The first screen Custer
General Custer has appeared so very many times on film. He has been patriotic, bold and daring, and megalomaniac, foolish and vain. And everything in between. But the very first screen Custer, that we know of anyway, was Francis Ford, John Ford’s elder brother, in the Thomas Ince production of 1912.
In 1912 Custer had only been dead 36 years, like 1981 to us today. And the Custer myth, the story of the shining hero who fell valiantly for his country, was very much in full spate. So it was to be expected that the first celluloid Custer would be a gallant soldier, a spotless hero, in fact a martyr. It was so.
The movie was a Thomas H Ince production, as the title screen makes clear, and no mention at all is made of Frank Ford (right). That was Ince’s way: he took all the credit. But it now transpires that Francis was not only the star, playing Custer, but also the director and pretty well the producer of the film. In order to increase production of the extremely popular Westerns, Ince had divided his very successful company into two parts and put Frank in charge of the new division. It was this new division that made Custer’s Last Fight.
The DVD we see today, not bad in quality if you can forgive the odd flicker and fade, is the 1925 re-issue, and that itself says something: by the mid-20s movies had moved on enormously and the fact that a 1912 film could be shown, and successfully too, said much as to its quality. It appears that the original 3-reel Bison film of 1912 was expanded for a 1922, then 1925 release to five reels, perhaps using footage from Ince’s The Last Frontier, incomplete at his death.
From the first frame the Indians are the bad guys. We are told that they “bitterly opposed the advances of the white man and civilization”. Of course civilization and the white man were the same thing, and the Native American peoples had no civilization of their own. They were just savages.
A fine close-up of a Sioux warrior holding up his hand tells the white man to “keep out”. After some bucolic nature shots (California standing in for the Sioux lands) there is an Indian attack on a fort, amid much dust and smoke (which DW Griffith was to emulate). The US Cavalry rides to the rescue (wearing, in fact, very 1912 hats; I think Ford must have got a local cavalry unit to act as extras). This scene thus establishes itself as a basic Western-movie trope. Frank Ford himself used it in his contemporaneous production, The Invaders, Griffith used it in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch the following year, and so on ad infinitum.
In 1868, we are told, Congress granted the Indians “a vast territory” (the fact that it was tiny compared with that which they had inhabited previously is not mentioned) but, the screen text goes on, the effect of this was only to fill them “with pride and insolence”. You see, it’s a very 1912 document.
Then we have the advance of the railroad – for “the westward flow of civilization cannot be dammed”. A warrior, Rain-in-the-Face (uncredited actor) kills two equally uncredited surveyors (apparently with one arrow) to show his valor, and we see him boasting of the deed at the Standing Rock Indian Agency, where he is overheard by James McLaughlin (J Barney Sherry), Indian Agent. McLaughlin reports it to Custer. In fact McLaughlin was not appointed to Standing Rock until 1881, years after Custer's death, but we don't hold historical inaccuracy against Western movies. They aren't supposed to be documentaries.
Now we see Custer entrust his brother Tom (uncredited actor) with the duty of arresting Rain-in-the-Face. Mrs. Custer, Libby, looks on. This is Grace Cunard (left, from a cigarette card), Ford’s lover and partner, looking, it must be said if truth be told (for it should be told) a tad portly at this point. But then I should first cast the beam out of mine own eye, that I might clearly see the mote in my sister’s eye, if I might be permitted to paraphrase Matthew 7.
The portrayal of Sitting Bull (William Eagle Shirt – Ford did at least use Sioux as actors) is particularly offensive to present-day viewers. He is described as “cowardly but crafty” and is the villain of the piece. He presides over the battle (he did not, of course) “at a safe distance”. The Indians (who do a sun dance meant to resemble the later ghost dance) do not inhabit the Little Big Horn country or live or hunt in it; they “lurk” there.
There’s quite a bit of exposition of military strategy and tactics, more than modern Custer films would be permitted, with generals Terry moving from the east, Gibbon from the west and Crook from the south.
Francis Ford was an artist who taught his brother much, and there are some fine shots of Reno crossing the river to attack the Indian village, and crossing back under fire.
Crazy Horse and the Cheyenne fall on Custer’s right flank. The last stand takes place on a quite Montana-ish low hilltop, and Custer (with long-barreled Colts) is, natch, the last to fall. Good old Rain-in-the-Face is present to cut out Tom Custer’s heart in revenge for his earlier arrest.
There is a fair bit of post-last stand action. General Crook discovers Custer's body and melodramatically weeps. Buffalo Bill appears (he was, we are told, “General Crook’s chief scout”) but tragically the mustachioed actor is uncredited (probably from The Last Frontier footage). We are treated to the ghost dance in 1890 and the death of Sitting Bull. Then the 54 minute-picture ends with a view of a battlefield monument and an American flag waving. The End.
Do not, prithee, look to this movie as a true and factual portrayal of Custer’s last fight. But as a quality early silent Western and as an example of Frank Ford’s important work, it is essential viewing and I recommend it, dear e-pards, to your attention.