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

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Son of the Morning Star (ABC, 1991)


Son of the Morning Star was a two-part television drama and an early 90s expedition into the field of Custerology. Every generation, or even half-generation, has to do a Custer movie and have its say, usually repeating the old clichés and errors but occasionally trying to say something new, or at least give us the old story in a new way.

With a total runtime of 187 minutes, the film had the scope to explore the myth/fact in some detail. Sadly, however, much of this time was not used for that purpose and the pace of the film is sluggish at best. It got low ratings.

It was directed by Mike Robe, the Return to Lonesome Dove chap, and was his first Western (of four).

It is said to be a dramatization of Evan S Connell’s 1984 non-fiction work Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, “and other accounts”. The film is narrated by two women, Custer’s wife Libby (Rosanna Arquette, too coquettish, I think) and a Native American known as Kate Big Head (Buffy Sainte-Marie).

George Armstrong Custer is played by Gary Cole (V-P Bob Russell in The West Wing) in his only Western. He isn’t bad and they do try to get the look right. Kevin Costner was to have been Custer but he danced with wolves instead and got his Sioux fix that way.
 Cole as Custer
Custer as Custer
The story starts in Montana in June 1876 and key moments of Custer’s life (his life on the Plains; the Civil War is not dealt with) are done in flashback, often through the eyes of Libby or Kate. Apparently Son of the morning star who attacks at dawn is a name the Crow gave to Custer, though why Kate, a Southern Cheyenne, should be so keen on it is hard to say.
Arquette as Libby
Libby as Libby
Various key moments are illustrated: Crazy Horse at 14 having a vision, the so-called Fetterman Massacre, the Washita in 1868.

Custer has a child with a Cheyenne woman. Maybe he did. He (correctly) has a brace of British Webley pistols.

Visually the film is attractive, especially on my new B I G TV screen, though what the Tetons are doing in Montana isn’t easy to say. In the (absurdly long) list of credits (where they tell who supplied hamburgers to the driver of the hairdresser’s assistant) you find that Amsterdammer Kees Van Oostrum was the DP. This was his first Western. Later he also did a good job on Return to Lonesome Dove.

Part 2 opens in the Dakota Territory in the winter of 1875. We see Sherman, Sheridan and Grant in DC. Sherman calls Grant ‘Ulysses’ (a name he disliked). Little Bighorn approaches. We see Custer leaving Fort Lincoln, flashy in white buckskins and still with long hair (though not as long as the startlingly blond Captain Benteen’s). Libby has a premonition and there are many other slightly New Wavy portents. Tom counsels caution, reminding brother Autie that containment is the aim, not battle, and adding, “You don’t have to go after them on your own.”
Strathairn as Benteen
Benteen. Looks a bit like Karl Malden.
David Strathairn plays Benteen and manages to be really quite sinister. Michael Medeiros grossly overdoes the panic of Major Reno, to an extent that he appears (unintentionally) comic. he's almost as bad as Jospeh Cotten's dreadful Reno in The Great Sioux Massacre.

The actor who did Crazy Horse as an adult is the excellent Rodney A Grant, and one of the plus points of the movie is the quite sensitive way Crazy Horse is portrayed. Floyd Red Crow Westerman’s Sitting Bull was also convincing, and I liked the way Bull was not shown as a Napoleonic commanding general, as he is often depicted. In fact, unlike most Custer films, in this one the Indians are shown as separate tribes and real people, not just whooping extras to be shot down.
Rodney A Grant is a very good Crazy Horse
And Floyd Red Crow Westerman is an interesting Sitting Bull
After the battle there is a quick recap of the deaths of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and a mention of Wounded Knee. It all seems terribly rushed after 187 minutes of screen time, as if they thought, oh, we’d better put in something about what happened afterwards, I suppose.

This is a worthy effort, and closer to the facts than many film treatments. Perhaps it would have been good with Costner in it, though had he directed it the film would have probably been even longer.


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