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Film Review:
They Died with their Boots On,
Raoul Walsh, 1941

"To the devil with the orders! We'll ride to the sound of the guns!",
George Armstrong Custer


They Died with their Boots On, Raoul Walsh, 1941
Hattie McDaniel's servant brings welcome news to Errol Flynn's Custer that he will
be able to pursue his dashing career,as Libby (Olivia de Havilland) looks dotingly on.



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Film Review:
They Died with their Boots On,
Raoul Walsh, 1941

This is a very interesting film for a number of reasons, not least the overt racism of mainstream culture at this time. Given this was a major Hollywood movie it is not surprising that racism is still institutionalized today despite the inroads that have been made in breaking it down in the media at large. Hattie McDaniel plays Olivia de Havilland's servant as she did in Gone with the Wind, a 'Lawdy, Lawdy, Lansakes Missa Custa' role if ever there was one. However laudable this may be in terms of its historical accuracy, that justification does not stand up, because the rest of the film is virtual fantasy. The racism does not stop at Hattie McDaniel's stereotype, for the native Americans are also straight out of the Dime Novel.

Jon Danziger, in the Warner Home Video review of August 12, 2005, adroitly remarked, " 'based on a true story' is a filmmaker's license to make up absolutely everything, and Raoul Walsh and his crew go whole hog on this one". Custer was adept enough at self aggrandisement, it hardly needs Raoul Walsh to get in on the act.

As a film its 'all action' scenes carry it through and there are good performances from a number of actors including Errol Flynn as Custer and Olivia de Havilland as his wife Libby. Their relationship is touching, not least when they see each other for the last time prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the heart strings are pulled to breaking point. Excitement and romance is always a winning combination, there is something for everybody.

Some of the facts are there: Custer is vain, graduates from West Point bottom of his class, is an audacious lover of action and, despite being in the army, is willing to challenge authority. Is this bravery or a lack of touch with reality?" Perhaps that is what Custer and the script writers had in common. The script writers dreamt up a ridiculously convoluted plot where the gold discovery in the Black Hills in 1874 was an elaborate hoax put about by landgrabbers to cause a gold rush. Worse still Custer is glorified as a hero who gives up his life and that of his men in a noble act to save the rest of his regiment.

I expect poetic licence but this film stands up only as historical in as much as it clearly shows the attitudes and values of the 1940s, let alone the 1840s. Racism is something which I find difficult to get past, particularly since Howard Fast, for example, managed to write such a magnificent work in the same decade with no trace of it. It is a sad reflection on the Hollywood film companies, and was the precursor of the witch hunt of the fifties which would masquerade behind the alleged freedom and democracy provided by the American Constitution. It is astonishing to note that this film was fifteenth on the 1981 inflation adjusted chart of Westerns successful at the box office.




(The Crowded Prairie Michael Coyne,1997 Page 24)



The Custer Myth



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Chris Smallbone February 2009

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