Wikipedia lists over 30 movies about General Custer. Almost all of them indicate a clear emphasis on his death at Little Big Horn. How many other iconic deaths in the history of the world could hope to score anything near that number of Hollywood films? A quick survey on the Internet revealed that there are roughly the same number of movies on the life and death of Christ. After that, I was hard put to come up with many candidates. Caesar, Cleopatra, Abraham Lincoln, and Ned Kelly all had high-profile deaths but could not claim the numbers of Custer and Christ.
Santa Fe Trail (1940)
Ronald Reagan plays Custer as a fool for love in this black-and-white movie. Errol Flynn is his comrade in arms, who gets the girl, and the prime position in the story. The core of the movie is concerned with the anti-slavery campaign of the mad John Brown (Raymond Massey). Flynn, in the role of Jeb Stuart, is dispatched to Harpers Ferry to spearhead the capture and hanging of the rabid abolitionist. Quite out of keeping with the rest of this lightweight material, Brown is given an inspired speech on the gallows about his dashed hopes for avoiding a civil war in the nation he loves. Custer looks on but has little to contribute. His deployment to the Dakotas, and his last stand at the Little Bighorn, must wait for another movie and another actor. This film concludes with the wedding of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Ronald Reagan was destined for a brighter future outside of the movies.
They Died With Their Boots On (1941)
It can only be guessed that this movie was made to rectify deficiencies in the tandem movie of the previous year. Ronald Reagan is gone and Errol Flynn is now in the role of Custer. Olivia de Havilland continues to sustain love interest. Flynn will see Custer’s biography through to its ignominious end in 1876. Anthony Quinn has a small part as the warrior chief Crazy Horse who, in this version, gets to shoot Custer through the heart. Note that the death is downplayed in the trailer. Most of the remaining movies show Custer being shot down by random Indian arrows.
Sitting Bull (1954) / The Great Sioux Massacre (1965)
These two movies can be found in the filmography of prolific director Sidney Salkow. The 1954 entry goes to some length to give Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse equal screen time as they unite the forces of the Sioux Nation to oppose the United States Cavalry. In this highly fictionalized treatment of the battle of the Little Big Horn, Custer is displaced (but not removed) by an invented character that is very much like Custer (Dale Robertson). The movie clip below is significant for its placing of the Indian point of view foremost, and showing Custer’s stand-in as he decides not to intervene on an Indian raid of a wagon train. Sitting Bull is played by J. Carrol Naish and Crazy Horse is played by “faux Indian,” Iron Eyes Cody.
In his second film, Salkow made liberal use of footage left over from Sitting Bull. This version, however, put the spotlight on the ups and downs of General Custer’s career. It was not altogether kind.
Custer of the West (1967)
A Vietnam-era approach is adopted by this film, balancing the complexities on each side of the battle lines. No satisfactory trailer available.
Little Big Man (1970)
A pivotal movie in this listing. See Revisionist Westerns.
Son of the Morning Star / Custer’s Last Stand (1991)
Son of the Morning Star (also called Custer’s Last Stand) was a TV miniseries that brought a postmodern perspective to the matter of General Custer’s death. He is sympathetically portrayed, warts and all.
Into the West (2005) – Miniseries
Into the West (2005), featured in the previous post, offers a more elaborate context for the battle at the Little Bighorn. See Movies of the Great Plains.
Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee: The Aftermath
Incident at Oglala (1992) – Documentary
Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) – HBO
Smoke Signals (1998)
Edge of America (2003)
Mounds & Plains Related Posts:
- Movies of the Great Plains
- Final Battles on the American Plains: Custer
- Revisionist Westerns
- Buffalo Bill & the Movies