They Died With Their Boots On
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One of the most ambiguous figures in American history, George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) has been represented on screen by such diverse actors as Ronald Reagan (Santa Fe Trail, 1940), Robert Shaw (Custer of the West, 1967) and Richard Mulligan (Little Big Man, 1970). While often depicted in history books as a gifted but vain martinet who was partly responsible for the massacre of his own Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn, a more romanticized portrait of Custer emerges in They Died With Their Boots On (1941) starring Errol Flynn in one of his most famous roles.
Though riddled with historic inaccuracies - Custer did not drink and he was never out of the army for any length of time - They Died With Their Boots On is significant for other reasons. It was the last teaming of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland who had made eight films together including Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Ironically, de Havilland was not the first choice for the role of Mrs. Custer. It was first offered to her sister, Joan Fontaine, who turned it down. They Died With Their Boots On was also one of the last big-budget Westerns produced by Warner Brothers, who like other major studios, began to turn out more inexpensive Western programmers during the forties.
Filmed approximately forty miles north of Los Angeles in a wide valley that resembled the plains of Nebraska and the Dakotas, the film had its share of production misfortunes. Three men were killed during the filming. One fell from a horse and broke his neck. Another stuntman had a heart attack. The third, actor Jack Budlong, insisted on using a real saber to lead a cavalry charge under artillery fire. When an explosive charge sent him flying off his horse, he landed on his sword, impaling himself.
No stranger to freak accidents himself, director Raoul Walsh had lost an eye in a car accident while shooting In Old Arizona in 1929. But his dilemma during the filming of They Died With Their Boots On was of a different nature. He couldn't find enough real Sioux Indians to play the parts of the attacking savages (only sixteen showed up at the casting call) and was forced to use hundreds of Filipino extras and Caucasians dressed as Sioux warriors in the background. The extra expense incurred by the more than 1,000 extras was one of the reasons the film's budget soared over $2 million dollars, a huge sum at the time.
When Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner screened the completed film, he said, "This is one of Flynn's best. If Custer really died like that history should applaud him." This was a rare compliment coming from Warner who could be devastating in his film critiques and was known to have clashed with Flynn countless times during the latter's contract days at the studio.
Director: Raoul Walsh
Producer: Hal B. Wallis (executive), Robert Fellows
Screenplay: Wally Kline, Aeneas MacKenzie
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Editor: William Holmes
Art Direction: John Hughes
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Errol Flynn (Custer), Olivia de Havilland (Elizabeth Bacon), Arthur Kennedy (Ned Sharp), Charley Grapewin (California Joe), Gene Lockhart (Samuel Bacon), Anthony Quinn (Crazy Horse).
BW-140m. Close captioning.
by Jeff Stafford