a crucial battle and successfully defending a bridge for the infantry to cross. He is awarded a medal while recovering in hospital after a shot to the shoulder, then gets leave to go home to Monroe, Michigan. He meets Libby again but angers her father, who had been a butt of his joking at a bar earlier in the day. Custer returns to his regiment. Due to a miscommunication from the war department, he is promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. He takes command of the Michigan Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg, wins the day, and many victories follow him all the way to Appomattox.
Upon returning home to Monroe as a hero, Custer marries Libby and they set up a house together. However, Custer is bored with civilian life and has begun to drink. Libby visits Custer's friend General Scott and asks him to assign Custer to a regiment again. He agrees, and Custer is given a Lt. Colonel's commission in the Dakota Territory, where he will ultimately be involved in the Battle of Little Big Horn, later also called "Custer's Last Stand".
When Custer and Libby arrive in the Dakota Territory, Custer finds the soldiers he is supposed to lead are drunken, rowdy good-for-nothings. An old enemy from West Point, Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy), is running the bar in town, as well as the General Store which is providing firearms to the local Native Americans. Furious, Custer shuts down the bar and teaches his troops a song, "Garryowen", which brings fame to the 7th Cavalry. They have many engagements with Dakota leader Crazy Horse (Antony Quinn). Crazy Horse wants peace but wants a treaty to protect the Black Hills. Custer and Washington sign the treaty. The new treaty is almost bankrupting Sharp's trading posts so they spread a rumor of discovery of rich gold deposits in the area, to get Euro-American settlers to stream into the Black Hills. Custer and his troops will permit no infraction of the treaty. However, Sharp gives the troops each a bottle of liquor right before they are supposed to report, and they embarrass Custer by riding past Commissioner Taipe (a politician in league with the Sharps) while drunk. Custer hits Taipe in anger and is relieved of his command.
On the train home, Custer hears from Libby about Sharp's attempts to start a gold rush in the Black Hills, a plan that would bring lots of business to Sharp's shipping line. Outraged, Custer takes the information to the U.S. Congress, but they ridicule him. When news arrives that the presence of gold miners has led to open conflict between Native Americans and U.S. troops, Custer appeals to President Ulysses S. Grant who restores to him command of the 7th.
On the day of "Custer's Last Stand", Custer realizes that a group of infantry will march into a valley where thousands of Native Americans stand ready to fight them. Knowing the infantry won't have a chance, he says a tearful goodbye to Libby and leads his battalion into the battle to save the infantry. Arrows fly and horses trample across the valley, and all are killed, including Sharp, who had elected to ride with the regiment to, as Custer puts it, "Death or glory. It depends on one's point of view", and who admits with his last breath that Custer may have been right about glory and money when he said that "At least you can take [glory] with you". Custer himself is finally downed by a gunshot from Crazy Horse.
In the film, the battle is blamed on unscrupulous corporations and politicians craving the land of Crazy Horse and his people.
Custer is portrayed as a fun-loving, dashing figure who chooses honor and glory over money and corruption. Though his "Last Stand" is probably treated as more significant and dramatic than it may have actually been, Custer follows through on his promise to teach his men "to endure and die with their boots on." In the movie's version of Custer's story, a few corrupt white politicians goad the western tribes into war, threatening the survival of all white settlers in the West. Custer and his men give their lives at Little Bighorn to delay the Indians and prevent this slaughter. A letter left behind by Custer absolves the Indians of all responsibility.
- Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer
- Olivia de Havilland as Elizabeth Bacon Custer
- Arthur Kennedy as Ned Sharp
- Charley Grapewin as California Joe
- Gene Lockhart as Samuel Bacon
- Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse
- Stanley Ridges as Maj. Romulus Taipe
- John Litel as Gen. Phillip Sheridan
- Walter Hampden as William Sharp
- Sydney Greenstreet as Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott
- Regis Toomey as Fitzhugh Lee
- Hattie McDaniel as Callie
- Minor Watson as Senator Smith
- Joseph Crehan as President Ulysses S. Grant
The film is frequently confused with Michael Curtiz's Santa Fe Trail, released the previous year, in which Flynn portrayed Jeb Stuart and Ronald Reagan played Custer, also featuring Olivia de Havilland as Flynn's leading lady.
In September 1941, during filming, Flynn collapsed from exhaustion.
Custer's Last Stand sequence 
Although the rest of the film was shot in various locales throughout southern California, the film makers had hoped to capture this climactic sequence near the location of the actual Battle of Little Bighorn. Due to scheduling and budget constraints, however, the finale of the film was relegated to a rural area outside of Los Angeles.
Crazy Horse, played by Anthony Quinn, is the only individualized Indian in the scene and represents the "Red Man" whose lifestyle is coming to an end. Quinn is one of the few actors of Indigenous American descent in the film. Only 16 of the extras were Sioux Indians. The rest of the Native American army were mostly Filipino extras. Two extras died during the filming of the sequence. One untrained rider, George Murphy, died in a fall from his horse, reportedly while drunk. A second extra, Jack Budlong, fell off his horse and was fatally wounded by his prop sword.
The score was composed by Max Steiner. He adapted George Armstrong Custer's favorite song, "Garryowen", into the score. Custer first heard the song from Irish soldiers. In the film, he hears it from an English soldier who claims its origin is Australian. This connection is apocryphal. Warner Brothers recycled some of the music from the film and it, or variations of it, can be heard in Silver River and Rocky Mountain, both starring Errol Flynn, and The Searchers starring John Wayne.
They Died with Their Boots On grossed $2.55 million for Warner Bros. Pictures in 1941, making it the studio's second biggest hit of the year.
- Ed Rudy Behlmer Inside Warner Bros (1935-1951), 1985 p 208
- Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer * Clifford McCarty, The Films of Errol Flynn, Citadel Press, 1969 p 111
- Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.