"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

They Died With Their Boots On (Warner Bros, 1942)



This was a real Raoul Walsh film, dashing, macho and boisterous. He did a good line in whitewash biopics (look at his absurd treatment of John Wesley Hardin in The Lawless Breed, for example). But all his films are huge fun and full of zip. Errol Flynn was the ideal star for him (they were alike in many ways) and while Flynn never really convinced as a Westerner in the way that Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck or Henry Fonda did, still he carried off this kind of role with aplomb. Actually, Flynn did aplomb.

It’s a very long film, 134 minutes, and it tells the whole career of George Armstrong Custer from his wild West Point days, through the Civil War and up to his death at Little Big Horn. Along the way he falls for Elizabeth Bacon, soon to become Mrs. Custer. That’s Olivia de Havilland, of course. This was their eighth (and final) partnership. She was Errol’s Ginger Rogers.

The movie is fast-paced and does not drag, even at two and a quarter hours. There’s lots of action and even in the talky bits there seems to be movement and energy.

Of course, it’s total bunk historically. Custer can do no wrong. He gives his word that no white man shall invade the sacred Black Hills but behind his back the villains falsely claim that gold has been found there so they can run their railroad through (railroad barons are always safe to cast as villains and these ones not only sell whisky and rifles to the Indians, they have caddish mustaches too). Custer knows he is going to his death in ’76 but he does it anyway to buy time for the Army to bring up its infantry. But as I have said before, Westerns should not be criticized for historical inaccuracy, except when they claim historical accuracy.

This is a romantic, swashbuckling, dramatic spectacle and it charges along at a gallop. The black & white photography by Bert Glennon is fine and the Max Steiner score is stirring. The locations are evidently Californian but an attempt is made at Dakota and Montana. The support acting is excellent and one particularly notices Sydney Greenstreet, ideal as the hugely fat General Winfield Scott. Arthur Kennedy is a hissable villain who nevertheless redeems himself in the end, dying bravely at Little Big Horn. Monocled GP Huntley is entertaining as the British Lt. Butler (he was about as British as a Bostonian can be) and Charley Grapewin has the amusing old timer role as California Joe (a sort of Walter Brennan/Arthur Hunnicutt part). Anthony Quinn is suitably noble as Crazy Horse (he'd started Westerns as an Indian, for Cecil B DeMille in The Plainsman).

This is one movie where you already know the ending so I don’t feel guilty about letting the cat out of the bag. But guess who is the last man standing and guess who is the one who shoots him down?

The scene where Custer says goodbye to his wife is actually rather moving. Perhaps Flynn and de Havilland knew it was their last pairing.

They Died With Their Boots On (great title!) is preposterous twaddle but hugely entertaining. Flynn’s best Western, it is a classic of the cavalry genre and a worthy depiction of the mythologized Custer. Compulsory viewing.



  1. Jeff - They Died With Their Boots On is, as you say, great fun, and in a schoolboy sort of a way, addictive. Apologies if you've discussed it elsewhere, but I think Custer Of The West, the Cinerama spectacle with Roberts Shaw and Ryan, is at least worthy of mention. Perhaps you're ruling it out for being shot in Spain?

  2. Hi Bill
    Yes, I have reviewed Custer of the West (https://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.fr/2013/07/custer-of-west-security-pictures-1969.html) but I'm not a great fan, I fear. I think it's tedious and I never liked Shaw.
    I'm not generally keen on Westerns shot in Spain but there have been some good ones (eg Valdez is Coming) so I don't rule them out a priori. It's just that Custer of the West was a poor movie, in my view.
    Errol Flynn was the best Custer, despite the daft treatment!

  3. Hello Jeff
    In my opinion I truly think THE film on Custer has still to be made. Walsh's film is matching one of the most famous quote about the West - and maybe the USA - about legend vs truth or at least reality. By the way do you know the history book by David Cornut himself a member of the Little Big Horn Associates "Little Big Horn, autopsie d'une bataille légendaire, reedited in 2018 by les éditions du Rocher in their excellent collection Nuage Rouge !?
    An other quote - this one from Alexandre Dumas one of the best specialist : you can rape history but at only one condition : make her q child! Well our dear Raoul is a very good father much helped by Errol who could have been an excellent D'Artagnan...
    About Errol westerns, have you ever seen 1950 Rocky Mountain - in French La révolte des dieux rouges aka red gods's revolt - where he leads a commando-operationlike of Confederates into California with your beloved Slim Pickens and Big Boy Williams?
    Thank you for sharing your passion with us, I don't agree all the time - Vera Cruz or Heaven's Gate fo ex are deserving 5 revolvers...- but bravo for your immense work

    1. I agree that, despite the enormous number of celluloid Custers, there has not yet been a really good Custer film, one which combines 'Western action' with hard fact.
      For the factual side, my preferred source is, as so often, Robert M Utley. I think his Cavalier in Buckskin is superb.
      I must get round to a retrospective of the Western career of Errol Flynn. Generally he despised the genre yet he was often very good in Westerns! I suppose because he had the dash and zip.
      We'll have to agree to disagree on Heaven's Gate and Vera Cruz. I know both pictures have their admirers. That's fine, go ahead and like them!

  4. Forgot to ask you if you know that the French editor Actes Sud is publishing a collection of western novels - Haycox, LeMay etc - under the supervision of Bertrand Tavernier, the French film director who is also running a blog about DVDs exition where he talks of westerns pretty often

    1. Yes, Bert is quite a figure in the Western, though I'm afraid I find his contributions quite waffly sometimes…
      I'm reading Richard Etulain's bio of Ernest Haycox at the moment. I hope to be posting on that soon.