Tag Archives: Custer

Little Big Man

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 3, 2014

Little Big Man—Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Richard Mulligan, Aimee Eccles, Jeff Corey, Martin Balsam (1970; Dir:  Arthur Penn)


“I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers.  My name is Jack Crabb.  And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand.”

This is one of the two most prominent revisionist westerns of the early 1970s, together with McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  Both were made by directors who did not otherwise direct many westerns, and both were concerned more with the “revisionist” than the “western.”  Both were inundated in the social currents of their time and using the western format to express them.

Based on a 1964 novel by Thomas Berger, this is one of those westerns that uses its main character as a ping-pong ball to bounce around the west of the post-Civil War era meeting actual famous characters from history and fictional characters meant to be picaresque (as with some of the works of Larry McMurtry, for example, or Forrest Gump).  Even the actual historical characters in this have a lot of the fictional about them.


Dustin Hoffman (age 33) as young Jack Crabb, and in heavy makeup as Old Jack Crabb.

As the movie starts, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), 121 years old and in heavy makeup, reminisces about a period of his life as a young man when he alternated between living among the Cheyennes and white men.  The entire movie is a flashback to that period of his youth.  On the whole, the movie tends to be more successful in its depiction of the Cheyennes than when it deals with white men, who are usually shown as venal, hypocritical, dishonest or crazy.

As a boy, Jack is taken by Cheyennes and raised by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), whom he addresses as Grandfather.  The most successful single aspect of the movie is its depiction of the Cheyennes, who refer to themselves as the Human Beings, and their culture.  They are not quite as authentic-seeming as, say, the Lakota Sioux in Dances With Wolves, but the portrayal is engaging.  Jack makes friends, but some enemies, and he becomes a warrior despite extraordinary ineptitude and receives the name Little Big Man.


Crabb is taken for a Cheyenne on the battlefield, understandably enough.

After a battle with white soldiers, he is taken back to white society, where he is adopted by the Pendrakes, an outwardly religious couple in which the wife (Faye Dunaway) seems obsessed with sex.  Jack refers to this as his “religious period,” and he meets his real sister Caroline, a Calamity-Jane type, who teaches him to shoot a gun, whereupon he enters his “gunfighter period” and meets Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey).  Jack seemingly has the skill but not the temperament for gunfighting.  He’s never good at any kind of fighting.

Jack takes a Swedish wife Olga and starts a dry goods store with a partner who turns out to be a thieving scoundrel.  Responding to impromptu advice from Gen. George Custer (Richard Milligan), they head west, only to have their stagecoach attacked by Cheyennes.  Olga is abducted, and Jack goes to the Cheyennes in search of her.  Captured by whites again, he becomes a muleskinner for Custer until Custer’s attack on the Cheyennes, where Custer and his men indiscriminately kill women and children.  Jack discovers a young Cheyenne widow Sunshine (Aimee Eccles) giving birth, and she becomes his wife, along with her three widowed sisters.

Old Lodge Skins has become blind, but he still has prophetic dreams and powers that enable him and Jack to survive another Custer massacre, this time on the Washita.  Sunshine, her child, and her sisters are all killed.  Jack makes his way to Custer’s camp, intending to kill him, but he loses his nerve and becomes instead the town drunk in Deadwood.  Wild Bill Hickok gives him money to clean up but is himself killed.  Jack finds Mrs. Pendrake working as a prostitute.  “Well, Jack.  Now you know.  This is a house of ill fame.  And I’m a fallen flower.  This life is not only wicked and sinful.  It isn’t even any fun.”

LittleBigGunfighter Crabb in his gunfighter phase.

After a period as a hermit and trapper, Jack spots Custer’s cavalry on the move and joins them as a scout.  Custer figures he can believe the opposite of what Jack tells him as they head for the Little Bighorn.

Jack Crabb::  “General, you go down there.”

General Custer:  “You’re advising me to go into the coulee?”

Jack Crabb:  “Yes sir.”

General Custer:  “There are no Indians there, I suppose. 

Jack Crabb:  “I didn’t say that.  There are thousands of Indians down there.  And when they get done with you, there won’t be nothing left but a greasy spot.  This ain’t the Washita River, General, and them ain’t helpless women and children waiting for you.  They’re Cheyenne braves, and Sioux.  You go down there, General, if you’ve got the nerve.”

General Custer:  “Still trying to outsmart me, aren’t you, muleskinner?  You want me to think that you don’t want me to go down there, but the subtle truth is you really *don’t* want me to go down there!”


With Custer at the Last Stand.  Note the large back pad on Richard Mulligan as Custer.  He’s about to get a couple of arrows in the back.

Jack is standing next to the demented Custer during the last stand and is saved by a Cheyenne friend-enemy.  Back at the Cheyenne camp, Jack accompanies Old Lodge Skins to a mountain top, where the old man intends to die. 

[Old Lodge Skins, who has laid himself down to die, wakes up as it starts to rain.]

Old Lodge Skins [opening his eyes]:  “Am I still in this world?”

Jack Crabb:  “Yes, Grandfather.”

Old Lodge Skins:   [groans] “I was afraid of that.  Well, sometimes the magic works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.”

They return to dinner.  And Jack dismisses the oral historian with whom he has been sharing all this, to be left alone with his memories.

This has been a long synopsis, but it’s a long movie at 139 minutes, with a lot of back-and-forth between Indians and whites for Jack.  Dustin Hoffman is good as Jack Crabb, and his old-man makeup for the framing story was innovative for its time.  The best performances in this film are by Chief Dan George (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and Aimee Eccles as Sunshine.  (Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield and Lawrence Olivier had turned down the Old Lodge Skins role, according to reports.)  Chief Dan George was even more excellent as the Cherokee Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Aimee Eccles was cast as Bert Lancaster’s young Apache wife in Ulzana’s Raid, although she hardly appears on screen.  While this movie’s depiction of the Cheyennes is not entirely authentic, it is entertaining and more real than movies had tended to be previously.


Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins and Aimee Eccles as Sunshine.

Its treatment of Custer and the flow of events generally is much more cavalier.  Washita (1868) and Little Bighorn (1876) appear to be only months apart.  In fact, they were eight years apart.  The lunatic Custer on the battlefield is intended to be satiric, not accurate.  The anti-military feeling is pure 1970s, although it is surprisingly similar to Dances With Wolves more than twenty years later.  How much you enjoy this movie will depend on how you feel about the 1970s as a film era generally. 

This and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are generally seen as the high points of Arthur Penn’s directing career.  Little Big Man‘s revisionism was not universally well-received on its release.  Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained that the film “wears its social concerns so blatantly that they look like war paint.”  Pauline Kael, who had championed the violent Bonnie and Clyde, thought that Little Big Man was a “hip epic” and “just crude, ideological filmmaking.”  However, it was generally a critical and box-office success in 1970.  More than 40 years later there seems to be a little creaking in the Vietnam-era joints.

In the novel, the old Indian dies at the end.  Penn deliberately decided against playing it that way.  “We thought long and hard about this and in the first draft of the script he does die, but this death would have introduced an element of sadness into the film and we didn’t want this.  The film would have become dramatic, even melodramatic, instead of being picaresque.  I also wanted to show that not only were the Indians going to be destroyed, but they were also condemned to live.  On the whole, audiences like their entertainment dramatically compact and homogenous, but I want the opposite.  A film should remain free and open, not with everything defined and resolved.”

LittleBigAuthentic The real Little Big Man, Oglala Sioux.

Historical Note:  The real Little Big Man was not a Cheyenne or a white man, but an Oglala Sioux, related to Crazy Horse and involved in his death at Fort Robinson in 1877.

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7th Cavalry

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 20, 2014

Seventh Cavalry—Randolph Scott, Barbara Hale, Jay C. Flippen, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey, Jr., Michael Pate (1956; Dir:  Joseph E. Lewis)


The producer on the credits is Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott’s partner in Ranown, the production company that produced most of Budd Beotticher’s westerns with Randolph Scott.  And this appears to be a Scott-Brown production.

It’s not as good as the best Boetticher stuff.  This cavalry movie stars Scott as Captain Tom Benson, first seen approaching Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory with his fiancée Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale) to find nobody there.  The 7th Cavalry, which had been based there, has now been mostly destroyed by the Sioux-Cheyenne allies at the Little Bighorn, and the few survivors straggle in as Benson watches.  The survivors and others blame Benson for cowardice, not realizing or not believing that Custer ordered him to go get his bride.  That includes her father, General Kellogg, who never liked Benson anyway and is at Fort Lincoln conducting hearings on what happened.


Benson (Randolph Scott) and fiancee (Barbara Hale) are distressed to find nobody holding the fort

Benson, a former gambler and faro dealer, was close friends with Custer and resists versions of the events that would impute bad judgment to Custer.  With his military career and his marriage in question now, Benson leads a detail of prisoners from the guardhouse on a mission to retrieve the bodies of the officers.  It’s dangerous because the Sioux hold the ground and now believe it to hold big medicine for them.  Benson has fights on his hands with a couple of his men, and insubordination from others.

They make it to the battlefield site and begin to collect remains.  The Sioux appear and make it clear that they do not intend for Custer’s remains to be taken, and they surround the small detail.  Cpl. Morrison (Harry Carey, Jr.) rides into Fort Lincoln and talks to Martha, telling her he was standing beside Custer when he ordered Benson to retrieve her instead of going to Little Bighorn.  He then rides out after Benson’s detail, riding Custer’s second horse, Dandy.


Almost to the battlefield, Morrison is shot off his horse by an Indian.  Riderless, Dandy makes his way to Benson’s beleaguered body collection detail.  The bugler sounds charge, and Dandy charges in.  The Sioux recognize Custer’s horse and take that as a sign that the detail is to be allowed to depart.  Apparently Morrison’s news about Custer’s order has changed Gen. Kellogg’s view of Benson, and everything is fine now back at the fort.

This takes the old school view of Custer as a gallant soldier.  Within ten or fifteen years, the revisionist view of Custer as a foolhardy glory hound would be more common, fueled in part by disillusionment with the Vietnam-era military.  Randolph Scott is fine, with excellent military bearing, although he seems a bit old for Barbara Hale, since he was nearing 60.  She is also fine, although there is nothing remarkable in her part.  The movie is short, at around 75 minutes, which doesn’t give enough time to answer all the questions that arise in the course of the story.  Based on a short story by Glendon Swarthout.  In color.


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They Died With Their Boots On

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 26, 2013

They Died With Their Boots On—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy, Sidney Greenstreet, Anthony Quinn, John Litel, George Grapewin, Hattie McDaniel, Jim Thorpe (1941; Dir: Raoul Walsh)


From the heyday of the Flynn-de Havilland partnership comes this old-fashioned, adulatory and not-very-factual biopic of George Armstrong Custer, depicting both his Civil War service and his demise at the Little Bighorn.  In fact, it was their eighth film in seven years and their last film together.  Errol Flynn in a mullet is Custer; De Havilland is his wife Libby.  This was clearly a big budget production for its time, and it has a longer-than-average running time, too—140 minutes.  Flynn and De Havilland are watchable, but the plot neither makes much sense nor does it follow history very well. 


Plebe Custer doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp at West Point.

The first half of the movie shows Custer at West Point, doing badly, making it into the Union army during the Civil War as a cavalry commander, wooing and marrying his wife Elizabeth Bacon, developing a headlong and heedless attacking style and then becoming an Indian fighter after the war.  In the later portion of his career, it shows him fighting on behalf of the Indians against those dishonest whites who would sell them alcohol, not slaughtering them in search of further military acclaim.  And, of course, in the end he dies with his entire Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.


Taking a final leave of Libby before heading for the Little Bighorn.  And Custer still doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp.

The historical Custer was a relentless glory hound without much scruple.  This film captures his headstrong quality but makes him out to be much more admirable and somewhat smarter than he actually was.  Flynn was always watchable at this stage of his career, and de Havilland makes an admirable Libby.  A young Arthur Kennedy is Ned Sharp, an unscrupulous Civil War nemesis of Custer and a later an unscrupulous sutler whom Custer tricks into dying with the Seventh Cavalry.  A young Anthony Quinn is Crazy Horse, who was never captured by Custer as this movie depicts.  The plot points about Custer cleaning up Fort Lincoln and fighting a corrupt Indian agent-supply system are fiction.  Here Custer fights supposedly fictional reports of gold in the Black Hills; actually, Custer led the expedition that first found gold there, and he abetted the influx of whites to the area instead of resisting it.  The movie omits the massacre of peaceful Cheyennes that Custer carried out on the Washita.

DiedBootsLastStand2 At his last stand.

DiedBootsRealCusters The real Custers.

Worth watching for Flynn and de Havilland, and to get a sense of how Custer used to be seen 70 years ago after his widow had spent the 50 years after his death publicly tending the flame of his heroic memory.  (The real Libby died in 1933.)  The action is good.  Well made for its time.  Hattie McDaniel is what she usually was, a mammy-type domestic to young Libby—a stereotype that doesn’t play so well now.  George Grapewin is California Joe, a crusty and colorful civilian scout for Custer.  Sidney Greenstreet is Gen. Winfield Scott, who initially advances Custer’s career (although it seems unlikely the two ever really met and the elderly Scott played no active role in the Civil War).  An aging Jim Thorpe was said to have been an uncredited extra on this movie, and he claimed to have decked a belligerent (and typically drunk) Flynn.  Custer was as bad a student at West Point as this movie depicts, however.  The depiction of Indians is fairly sympathetic for 1941.  In colorful black and white.  Music by Max Steiner.

DiedBoots2StarsWalsh Walsh with his stars.

Raoul Walsh was a main-line director from 1913 into the 1960s, today remembered more for gangster movies (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat) than for westerns, although he made a number of those, too.  This one goes with his The Big Trail (1931, starring John Wayne in his first leading role) and Colorado Territory (1949, a remake of his High Sierra in an older western setting with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo) as eminently watchable examples of his work in westerns.  One of his earliest films was a quasi-documentary The Life of General Villa (1912 and 1914, both now lost), starring Villa himself.  Walsh, who did some directing with Christy Cabanne, had a bit part playing Villa as a young man, although his career as an actor was largely over by 1915.  The Villa film was made when Walsh was only 19 and Villa was still regularly in the U.S. news in a positive way, two years before his attack on Columbus, New Mexico, provoked a punitive (and largely futile) expedition under Gen. Pershing.  The film has apparently been lost, and its making became the subject of a 2003 HBO film And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.

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