Custer on Film

Hollywood has attempted to tell the Custer story…in no fewer than 25 films, and dozens of portrayals in television programs.  In the eyes of the movie industry, Custer must be portrayed as either a hero or villain.  Custer’s death at Little Big Horn is such a considerable part of the American story, his true character has been lost in competing cultural and political debates about the plight of American Indians.  With little concern for accuracy, filmmakers have used these two-dimensional images of Custer to help shape cultural opinions.  Here are the best (and worst) portrayals of Custer on film:

Character assassination (TCM)

5. Richard Mulligan, Little Big Man- 1970:  The worst portrayal of Custer in cinematic history.  The first of the big-budget revisionist westerns, Arthur Penn’s film shows all soldiers as villains and Indians as noble freedom fighters.  Mulligan’s Custer is the epitome of American wickedness; racist, homicidal, inept – the actor smirks and mugs his way through what amounts to a libelous piece of character assassination.

4. Robert Shaw, Custer of the West- 1967:  The typically reliable Shaw is badly miscast in a poorly made movie.  The lanky red-head from history appears as a pudgy blonde in faux buckskin.  The battle scenes bear almost no resemblance to historical accounts and Shaw’s Custer looks like a bad Halloween costume.

Flynn in buckskin (TCM)

3. Errol Flynn, They Died with Their Boots On- 1941:  Flynn is a dashing yet rowdy Custer in full heroic form.  The film is not historically accurate, but like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, many envision this film as “the way it should have been.”  The film is ridiculed today for being culturally insensitive because of the negative portrayal of Crazy Horse(Anthony Quinn) and other Indians.

Fictional but accurate (TCM)

2. Henry Fonda, Fort Apache- 1948:  JohnFord’s film is loosely based on Custer and Little Big Horn.  Fonda’s Owen Thursday is a stern disciplinarian whose ambition becomes his downfall.  This common interpretation of Custer’s character is captured perfectly by Fonda’s dour performance.  Custer’s Last Stand is replaced with Thursday’s Charge, but the rich detail and fair depiction of the Indian wars makes this film a classic.

Photocred- IMDB

1. Gary Cole, Son of the Morning Star- 1991:  Cole seemed an unlikely choice, but he brilliantly rises to the occasion.  He gives a performance that captures all the facets of the complex man.  Loving husband, rowdy older brother, stern commander, ambitious soldier, curious frontiersman- Cole’s Custer is all these in an epic mini-series worthy of its topic.  Like Evan Connell’s definitive book, the film gives a balanced account of Custer and his career on the frontier.

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