Custer plods ponderously over the plains
The Great Sioux Massacre (not to be confused with The Great Sioux Uprising, Universal's Jeff Chandler Western of the 1950s) was the sixties’ take on Custer. Of course the title could be taken two ways, and indeed the Sioux in this movie are massacrees as much as those doing the massacring. As usual with such films, little account is taken of history and fact, even though a voiceover sententiously announces at the beginning that “This is what transpired”, and so Custer attacks a defenseless Sioux village and slaughters men, women and children – presumably a transposition in time and place of the Washita, or even making Custer into Chivington at the Sand Creek Massacre. Oh well, it isn’t supposed to be a documentary, I guess.
A bit of a clunker, I fear
Philip Carey is Custer, though he is really not the central character of the story and Carey was only third billed. Top billing went to Joseph Cotten (overacting badly) as the drunken Major Reno but he wasn’t the central character either. That was a Captain Benton (not Benteen), played by Darren McGavin. This Benton sits alongside Reno in a court martial as the picture opens, and he tells the story, in frequent voiceover. The film goes all blurry in case we are too stupid to realize it’s a flashback, you know how they do.
Carey as Custer
So a curious choice of stars in a way. Cotten had secured Western fame in his prairie debut in Duel in the Sun in 1946 and this was his sixth Western but he was not cut out for them and he was better off opposite shadowy Citizen Kane or even shadowier Harry Lime. Only in Two Flags West was he any good. McGavin also did Westerns, mostly on TV (especially Riverboat, of course) but again never really convinced in them. He had a bit part in Distant Drums but his first big Western role had been only the year before Massacre, in Bullet for a Badman opposite Audie Murphy, but those were his only big-screen oaters apart from a ‘family’ comedy Western, Hot Lead and Cold Feet, in 1978. He could hardly be described as a habitué of the saddle. Carey was the most Western of them. He had started with a smallish part in Springfield Rifle in 1952, was the Army lieutenant that Doris Day’s Calamity Jane fell for in 1953, and the same year was in The Man Behind the Gun with Randolph Scott. His first Western lead was in The Nebraskan, also in ’53. After that he did some B-Westerns before turning to TV, where he did loads of episodes of Laredo. I suppose he was chosen because he looked a bit like Custer, all blond and all.
Cotten rotten as Reno and McGavin bland as Benton (not Benteen)
The film was ponderously directed by Sidney Salkow, who had first directed a Western in 1952 (Scarlet Angel) and had done another Sioux picture, Sitting Bull, in 1954. Salkow made twelve big-screen oaters in all, this one being his last, but mostly stuck to TV work, especially on Wyatt Earp and Shotgun Slade. The Great Sioux Massacre moves at a plodding pace and it needed a director with a bit of zip and dash, Raoul Walsh or someone.
It also needed better writing. Marvin A Gluck (amusingly billed as Fred C Dobbs) worked up the screenplay from a story by him and Salkow, but it really isn’t very good. I don’t really think Custer would have greeted his wife Libby with the words, “Hi, hon.”
Visually, though, the picture is attractive, with Arizona and Oregon locations beautifully shot by cinematographer Irving Lippman, who had started work (in a menial capacity) on The Big Stampede in 1932, then on Arizona in 1940, but by the 1950s did mostly TV work. Still, he handled the sweeping panoramas on Massacre (it’s in Cinemascope and Technicolor) very well.
The movie pays lip service to pro-Indian sentiments. Custer is on their side – at first, until his presidential ambitions get in the way – and the buckskin-clad scout Dakota (John Matthews, only this and one other Western movie) hates the redskins at first for they have slaughtered his wife and child, but then he comes round, rescuing a sweet Sioux babe.
As usual, Sitting Bull is shown as a commander-in-chief, disposing his troops over the field and dictating battle tactics. This is quite wrong. Sitting Bull himself did not ‘command’ the forces at Little Bighorn. The Sioux and Cheyenne did not have generals as the whites understood the term and while whites may have attributed to Bull Napoleonic qualities as a supreme commander, as if to suggest that only a military genius could defeat the great Custer, it was simply not the case. In his excellent book on Sitting Bull, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (Henry Holt & Company, 1993) Robert Utley says:
The Indians did not win the Battle of Little Bighorn because of generalship or even leadership. They won because they outnumbered the enemy three to one; because they were united, confident and angry; and above all because the immediate threat to their women and children fired every man with determination to save his family. The Indians won too because their foes allowed themselves to be beaten in fragments and because their leadership broke down.
Bull is played by Michael Pate. Obviously. With New Yorker Jeff Chandler, Australian Pate cornered the market in 1950s and 60s Indian chiefs. He was of course Vittorio in Hondo in 1953 and went on to be Chief Four Horns, Watanka, Puma, Thin Elk, Sierra Charriba and heaven knows who all else in a whole series of Westerns. Early Western movie makers, in the silent days, were happy to use Native Americans as Indian chiefs, and more recent ones do too, of course (Studi, Greene, Schellenberg, Schweig & Co), but in the 50s and 60s if a studio needed a heap big chief, they called Chandler or Pate.
Michael Pate, Hollywood go-to for Indian chiefs
The picture is curiously ambivalent on Custer. For the first reels he is the undisputed hero, noble, supportive of the Indians, against corruption and altogether a goody. Suddenly, once a senator has suggested he could be a presidential candidate, he becomes cynically anti-Indian and half crazed. The year of the movie, in the mid-60s, was of course at a point which had left the dashing Errol Flynn-style Custer of 1941 behind but the revisionist anti-Cavalry pictures of the early 70s, like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, were yet to appear. In Massacre, however, we see the first signs of these. The ‘Black Canyon’ Indian agency is a concentration camp where Nazi-like US soldiers starve the people, then, under Reno’s orders, shoot down women and children in another massacre.
The prevailing orthodoxy to explain the disaster of Little Bighorn, and certainly the Hollywood orthodoxy, is that Custer plunged forward too fast, leaving no time for other elements of the army to come up, that he disobeyed Terry’s orders by fighting the battle a day early, and, above all, that he divided his forces needlessly, ensuring that he was hopelessly outnumbered when it came to the final clash. Certainly this film underlines that. Sitting Bull grunts that three branches are easier to snap that one trunk and he orders separate attacks on the three parts of Custer’s force, smashing them one by one. (Crazy Horse is reduced to little more than a lieutenant as Bull imperiously commands him to lead one of these attacks with the words, “Now, break the second branch!”)
In fact, however, General Terry gave no precise orders for the date of the battle and indeed left his orders to Custer, couched as suggestions, remarkably open and discretionary. This was politically shrewd but also militarily sage as at the time no one knew where the Indians were or in what strength. Custer had complete confidence in the 7th and his aim was not to let the Indians escape; this was a mindset which all generals, from Sheridan down, shared. Perhaps it was rash to attack on June 25 before a proper reconnaissance had taken place but Custer had done exactly that at the Washita, with great effect, and he had reason to believe that he had been discovered and so if he did not attack immediately, the Indians might get away. As to splitting the force, Custer’s decision to send Benteen to the left was prudent: he had to be sure there were no Indians who could fall on his rear, and it was not his fault that Benteen was so dilatory in coming up. Furthermore, had Reno continued to fight in the valley, the pressure would have been taken off Custer. He and Benteen should have rushed to Custer’s side and had they done so, the battle might have had a different outcome.
Well, I don’t want to plunge into the shark-infested waters of Custerology and there are plenty of people out there far more expert than I on the battle (I met some when I visited the site in Montana). But I think they would all agree that The Great Sioux Massacre is hardly the definitive historical account of Custer’s last stand.
Good old Frank Ferguson is Terry
By the way, General Terry is played by good old Frank Ferguson, that walrusy character actor of countless Westerns (and My Friend Flicka) whom it is always a pleasure to see. Iron Eyes Cody is Crazy Horse but as I said he is reduced to a minor role in the battle and the film. He, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Brave Bear have a conference with Custer before the battle (they didn’t, of course) in which Custer threatens to hang them and they back down, releasing the wife and children of the (corrupt) Indian agents whom they have taken hostage. Nancy Kovack is a very unconvincing Libby Custer.
Iron Eyes Cody as Crazy Horse
The movie starts with the heavy-handed symbolism of the stars and stripes being lowered, as if in shame, and ends with it being raised again as the inquiry exonerates Reno and Benton, as if all was now well.
'Benton' gives his account, the board swallow it and everyone is exonerated
There have been countless cinematic Custers ever since Francis Ford directed and starred in the silent Custer’s Last Fight in 1912. This year Custer is back, played by Christopher Atkins, in The Hard Ride. In between, we have had Dustin Farnum, Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn, James Millican, Sheb Wooley, Philip Carey and Robert Shaw, among many, many others. Even Marcello Mastroianni. I fear that the one in The Great Sioux Massacre is hardly in the top rank, and the film does rather drag. Maybe one day we’ll have a really good Custer’s-last-stand film. So far, my favorite is the historically preposterous but hugely enjoyable They Died With Their Boots On.