Far grittier than I expected for a portrayal of one of America’s greatest, if flawed, western heroes. Far darker, with a two-fisted take on the endemic corruption at the highest level that fuelled the Indian Wars. Revisionism with a punch. And bold enough to turn Cinerama tropes on their head.
We should deal with the last first because that reveals the extent of the bitterness that seeps through a biopic in which a soldier’s great skills are put to unwarranted use. You may recall that from its earliest days, Cinerama relied on thrills of a specific nature, one that like 3D put viewers in the driver’s seat, only to scare the pants off them. You were always racing towards danger, whether that be down the rapids in How the West Was Won (1962) or downhill along twisting roads in The Battle of the Bulge (1965). There always seemed a runaway train to hand. Whatever, it was just a thrill ride, occupants escaping unhurt.
Not so here. The men on the runaway wagon have been tied to it. It careens downhill all right, at one point from an upside down point-of-view, but it ends up over the cliff, no escape for the men. A soldier rides a log river to escape Native Americans. He manages that but is killed on dry land by an arrow all the same. A runaway train falls into a burning bridge. The normal thrills, then, with a realistic edge.
The reward for the great hero, Custer (Robert Shaw), gallant leader of sixty dashing cavalry charges during the Civil War, is a commission with the 7th Cavalry in the Dakotas on a mission described by General Sheridan (Lawrence Tierney) as “plain robbery,” the blatant theft of land from Native Americans.
That’s virtually the first scene, a brutal analysis on the American West, greedy land-guzzling settlers requiring protection, a soldier in obeying orders tacitly agreeing to wage an unholy crusade, not a justified war against slavery.
And Custer doesn’t inherit your John Ford cavalry unit, where every drunk has redeeming features, if only to provide some comedy. His second-in-command, Major Reno (Ty Hardin) is an alcoholic, nearly an entire battalion of malingerers on sick parade. Although later spouting chivalrous nonsense about hating machines, it’s the cannon Custer brings to bear on the enemy that provides initial victory, permitting the boast that 255 men conquered the Cheyenne nation. But, of course, such triumphalism proves premature, the Cheyenne and Sioux taking revenge on defenceless towns.
Custer is presented with ambivalence, but granted something of a free pass given his intolerance of alcohol, antipathy to the war and whistleblowing that points the finger at government officials and corrupt businessmen. On the other hand he is the chief marketeer of his own image, vainglorious, not least in his determination to win the Battle of the Little Big Horn on his own, arriving a day ahead of other assigned forces.
He is both ruthless and comforting. Instead of upbraiding a mutinous soldier for stealing water during a trip over the desert, he tells him to wait till sundown when his thirst will be quenched. But, despite repeated broken treaties, he lacks sympathy for Native American chief Dull Knife (Kieron Moore) for failing to comprehend that a superior power will always win. There’s a bit too much crammed into a relatively short running time. A Russian appears to point out that the United States is negotiating to buy Alaska. Railroads enter the equation and an early version of a tank. An anonymous prospector has gold teeth because he likes “the taste of gold.” Robert Ryan makes a cameo appearance as a deserter.
All that is redundant when the venality confronting Custer is dealt with in one brilliant scene when gold prospectors start digging up the fort in the hope of finding the precious mineral.
I’m no expert on the historical accuracy but by and large whether this portrayal of the life and times of General Custer is actually true it certainly rings true.
British actor Robert Shaw (Battle of the Bulge), with his mean shifty eyes and trademark tight-lipped side-of-the-mouth delivery, doesn’t quite bring enough shade to the characterisation, but possibly that’s the fault of the screenplay, which has cast him, outside of the final calamitous engagement, as even more heroic in the political arena than on the battlefield. As his wife, Mary Ure (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) appears only fitfully and has little to do. Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs, 1992) is excellent as the self-serving Sheridan. Just like the later Cinerama epic Krakatoa East of Java (1968) this suffers from lack of recognizable stars.
Director Robert Siodmak (The Crimson Pirate, 1952) creates a literate, revisionist, western that ensures intelligence is not swamped by action. Bernard Gordon (Krakatoa East of Java) and Julian Zimet (Circus World/The Magnificent Showman, 1964) are credited with the screenplay.
A worthy attempt to use a legend to explore the greater issues of the day.