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The disastrous 1876 defeat of George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn has held fascination for American filmmakers for almost as long as there has been American cinema, with the first attempt to retell the story dating back to 1909. The tale has been told many times since, with varying degrees of success. Columbia's Cinemascope entry The Great Sioux Massacre (1965) may not be particularly long on either craftsmanship or historical accuracy, but it's a reasonably entertaining oater on its own merits.
The narrative opens at the Court of Inquiry that was convened to address the conduct of the 7th's second-in-command, Major Marcus Reno (Joseph Cotten), at Little Big Horn. Testifying on his behalf is Captain Frederick Benton (Darren McGavin), who regales the tribunal with the seeding of the disaster, starting with his assignment to the 7th. Benton's arrival at the Dakota outpost stokes old resentments within Reno, an ex-Confederate and embittered lush still fighting the Civil War. The men have another reason for sharing a checkered history; Reno's pretty daughter Caroline (Julie Sommars), whose long-standing and mutual romantic interest in Benton has been compromised by the old man's prejudices.
Benton reports to Colonel Custer (Philip Carey), who presently leads his officers to a confrontation with Sitting Bull (Michael Pate), Crazy Horse (Iron Eyes Cody) and other Sioux leaders over the abduction of an Indian agent's family. Although surrounded, Custer promises that the chieftains will not themselves survive the confrontation, and leverages the release of the hostages. Custer, however, has no taste for the abuses of power that he has seen on the part of Indian agents, and his willingness to make public comment to that effect lands him a summons to Washington. Before leaving, he makes his preference known that Benton receive command of the outpost. Custer's subsequent censure by Congress leads him to go AWOL rather than return to his duties.
Custer's superior, General Terry (Frank Ferguson), offers the post and a raise in rank to Benton over a humiliated Reno. Rather than see the heartbreak and abuse that would follow Caroline, Benton prepares to resign his commission and let Reno have the command; the humbled major resolves to honor Benton's leadership and abandon the bottle. In the meantime, Custer, while languishing in his Ohio homestead, is met by a senator (Don Haggerty) bearing a Faustian pact. The politico sees a viable presidential run for the veteran Indian fighter; and in exchange for the restoration of Custer's commission, the colonel would be required to be both vigorous and visible in the suppression of Native rights.
Custer returns to his command a changed man, putting his own self-aggrandizement above all else. Learning of Sitting Bull's convening of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho at the Little Big Horn, Custer hastens off to beat Terry to the confrontation, and once there, splinters off two battalions headed by Reno and Benton. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Great Sioux Massacre plays out in workmanlike fashion at the hands of longtime Columbia "B" director Sidney Salkow, who'd actually previously told the story from the other perspective with the United Artists-distributed indie Sitting Bull (1954). In that film, Cody had also been cast as Crazy Horse; and, as here, received credit as a technical consultant on both projects. Not long before his death in 1999, Cody, ubiquitous in big- and small-screen westerns and still remembered for the powerful environmental public service commercials of the '70s where he shed a single tear over man's spoliation of the planet, was revealed to actually be a second-generation Italian-American. Still, the man born Espera DaCorti, married a Native American woman, adopted Native American children, and spent his adult life working in the furtherance of Native American causes.
The story by Salkow and Marvin Gluck (who are also responsible for the screenplay, although the screen credit fancifully goes to "Fred C. Dobbs") very much plays fast and loose with historical fact. The self-demanded 1879 proceeding that resulted in Reno's acquittal has been called into controversy over the years since, with rumors of witness coercion. Reno's problems with alcohol were genuine, however, and they did ultimately contribute to his discharge in an unrelated proceeding the following year.
Moreover, the relationship between "Benton" (doctored for reasons unknown from the historically-correct "Benteen") and Reno's daughter was a complete fiction. For the record, Reno never had a daughter, and Benteen (who was also Reno's age) was with his wife from 1862 until his death thirty-six years later. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, as they say.
Carey, whose film career never quite rose above a B-movie status, and whose legacy may be his long, late-in-life stint on the daytime soap One Life to Live, delivered serviceable work as a robust, virile Custer. The character's arc through The Great Sioux Massacre from an officer who discharged his duties with prudence and a measure of compassion to a martinet transformed by political opportunism might not have been the most credible of shifts. Such was more the fault of the script than of Carey's efforts.
Producer: Leon Fromkess
Director: Sidney Salkow
Screenplay: Marvin A. Gluck (as Fred C. Dobbs, screenplay); Sidney Salkow, Marvin Gluck (story)
Cinematography: Irving Lippman
Art Direction: Frank P. Sylos
Music: Emil Newman
Film Editing: William Austin
Cast: Joseph Cotten (Major Reno), Darren McGavin (Captain Benton), Philip Carey (Colonel Custer), Julie Sommars (Caroline Reno), Nancy Kovack (Libbie Custer), Michael Pate (Sitting Bull), John Matthews (Dakota), Don Haggerty (Senator Blaine), Frank Ferguson (Gen. Alfred Howe Terry), Stacy Harris (Mr. Turner), Iron Eyes Cody (Crazy Horse), House Peters Jr. (Reporter), John Napier (Tom Custer).
by Jay S. Steinberg