Custer In Hollywood

By Josh Flores

George A. CusterCuster in buckskins

General George Armstrong Custer, 7th Cavalry

One of the most fascinating events in American history is the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Custer's Last Stand, or Indian Victory Day, depending on the point of view. The battle became the subject of over forty movies, hundreds of books, and countless paintings. Why did this incident become so ingrained into the American psyche? Initially, it represented the dramatic destruction of the famed Civil War hero and Indian fighter, George Armstrong Custer. America has always been drawn to those individuals who are gallant in the face of overwhelming odds and certain defeat. Such proved the case with Custer or so it was depicted by the nineteenth century press, which was not particularly concerned with the difficult pursuit of factual information on a distant frontier.

As the decades passed, however, and historians developed greater objectivity, the events surrounding Little Bighorn were scrutinized from different perspectives. Increasingly, the battle is viewed from the accounts of the Indians who defeated the Seventh Cavalry that summer day in Montana. In the past, the recollections and accounts of those Indians, who were the only survivors of the battle were ignored, if not distorted, by a biased press. Even more unfortunately, a biased historical establishment, which should have most vigorously examined, analyzed, and presented all of the facts, dismissed Indian accounts as unreliable.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place on June 25, 1876 in southern Montana when the forces of Custer, numbering between six and seven hundred, met Indian forces under direction of Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanka), the chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux. In an unusual move, just before the confrontation all of the tribes, mostly Sioux and Cheyenne, chose Sitting Bull as their joint leader. Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko), the famous war leader of the Oglala Sioux was also present and played an important role in the battle. The total number of Indians located in the valley of the Little Big Horn has been estimated between ten and fifteen thousand, but the number of warriors is usually estimated around two thousand. A few estimates place the number of warriors as high as three or four thousand. The fact is that no one really knows the exact number of Indian warriors who were present that hot summer day one hundred and twenty-three years ago. Indeed, every source gives somewhat different information regarding the numbers. What is certain is that Indian warriors significantly and overwhelmingly outnumbered Custer's few hundred.

Battle of the Little Big Horn

Controversy, or perhaps mystery, concerning events of the battle still exist today and it is not relegated to numbers. In part, this reflects the fact that there were no white survivors. Much of what was initially reported to the U.S. government and to the press was by men who only witnessed the aftermath of the battle. Obviously, much of the information gathered was based upon speculation and supposition. Moreover, some historians, such as noted western scholar Robert Utley, believe that valuable information was lost through poor translation derived from evidence provided by Indian witnesses and participants. Finally, there has always been and forever will be controversy over whether or not Custer disobeyed orders from his commanding officer, General Alfred Terry.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood has had a long love affair with George Custer and the Little Bighorn. In fact, the only people who have loved Custer more than Custer loved himself have been the producers and directors of Hollywood. The first portrayal appeared in 1909 in Custer's Last Stand. Only three years later, the high-budgeted Custer's Last Fight was filmed at the then staggering price of thirty thousand dollars. Reportedly, this film used some of the original participants as cast members. It is still available, most easily found over the Internet through the multitude of Custer and Little Bighorn sites that exist.

From 1912 on countless retellings of the story of Custer and his demise drew filmgoers. Most lacked any strong reliance on historical facts. One of these films, They Died With Their Boots On, starred Errol Flynn as George Custer and remains for many the popular image of the doomed General. The film is mostly fiction. The climactic battle scene shows an embattled Custer with the flag of the Seventh Cavalry flying in the background until he is the last soldier killed. This is most certainly not the way it happened. Such films gave rise to the myth of a "Last Stand" that never actually took place.

In fact, the fighting at the Little Bighorn did not end with the death of Custer and his men. The fighting continued between the Indians and the remaining soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry long after Custer had been killed. Yet, once a legend catches the popular imagination it is sometimes impossible to erase even with the facts.

Little Big Man, based upon a popular novel by Thomas Berger and released in 1971 with Dustin Hoffman playing the lead role of Jack Crabb, did offer some insight into the history between Custer and the Plains Indians. In this film Custer's charge into a Southern Cheyenne Camp on the Washita River in 1868 plays an important role. Liberties are taken with the incident, but the Washita Campaign did garner Custer recognition as an Indian Fighter. Moreover, after his glory days as the youngest General in the Civil War and the anti-climax of peace, the Washita campaign once again thrust him into the national spotlight, which he seemed to crave incessantly. In Little Big Man Richard Mulligan's performance as Custer is perhaps the most memorable of all screen portrayals. This is not to say it portrays the real Custer because the performance is clearly over the top; however, Custer was known to be brash, abrasive, and as reckless with himself as he was with his men, so some basis of reality exists in Mulligan's performance. Make no mistake about it, however, Little Big Man is Jack Crabb's and Dustin Hoffman's movie. It is not a truly accurate depiction of the events of Custer's life or career nor is it intended to serve in that fashion.

There is much more to the man, both in courage and in self-indulgence, than can be presented in the panoramic Little Big Man. Robert Utley, in Cavalier in Buckskin states that the deliberate outrageousness of Mulligan's Custer was to serve as a "metaphor for American barbarism in the Indian wars and for identical American barbarism in Vietnam." Thus, it is important to remember the politically sensitive times in which this Little Big Man was released, times which may be reflected Mulligan's larger than life performance.

To understand Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn it is necessary to understand United States-Indian relations between the years of 1868 when the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed and 1876 when the Seventh Cavalry rode to doom. For eight years, constant tension, running battles, broken pledges, all created the necessity of a final confrontation and a final disaster. There are multitudes of facts, figures, and controversies that fascinate the serious student, but often cloud the history of the battle for those who simply want to understand the background of Little Bighorn. In terms of Hollywood, the film establishment has failed to realistically examine the Little Bighorn. Surely, discrepancies exist in numbers and in various historical interpretations, nevertheless, the basic historical evidence is available for presentation and provides gripping story telling in any media.

One movie does, in fact, accomplish this task and does a credible job of presenting the events of Custer's western military career, that is his campaigns against the Indians and his ultimate defeat. The film is Son of the Morning Star, starring Gary Cole as the reckless, but charismatic leader.

Made for television in 1991, Son of the Morning Star is based on Evan Connel's book of the same title. Regarding the evidence and rationale of the battle, the film does a good job of exploring the highlights of Custer's personality and the historical background of the battle. At the same time, it examines the intricacies of the relationship between Custer and his superiors as well as between Custer and the Plains Indians. For example, the historical controversy over whether or not Custer disobeyed orders in 1876 is presented cleverly, but in an unbiased fashion which gives neither side of the argument an unfair advantage.

In fact, the way this controversy is presented makes clear the dilemma on this issue that has persisted for years, showing how vague the orders may have been. One of the pleasures of the film is that such a presentation engages the viewer's interest and demands some judgment of a historical nature. Although the film retains its impartiality, it unobtrusively forces the audience to a mental debate.

Son of the Morning Star also deals responsibly with Custer's tactical decisions as he prepared to attack the Indian Village at the Little Bighorn. For several days preceding the battle, Custer's Indian scouts had been insisting that the village they were tracking was too large, contained too many warriors, and that Custer was marching everyone in the Seventh Cavalry towards certain death. Custer either dismissed their claims or trusted so strongly in the Seventh Cavalry's ability in combat that overwhelming numbers of the enemy were of no concern.

Custer was also notorious for pushing his men to the limits of endurance and beyond. His trip into Montana proved no different. As the battle loomed, the men were profoundly weary from an all night march insisted on by Custer when he realized belatedly the Indians were aware of his presence. In the movie, the reactions of the men to the forced march and other subsequent decisions by their commander match what is known from those members of the Seventh Cavalry who actually returned from Montana.

It is important to note that not all of Custer's men died at Little Bighorn, which is a common misperception. In this respect, Son of the Morning Star provides a sound interpretation of the battle. In particular, it serves well those who are just beginning their study of Little Bighorn. Before the battle, Custer divided his force of six to seven hundred men into three companies with Major Marcus Reno leading one, Captain Frederick Benteen in charge of the other, while Custer commanded the remaining soldiers. Major Reno was ordered to attack the southern end of the Indian camp, while Benteen was sent to scout further south for other small villages or to block escaping Indians. This order by Custer virtually took Benteen out of the fray and prevented him from being any help when the cavalry forces conducted their very short offensive. It also illustrates the fact that Custer still knew very little of the size and make-up of the village he was pursuing.

Hunkpapa Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull

Tatanka Iyotanka: Sitting Bull

As the battle began and Reno's forces attacked, Custer turned north apparently seeking to confuse the enemy by attacking from two different directions. This had worked for him at the Battle of Washita in 1868, but Little Bighorn would be different. From the accounts of the survivors, Reno had been promised prior to his move against the Indian village that he would have the full and immediate support of Custer's battalion. The reasoning for this change in strategy by Custer remains a mystery. The result was that Reno's command was overwhelmed and forced to retreat. Benteen's command eventually joined Reno's defensive position, but the combined forces were constantly under heavy attack and unable to aid Custer. Consequently, Custer engaged the Indian warriors with roughly only one-third of an already undersized army.

It is impossible to say for certain what Custer's actions were after he turned his battalion north, there is only conjecture. Two days later, reinforcements under General Terry arrived at the Little Bighorn and discovered the bodies of Custer and approximately two hundred and sixty men. The corpses for the most part were stripped naked and many were badly mutilated. The desecration of the remains has been mostly attributed to the Indian women who may have viewed it as retribution for past U.S. Army transgressions.

The condition of Custer's body became the subject of conflicting reports. Some say that he was virtually untouched except for wounds to the left breast and left temple. Other sources indicate that there was some mutilation. Information is seemingly endless, with little uniformity as to the exactness of facts. Such is history.

The result of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, besides the fact that Custer became an enduring but mystifying legend, was the end of the Indian way of life. Following the battle, the nation cried out for retribution and it came in the form of an increased and harsher military campaign against the Indians. After Little Bighorn there would be no compromise. The abject surrender of the Indians would be a national demand. Within a year of the battle, the legendary Crazy Horse was dead and his people were on a reservation. Sitting Bull briefly eluded the army by crossing into Canada, but eventually he too was forced to comply with government regulations. For their greatest victory against the whites the Indians, who fought to remain free of reservations and retain what they had been promised, paid the ultimate price. For the Indians the Battle of the Little Bighorn proved to be a pyrrhic victory. While reservations might preserve to some degree the native Indian cultures, they would confine that culture, like an eagle trapped in a cage, to the white man's notion of space and value.

Recommended Reading:

Welch, James and Paul Stekler. Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Utley, Robert M. Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1970.

Ambrose, Stephen E. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. New York: Doubleday, 1975.

Fox, Richard A. Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.