Thursday, September 22, 2016

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941)

This almost completely fictionalized version of the life of General George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) begins with his dandyish entrance as a cadet at West Point. At first he's mistaken for a visiting French officer, then he is made the butt of pranks by Ned Sharp (George Kennedy). Despite a number of infractions on his record, the cocky Custer graduates, meets cute with a general's niece, Libby (Olivia de Havilland), and thanks to some help from that General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet), winds up with a commission in the Army and fights at Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. Custer has a tendency to ignore orders, but he manages to come off heroically on the battlefield. After the war, he marries Libby but winds up bored with civilian life so Libby gets Scott to put him back in the Army and he is given command of Fort Lincoln in the Dakotas. There, he runs into Ned Sharp, operator of a trading post and a saloon at which the soldiers spend a little too much time. The men are whipped into shape, the saloon is closed, and Sharp connives with his father to pull off a plan to tarnish Custer's image. This leads to the threat of an Indian war and the infamous climax in which Custer's men are slaughtered by the Lakota at Little Big Horn, though here Custer is presented as deliberately sacrificing his life (and his men) to save another Army company. Though I know very little about Custer, this film is clearly best approached as a rousing Errol Flynn adventure movie rather than as a history lesson. As such, it works quite well. Flynn is in top form—especially in his early scenes as the na├»ve cadet—he's handsome and charming, but also smart and conflicted. De Havilland doesn't get a lot to do, but she too cuts a good looking figure. Kennedy is very good as a man who shifts from good guy to bad guy and back again. Standouts in the big supporting cast include Hattie McDaniel, Gene Lockhart, John Litel and Charley Grapewin. I was pleased to see the uncredited John Ridgely and Gig Young in bit parts. Director Raoul Walsh keeps the plot clear and the action exciting. [TCM]

No comments: