What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on not my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called The Arthur Kennedy Conquest of the Screen Blog-A-Thon being hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Obviously, It’s all about the great stage and film actor known for his versatility in supporting film roles. Kennedy won a Tony, a Golden globe, and five Academy Award nominations during his career, and if you aren’t familiar with his work, this blog-a-thon promises to change that!
In order to enjoy this movie, you have to appreciate it for what it is. “They Died With Their Boots On” is the 8th and final film featuring Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. That fact alone seems apparent to them in their shared scenes in this movie; that fact alone makes this movie worth the price of admission. As for the movie itself, it is a tale of George Armstrong Custer from his arrival at West Point in 1857 to his death at the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
As this film was released in 1941 with America on the verge of being drawn into the Second World War, it is anything but historically accurate. Rather, it would kind to say this film is highly fictionalized.
This is the second straight installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies to be centered on an epic U.S. military defeat. In the previous episode, it was about the fall of the Phillippine Islands in 1941. In this case, the pivotal event comes in the form of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Despite the narrative laid out by this film, the slaughter suffered by the U.S. 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn falls almost squarely on the shoulders of Custer. The eve of a world war isn’t the time to illustrate the sheer boobery of an American legend.
In many ways, George Armstrong Custer is a larger-than-life character who has been overly-romanticized largely to cover up the fact that as a military officer, he was largely incompetent. If it weren’t for the Civil War and it’s resultant need for officers to lead the soldiers of the Union’s burgeoning army, it’s quite possible Custer never gets commissioned. He ran afoul of Army leadership from his first day at West Point by showing up in a cartoonish uniform that he had designed himself. Things don’t get any better from there; Custer continues to earn a reputation as a troublemaker by being a notorious prankster and having general disregard for authority. As such, when the Civil War breaks out, Custer is graduated early, albeit at the bottom of his class.
In reality, Custer graduated from West Point largely because he caught the eye of the academy’s commander General Phillip Sheridan, who would become a major figure in the American cavalry’s role in the Indian campaigns following the Civil War. In the film, it is also at West Point where Custer (played by Errol Flynn) makes an enemy of Ned Sharp (played by Arthur Kennedy) and meets his future wife, Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon (played by Olivia DeHavilland).
The character of Ned Sharp doesn’t exist in reality, but at first it isn’t hard to see why as the academy’s senior cadet, his hackles are easily raised by the irascible Custer. It’s also Custer’s backbone is what catches Sheridan’s attention. That becomes important later in the film.
Once they are graduated, Custer and other members of his class are ordered to report to Washington, D.C. for assignment. In the first fortunate break for Custer, he befriends General Winfield Scott (played by Sydney Greenstreet), who gets Custer assigned to the 2nd U.S. 2nd Cavalry. This sets the stage for Custer becoming a war hero in a most unconventional way; he holds a strategically important bridge for the Union largely because he disobeys an order. During this battle, Custer is wounded in combat, and while he is recovering ring in a hospital, he is awarded a medal. This leads to a miscommunication from the Department of War in which Custer is mistakenly to the rank of Brigadier General. He then assumes command of the Michigan Brigade, to which he leads to several victories, not the least of which comes at Gettysburg.
Once the Confederacy surrenders at Appomattox, Custer returns to Michigan as a hero and marries Libbie in a lavish affair including a regimental honor guard. The problem comes as now that the war is over, peacetime proves boring for the swash-buckling Custer. As such, Libbie visits Custer’s old friend General Scott and asks him to assign Custer to a regiment again. Scott agrees, and Custer is assigned to a cavalry unit in the Dakota Territory as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Upon his arrival at his new command at Fort Lincoln, Custer finds two things to his dismay. He sees the soldiers of his unit to be a drunken and undisciplined lot in need of firm leadership. On top of that, his West Point enemy Ned Sharp is there, and he has a government-granted license to run the fort’s trading post and saloon.
As a result, Custer instills proper military discipline in his men, and closes the saloon. Custer then discovers that Sharp is selling rifles to the Indians, an act to which he puts an immediate halt. Naturally, this rekindles the animus between Custer and Sharp. The constant skirmishing between Custer’s cavalry and the Lakota tribe comes to end when their leader Crazy Horse (played by Anthony Quinn) discovers the 7th Cavalry is becoming an effective fighting force. Coupled with having his supply of rifles cut off, Crazy Horse offers peace in return for a treaty that would protect their sacred Black Hills.
While the treaty is signed by both Custer and the government, in no time at all it begins to bankrupt Sharp’s trading posts. Sharp then does two things intended to destroy Custer. Sharp spreads a rumor that large gold deposits have been discovered in the Black Hills; a move intended to unleash a flood of settlers into the area in violation of the treaty. When Custer stops the influx, Sharp gives Custer’s men all they can drink hours before they are to be reviewed by Commissioner Taipe, a politician who is in Sharp’s pocket.
Obviously, having drunk their fill of Sharp’s spirits, Custer’s cavalry shows to be a drunken, slovenly bunch. In a fit of rage, Custer belts both Sharp and Taipe; an act for which he is relieved of command (in reality, he would have been court-martialed and stripped of his commission). Custer then appeals on a soldier-to-soldier basis to President Ulysses S. Grant to have his command restored after Sharp’s plan results in active hostilities between the Indians and the cavalry. Grant agrees, which sets the stage for the final battle at Little Big Horn in which Custer’s men are annihilated and Custer himself is killed by a rifle shot fired by Crazy Horse.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
In the movie, the ending suggests Custer comes to realize that his men are marching into a valley where thousands of Indians are waiting. The movie lets you think a few corrupt politicians have goaded the western tribes into war for personal profit, threatening the survival of all white settlers in the Dakota Territories. The movie also lets you think Custer and his men have given their lives at the Battle of the Little Bighorn to delay the Indians’ advance and prevent this slaughter.
The reality is that Custer was an ambitious boob who believed that vanquishing the Indians would make him a war hero, and therefore a candidate for the White House in the same vein as it’s Ulysses S. Grant. To make a long story short, Custer was blinded by his ambitions to the point that his desire to crush the Indians led him to ignore his own scouts and second-in-command who kept trying to tell him he was riding into an ambush.
As I’ve said, while this movie is highly fictional, to see another classic example of ambition and stupidity colliding at full speed, trade the steppes of southeastern Montana for a Super Bowl in San Diego some 112 years later. Super Bowl XXII took place in January of 1988 and featured the Denver Broncos versus the Washington Redskins. The Broncos were playing in their second straight Super Bowl and they had Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway.
Meanwhile, the Redskins struggled throughout the play-offs and were down to using their back-up quarterback…who by the way had an emergency root canal the night before the game. Given all that, it was no wonder the Broncos entered the game as the favorite. After the first quarter of play, all seemed to be going according to expectations as the Broncos and General John Elway Custer had settled into a comfortable 10-0 lead.
Then came the ambush.
Led by quarterback Doug “Crazy Horse” Williams and running back Timmy “Sitting Bull” Smith, in the second quarter the Washington Redskins unleashed a torrent of 42 unanswered points. In that second quarter alone, Williams completed 9 of 11 passes for 228 yards and four touchdowns; Smith rushed five times for 122 yards and a touchdown. In total, that fifteen-minute period saw the Redskins set records for performance in one quarter in the Super Bowl; they scored 35 points while racking up 356 yards in total offense…and did all that damage in only 18 offensive plays.
At the end of the day, Washington’s annihilation of the the Denver Broncos was as complete as that laid on Custer’s cavalry. Moreover, they were both completely preventable, inasmuch as they both were a result of leadership seriously underestimating the will and the capabilities of their opponents.
The Moral of The Story:
Ambition and stupidity are a bad combination.
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I adore this movie. I am able to do so by pretending the leading character isn’t Custer, just as the movie’s creators pretended they were telling the story of Custer. We’re all walking around with rose-colored glasses. It’s easier that way.
You tell it like it is; ambition and stupidity shouldn’t have even a nodding acquaintance, let alone be combined in the same person. Pity those in the orbit of such a person.
I always thought Richard Mulligan’s portrayal of Custer in “Little Big Man,” while somewhat farcical, was a lot closer to the truth than Flynn’s.
Very interesting article as always! I haven’t seen this film yet as I’ve must admit I’ve never been to attract by it, but now that I’ve read your text I must! I also see it was directed by Raoul Walsh, and I rarely don’t enjoy his films. Thanks so much for your contribution to our blogathon!
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Haha! Ambition and stupidity is a bad cocktail; sadly, many innocent people suffer as a result.
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this film, and I’d forgotten how smug and self-satisfied Arthur Kennedy’s character is. Also, that was a good analogy you talked about re: Washington vs. Denver in that SuperBowl game.
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