Custer of the West (1968)
Director: Robert Siodmak.
Starring: Robert Shaw (Gen. George Armstrong Custer), Mary Ure (Elizabeth Custer), Jeffrey Hunter (Captain Benteen), Robert Ryan (Mulligan), Ty Hardin (Major Marcus Reno), Charles Stalnaker (Lt. Howells), Robert Hall (Sgt. Buckley), Lawrence Tierney (Gen. Philip Sheridan). .
Shot in Spain, this movie is a General Custer biography with the general pushing the Cheyenne into resistance (even though Custer in no way had the power himself to push the Sioux and Cheyenne to the breaking point -- he was just supposed to find them so they then could be defeated by the gathering cavalry forces in the area).
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
1863. Custer leads his cavalry in a charge on a Confederate position. He loses quite a few men but does win a victory.
1865. Custer goes in to speak with Philip H. Sheridan, Commanding General, Army of the Potomac. He wants a posting to a place where the action is. The most exciting posts are those out West fighting the Indians. Custer could become a living legend or end up getting himself killed. And: "Dead men make better legends." So Custer will go West.
Custer's wife Elizabeth (nickname Libby) comes down to the dock to welcome her Autie home. He says he was in some 60 cavalry charges. Libby tells him that they built a statue of him outside the courthouse. He tells Libby that he is heading for Dakota Territory and Libby's going with him.
They head upstream on a paddle boat. They have a great time being together in their room.
Custer is riding with his men. The Indians have placed two miners up front in a wagon and tied them in place. Now they push the wagon down the dirt road toward Custer. One of Custer's officers, Capt. Benteen, tells Custer that the Indians are sending him a message with this little stunt of theirs. The message is: "Keep the settlers out of Indian territory or they'll handle things themselves." Libby is with Custer and she rides up front as they watch the wagon heading down the path. One miner gets out of his ropes. He falls down backwards but grabs the tongue of the wagon and steers it according to the instructions given to him from his partner still tied to the wagon. The wagon goes so fast that there's not enough time for steering and soon the wagon goes over the side of the hill and flips it's way down to the bottom of the hill.
Custer gives the order to prepare to fire. Benteen says the Indians were well within their rights. Custer gives the order to fire. The men fire toward the Indians, but they are too far away to be hit.
Custer rides to the fort, where a Major Reno greets him. Custer inspects the troops at the fort. After that's over, Custer has a little talk with Benteen in his headquarter's office. Major Reno will also attend the talk. Custer makes sure that they know he's in charge. He tells Reno that if he ever finds him drunk on duty, he will be put out of the army. Neither of the officers like Custer.
The first full day for Custer starts badly. Half the troops report to sick duty. Custer asks the surgeon if there's a connection between the sickness of the troops and his orders to move out against the Cheyenne? So Custer is going to make them run all over the fort with full packs and rifles. It's a hot, sunny day and the men feel the heat. Some of the men collapse. A couple fall off the parapet walk. Much later there are only two soldiers standing up and running and one of them is Custer. The other man is Sgt. Buckley. The sarge actually outlasts Custer, so Custer has to dismiss him. Sarge never dropped.
Lt. Howells charges his men and horses at a small group of Cheyenne. But the lieutenant soon finds that the small group is just an enticement to draw in the soldiers. The Cheyenne kill two of the cavalry soldiers as they ride directly through their ranks. Howells decides there are too many of them to fight.
Now Custer goes after the Cheyenne and he brings a cannon with him. Custer splits the column and says he will go up the hard way. They reach the desert and many of his officers and NCOs advise against going farther. But Custer pushes on saying they can't let the Indians get away with this. The heavy cannon slows them down so Custer has the men break the cannon into parts to drag on sleds.
The men start getting very thirsty. One soldiers goes a bit crazy and shoots one of the water barrels so he can drink the water. They stop him, so he runs away. He doesn't get too far before he falls of exhaustion. Custer rides over to speak with him. He convinces the man to come back. The man follows Custer.
The Indians set up an ambush but they start firing when the cavalry is not quite in the range of the rifles. Custer has the cannon brought up and the cannon blasts scare the Cheyenne. Quite a number of Cheyenne are killed. The rest of them have to surrender to Custer. The chief scales the rock face, but it's tough going and soon the cavalry are close enough to kill him with a rifle shot. Sgt. Buckley shoots the Cheyenne brave next to the chief. Down and down falls the man's body hitting the rocks as he goes. Sgt. Buckley fires another warning shot and then is given the okay to knock the man down. But the rifle goes click this time. It's out of bullets. By the time Buckley gets another rifle, the chief is safely on the top of the mountain. A large bird flies off the mountain and one of the sergeants tells Custer that the Cheyenne think their chief turned into a bird. So Custer has the bird shot down.
Custer parades his troops through the center of the Indian encampment.
In town there is a huge celebration of the victory of the cavalry over the Cheyenne. The Cheyenne, however, now attack the townspeople and town with flaming arrows. The Cheyenne come right into the center of town. Many town residents are killed before the Cheyenne leave. There is also a lot of fire damage to the town.
The next day Custer and his men ride through the town with dead bodies all over the streets.
Gen. Sheridan comes down to personally harangue Custer, Benteen and Reno about the absolute and immediate need for the destruction of the Cheyenne's capability to carry out such destructive raids. He says: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Benteen doesn't look happy so Sheridan tells him to speak up. Benteen says they have no right to murder Indians. Sheridan says: "Another bleeding heart." Libby sets out coffee and Custer and Sheridan stay to drink it. Sheridan now orders Custer to get him a substantial victory over the Cheyenne because he promised the politicians in Washington that the cavalry will give them that victory.
Custer warns the general that there are 4,000 Cheyenne in the villages of the Washita and the cavalry is only 400 soldiers strong. But it's got to be done.
Custer and his men attack a small Indian village and have an easy victory. A cynical Custer will send the following message to Sheridan: "Despite overwhelming odds, a great victory was won here today. Factors contributing to our success were: One, the Indians were asleep. Two, the women and children offered little resistance. Three, the Indians are bewildered by our change of policy."
The chief of the Cheyenne returns to the village to find it destroyed with many dead bodies scattered around the area.
When Custer gets back to the fort he learns that there has been a gold strike on the reservation. There are hundreds of miners and "riff-raff" at the fort and they are threatening to riot because they have been detained at the fort and they want that gold out there.
And now the chief of the Cheyenne comes to speak with Custer. Custer makes a long winded talk explaining his very limited power and his duty to follow orders. "You are a militarily defeated people. You are paying the price for being backward." He adds that there is nothing he can do to change any of this. The chief says he understands and simply leaves.
The miners are getting too rowdy. Custer sends Reno out to try and calm them down. Reno has to put a number of the really outspoken miners into the guardhouse. But the miners are still restless. Custer comes out on the porch and is greeted with a lot of boos. A soldier rushes up to him to say that Mulligan's 2nd Platoon has deserted to go after gold. Custer gives the order to get the miners out of here! All they have to do is open the gates and the miners and "riff-raff" all start running to go back into Cheyenne territory. Benteen is mad about this. Now Custer sends Benteen out to bring back Mulligan.
Miners are out panning for gold. One of the miners is none other than Mulligan. Mulligan tries to bribe Benteen to let him go for a small fortune in gold. Benteen isn't interested. Mulligan socks Benteen and grabs his pistol. The problem for Mulligan is that seven soldiers have the drop on him. So Mulligan returns the pistol to Benteen.
Custer comes to see Mulligan. Mulligan claims he has new evidence bearing on his case. He starts talking about his love for strawberries. Custer tells him to get to the point. Now Mulligan starts insulting Custer. He's got no new evidence. Custer leaves.
At daybreak Mulligan is executed by a firing squad.
Sheridan pays another visit to Custer and his wife. But this time he comes with His Imperial Highness, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia who speaks French to Libby. Libby gives him a tour of her place. Sheridan talks with Custer. The general says the first thing the man said to him was; "I want to meet Custer, the Indian fighter." Custer is obviously bothered by his having to fight and kill an enemy that has been so badly treated by the Americans. He wants to write to the politicians to ask them to go easier on the Indians and sent out more soldiers to patrol both the Indians and the miners and hustlers. Sheridan repeats himself:: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."
And the fighting continues. The cavalry is protecting wood cutters. The Cheyenne sneak up on them and soldiers start falling from arrows shot into them. The sergeant. gets away by grabbing onto a log and floating down the water canal the timber men constructed. The sergeant rides the log all the way to its exit into the river. He swims to one of the river banks. He hears the sound of a railroad and runs toward it. An Indian spots the running sergeant and hits him in the back with an arrow.
The Indians have cut lumber down to lay on the track to force the train to stop. They have set up an ambush. When the train crashes the Indians start firing into the cars. One of the railway workers uncouples the cars from the coal car and the cars start heading backwards. That gets them away from the Indians, but the cars go so fast that there is a real danger of derailment. Another danger is that the railway bridge has been set afire and the middle has been burned out. The railway car runs out of track and plunges into the the ravine below.
Custer gets a message ordering him from his command and suspending him from active duty. He has to report to Washington, D.C. within 30 days to appear before a U.S. Congressional Committee investigating conditions in the Indian territories. Major Reno will now be in charge, but Custer warns him that when this political thing is over he will be back with a vengeance if Reno has substantially changed things at the fort.
In Washington, D.C. Custer tells the congressmen and senators: "There is no Indian problem. There is only a White problem." And the real source of the problems is corruption. Furthermore, Custer says he is going to tell the names of the people in high places who are responsible for the corruption.
Benteen and Reno read the news. Because of the stir caused by Custer's remarks, Secretary of War Belknap is impeached. Belknap has already resigned. Custer accused President Grant's brother Orville of accepting a $1,000 dollar bribe. Major Reno says that Custer will be side-lined now for sure. He's very happy about it.
Custer talks with Libby. She tells him frankly that Sheridan doesn't want to see him. Libby wants them to go back to Michigan.
Libby wants to get her husband's command back. An inventor shows Libby and Custer what looks like a tank on rails with two Gatling guns. The inventor says that there will be no horses used in the army in the future. This infuriates Custer and he says he will not sponsor this new invention. So Libby has to break a confidence. She says: "It was Sheridan's idea. He came to me and said: 'Have George sponsor the train. He'll get the credit for it and that will give me an excuse to bring him back.'" Custer says if this is the future, he doesn't want any part of it and walks away.
Custer and Libby attend a little play put on for the officers of the army. There is a skit put on complete with a musical number showing Custer rescuing Libby from the hostile Indians. The skit pokes fun at Custer's heroic legend, but it's not really that negative and in some way could be thought humorous. They were just poking fun at the hero. But Custer and Libby regard this as a direct insult. Custer sends Libby home and stays for Sheridan's party.
Custer doesn't drink, but tonight he is making an exception. He orders a whiskey at the bar. In fact, he drinks until he's a bit tipsy. Sheridan drinks with two colleagues. Custer comes over to speak with the general. He complains that Sheridan has not spoken to him for the six months he has been in Washington, D.C. Sheridan tells him there will be no serious talk now. He will see Custer tomorrow. That's not acceptable to Custer and he complains some more. Sheridan defends himself by saying Custer's sounding off against the politicians made it impossible for him to give Custer a command in the Indian conflict. Furthermore, President Grant hates Custer's guts for naming Orville and now Sheridan can't budge the president. Custer starts insulting Sheridan saying he's not a soldier but a two-bit politician. Sheridan fires back by calling Custer a mere glory hunter. This remark sobers up Custer a bit. He looks dejected, so Sheridan says they all are a little drunk tonight, so they're going to forget any of this happened. Custer leaves.
Back home he dictates a letter to the president. Libby takes it down. He says that because of Grant's intervention in army affairs he is now a condemned man without benefit of trial by jury. But Libby didn't actually take down his words. She wrote a very polite letter to the president asking, as one soldier to another, to save Custer the humiliation of not being able to be there when his regiment fights the Indians.
Custer is back in command. Benteen and Reno welcome him back. Custer immediately starts talking about the plans for the next offensive. He says they will rendezvous at the Little Bighorn, June 26, 1876. Benteen says the Indians are joining together. There are the Cheyenne, Sioux, Oglala and the Miniconjou. Custer says they will break the Indian resistance at Little Bighorn. He adds: "This may be our last chance to fight, Major."
Custer kisses Libby goodbye. And out they go looking for the Indians. He has his unit gallop out of the fort.
Custer is pushing his men very hard. Reno tells Benteen that Custer wants to win the war all by himself. Custer rides over saying that they will split into three columns when they reach the river.
Major Reno's column runs into a Sioux war party of about 300-400 braves. Reno sets up a defensive perimeter. He then rides over to talk with Benteen.
Custer tells Lt. Hallows to stay behind. Custer will be going forward with a scout. He does go forward, but runs into a massive array of Indians ready to fight. Custer and the scout ride up to the chief. Custer knows this chief for he was the main one who fought against Custer around the Washita area. Custer gives another little lecture to the chief saying that all this is all over. Men will be replaced by steel. No horses will be needed. The chief doesn't really know to what Custer is referring. The chief says: "For the last time, then." The Indians all shoot off their rifles into the air in unison.
Custer starts riding back to his column. But Hallows has already decided to rush his troops to help Custer. The Indians now rush forward and start the attack. Custer arrives at his unit. But now he sees the entire horizon filled with hostile Indians. He must have known from this that this will be the toughest battle he has ever had to fight. He rushes to the high ground. He tells Hallows to take a message to Reno and Benteen. "I want their men up here quick." He now forms a perimeter.
Hallows never makes it. He and the men with him are all killed by the Indians.
Reno tells Benteen that Custer probably found those Indians he was so anxious to get at. Reno is not going anywhere, but Benteen takes his men forward. They try to reach Custer, but they run into an ambush and have to fight it out by the river. The Indians form a circle around Custer and his men. The battle begins. One after another the soldiers are being killed. Soon Custer is surrounded by his dead soldiers. The only man left with Custer is his Indian scout. The scout is hit with an arrow through his neck. Now Custer is all alone. All the fighting has been stopped. Custer reloads his pistol.
The chief tells Custer just to go. Custer refuses and shouts out a big yell. All the Indians rush him. Then they leave the entire area. The Chief is the last one to leave the area. Only one horse remains alive on he battlefield.
I enjoyed the film which is favorable to Custer on a few points and critical of him at the Little Big Horn. The criticisms of Custer in the battle are exaggerated and many times just plain wrong. You can read my objections to the myth of Custer at the Little Big Horn at They Died With Their Boots On (1941) -- Custer, 1876. Some historical figures are chosen to have their lives turned into myth. Such is the case with outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Their myths made them appear much more positive than they were. And other historical figures are made to look worse than they are. That is the case with Custer. Many Americans feel guilty about what happened to the native Americans and there is a lot of truth in Vine Deloria Jr.'s book title: "Custer Died for Your Sins." Hating Custer somehow makes white people feel better. So they prefer the myth.
Personally, I don't like myths. I find the truth to be so much richer and more interesting and informative.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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