They Died with Their Boots On

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They Died with Their Boots On
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Produced by
Screenplay by
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Edited by William Holmes
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release dates
  • November 21, 1941 (1941-11-21) (USA)

1947 (France)
Running time
140 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,357,000[1]
Box office $2.55 million (USA)
2,151,959 admissions (France)[2]

They Died with Their Boots On is a 1941 black-and-white American western film from Warner Bros. Pictures, produced by Hal B. Wallis and Robert Fellows, 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 1941. 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.[3] Only the black-and-white version of this film has been released on DVD.


The film follows the military career of George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn). Custer enters West Point and quickly establishes himself as a troublemaker, after showing up in an outlandish uniform he designed himself, which made him appear to be a visiting officer. After the misunderstanding, he signs up as a cadet, and begins to stack up demerits for pranks, unruliness, and a disregard for rules while at the Point. When the Civil War breaks out, Custer, at the bottom of his class, is graduated early with others, and ordered to report to Washington, D.C.

Custer's relationship with Libby Bacon begins at the Point; walking a punishment tour, he is not allowed to speak, but he is approached by Libby who is looking for directions. As soon as his punishment is over, he runs after her, explaining his situation, and telling her he will meet her on her front porch that evening. Because of his sudden orders to leave for Washington, Custer misses that appointment.

Once in Washington, Custer befriends General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) over lunch, who aids him in getting placed with the 2nd Cavalry. He becomes a war hero after disregarding a superiors' orders during a crucial battle, successfully defending a bridge for the Union infantry. He is awarded a medal while recovering in a hospital after being shot in the shoulder; he then gets leave to return to his home in Monroe, Michigan. He meets Libby there once again but angers her father, who has been the butt of Custer's joke at a saloon earlier in the day. Custer then returns to his regiment. Due to a miscommunication from the Department of War, he is promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and takes command of the Michigan Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg; he wins the day and many victories follow him thereafter on his way to Appomattox and the end of the war.

Upon returning home to Monroe as a war hero, Custer marries Libby, but soon grows bored with civilian life, beginning to drink. Libby visits Custer's old friend General Scott and begs 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, soon to be known as "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 (Anthony 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 final, 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 has elected to ride with the regiment to "Hell or glory", as Custer puts it, "It depends on one's point of view". Sharp admits with his dying breath that Custer may have been right when he said "at least you can take glory with you." Custer himself is finally killed by a gunshot from Crazy Horse.

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.


Louis Zamperini was an extra; he was the true life hero of "Unbroken"



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.[4]

Three men were killed during the filming. One fell from a horse and broke his neck. Another stuntman had a heart attack. The third, actor Jack Budlong, insisted on using a real saber to lead a cavalry charge under artillery fire. When an explosive charge sent him flying off his horse, he landed on his sword, impaling himself.[5]

Custer's Last Stand sequence[edit]

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.[6] Only 16 of the extras were Sioux Indians. The rest of the Native American army were mostly Filipino extras.


The score was composed by Max Steiner. He adapted George Armstrong Custer's favorite song, "Garryowen", into the score. Custer knew the song while he was still at West Point, where he is said to have performed it in a talent show. In the film, he hears it from an English soldier, Lt 'Queen's Own' Butler, who claims its origin is Australian. This connection is apocryphal. It is actually a traditional Irish drinking song, much beloved by the cavalry for its galloping rhythm. 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Behlmer, Ed Rudy (1985). Inside Warner Bros (1935–1951). New York: Viking. p. 208. ISBN 0-670-80478-9. 
  2. ^ Box office results of Raoul Walsh films in France at Box Office Story
  3. ^
  4. ^ Thomas, Tony; Behlmer, Rudy; McCarty, Clifford (1969). The Films of Errol Flynn. Citadel Press. p. 111. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn (1999). Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-7790-3. 

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