This June marks the 125th anniversary of the destruction of George Armstrong Custer’s command, an event well remembered cinematicaliy. Custer’s film debut came in 1912 with Custer’s Last fight , directed by Thomas H. Ince and inspired largely by the famous Anheuser-Busch lithograph that graced thousands of beer halls across the nation. Since then, the general has made his last stand at least three dozen times, and that doesn’t even count such thinly disguised retellings as John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), with Henry Fonda as the martinet Colonel Thursday, who leads his regiment into the fatal valley.
As late as 1941 (in Raoul Walsh’s rousing They Died With Their Boots On ), it was still possible to view the general (who was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the Little Bighorn fight) as a hero, though Walsh could show Errol Flynn’s Custer as heroic only by constructing an entirely ludicrous scenario: Neither Custer nor Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn) wanted war; they were driven to it by unscrupulous bureaucrats like Arthur Kennedy, who lured whites onto Indian land and then sold them repeating rifles to resist. (There is some historical validity in that point of view; what is false is the depiction of Custer as the enemy of Arthur Kennedy.)
Custer has always been a handy symbol for novelists and filmmakers with an agenda, but never more so than in Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man, made at the height of the Vietnam War. Thomas Berger’s novel didn’t take sides; you could see how the forces of American aggression that Custer represents had run amuck, but you could also see why, in the context of his time and place, he was seen as heroic by whites and perhaps by not a few Indians as well. Penn’s film doesn’t aim at balance; Custer’s “victory” at the Washita is made to look like a reprise of the My Lai Massacre, and the Little Bighorn is a symbol of America’s eventual fate in Southeast Asia (Richard Mulligan’s Custer has a mental breakdown in the middle of the fight and starts babbling from Custer’s own books on life on the plains; by the way, Mulligan played Custer again, briefly, in the 1984 film Teachers , in which he appears as an escaped mental patient who dresses up as historical characters for a high school history class).
For a balanced account of white and Indian attitudes and motives, watch for a replay of Mike Robe’s two-part 1991 made-for-TV film Son of the Morning Star , which is not so much based on Evan S. Connell’s bestseller as it draws its primary information from it. The film stars Gary Cole as Custer and Rodney A. Grant (of Dances With Wolves ) as Crazy Horse and offers the only credible account on film of the events leading up to the battle—and, for that matter, the battle itself.