They Died with Their Boots On

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
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. Custer is portrayed as a fun-loving, dashing figure who chooses honor and glory over money and corruption. 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.


George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) enters West Point and quickly establishes himself as a troublemaker by showing up in an outlandish uniform he had designed himself, which makes him appear to be a visiting foreign general. After the misunderstanding, he signs up as a cadet, and begins to stack up demerits for pranks and a general disregard for rules while at the Point. When the Civil War breaks out, Custer is at the bottom of his class.

Custer's relationship with Libbie Bacon (from Monroe, Michigan) begins at the Point; walking a punishment tour, he is not allowed to speak, but he is approached by Libbie who asks him for directions. As soon as his punishment ends, he runs after her, explaining his rude silence, and asking if he may come by her front porch that evening. After speaking with Libbie, Custer and other members of his class are graduated early and ordered to report to Washington, D.C. for assignment. As a result, Custer misses his evening appointment.

Once in the capitol, Custer makes the acquaintance of General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) while dining, who then aids him in getting placed with the 2nd U. S. 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; Custer then gets leave to return to his home in Monroe, Michigan. He meets Libbie at her home but her father, who has been the butt of Custer's joke earlier that day, orders him to leave. Custer 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 path to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, which ends the Civil War.

Upon returning home to Monroe as a war hero, General Custer marries Libbie in a big ceremony, which includes a regimental honor guard, but he soon grows bored with civilian life and begins drinking too much. Libbie 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.

When Custer and Libbie arrive at Fort Lincoln, Custer finds the soldiers a drunken, rowdy, and undisciplined lot in need of firm leadership. His old West Point enemy, Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy), who has a government license to run the fort's trading post and saloon, is providing Winchester repeating rifles to the local Native Americans. Furious, Custer stops the rifle sales and permanently closes the saloon. He then instills proper military discipline in his men and introduces a regimental song, "Garryowen", both of which quickly brings fame to the U. S. 7th Cavalry under Custer's command. The 7th has many engagements with Lakota tribal chief Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn), who eventually offers peace, wanting a treaty that will protect the sacred Black Hills; Custer and Washington sign the treaty, but soon it is bankrupting Sharp's trading posts. Sharp spreads a rumor that large gold deposits have been discovered in the Black Hills. Euro-American settlers stream into the area in violation of the treaty, but Custer and his troops permit no infractions. To embarrass Custer, Sharp passes out free bottles of liquor to Custer's men hours before they drunkenly pass in revue, in complete disarray, before Commissioner Taipe, a politician in league with Sharp. Custer punches both Sharp and the commissioner in anger, and he is quickly relieved of his command.

Custer hears from Libbie about Sharp's attempts to start a gold rush in the Black Hills, a plan that would bring him much business and large profits. Outraged, Custer takes the information to the U. S. Congress, but they only ridicule him. When news arrives that the presence of gold miners has led to open conflict between the Native Americans and U. S. troops, Custer appeals in person to President Ulysses S. Grant, one soldier to another, who restores him to command.

Custer comes to realize that his men are marching into a valley where thousands of Native Americans are waiting. Knowing they will have no chance, he has a final, emotion-filled goodbye with Libbie and leads his men into battle. Arrows and bullets fly and horses trample into the valley, where all of Custer's forces are killed. Earlier, Sharp has been forced by Custer to ride with the 7th "to Hell or glory. It depends on one's point of view", Custer tells him, "At least you can take glory with you". Sharp admits with his dying breath that Custer may have been right about 'glory'. Custer is killed by a rifle shot fired by Crazy Horse.

A few corrupt politicians have goaded the western tribes into war for personal profit, threatening the survival of all white settlers in the Dakota Territories. Custer and his men have given their lives at the Battle of the Little Bighorn to delay the Native Americans advance and prevent this slaughter. A letter left behind by Custer, now considered his dying declaration, names the culprits and absolves the Native Americans of all responsibility; Custer has won his final campaign.




The Warner Bros. script was an original screenplay and was announced in early 1941 as a vehicle for Errol Flynn.[3] It was to be made after Warner's aviation film Dive Bomber, another feature starring Flynn.[4]


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.[5]

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.[6]

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.

The film shows Custer leading his troops in a saber charge on an Indian party, which leads to them being surrounded and Custer being the last man alive before finally being killed. In reality the men had boxed their sabers and sent them to the rear before the battle; site evidence, along with some Native American accounts, indicates that Custer may have been among the first to die. He is also shown during the battle with his trademark long hair, when in reality he had cut it short just prior to the Little Bighorn campaign.

Crazy Horse, played by Anthony Quinn, is the only individualized Indian appearing in scenes 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.[7] Only 16 of the extras used were Sioux Indians. The rest of the Native American warriors were mostly portrayed by Filipino extras.


The film score was composed by Max Steiner. He adapted George Armstrong Custer's favorite song, "Garryowen", for use in 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 Custer hears the song being played on a piano by former English soldier, now an U. S. Army officer, 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 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.

Home media[edit]

Like Errol Flynn's earlier film Sea Hawk, They Died With Their Books On was digitally colorized in the early 1990s. This version was released on VHS tape in 1998 by Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros. Entertainment.[8] The original black-and-white film was released on DVD in 2005 by Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros. Entertainment.

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. ^ Warner Bros. Stories Listed: Million Dollars Worth of Plots on Hand for Films to Be Made in 1941 Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 03 Jan 1941: 10.
  4. ^ Dive Bomber' Is Next Vehicle Of Errol Flynn -- Marlene Dietrich Is Signed: FRENCH FILM HERE TODAY 'Compliments of Mr. Flow' at the Filmarte -- Arbitration Panel to Be Appointed Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 15 Feb 1941: 9.
  5. ^ Thomas, Tony; Behlmer, Rudy; McCarty, Clifford (1969). The Films of Errol Flynn. Citadel Press. p. 111. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn (1999). Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-7790-3. 
  8. ^

External links[edit]