Biopics always have the burden of familiarity going against them. If someone is famous or notorious enough to have a movie made about them, the story of their life is probably already pretty well known by the movie going public. So whether they’re famous for a great achievement, or maybe a tragic end, how does a movie hold an audience’s attention when they all know what’s coming? I know next to nothing about General Custer, but I do know the one thing that everyone knows, he bit the dust in a massively outnumbered battle against Chief Sitting Bull. So, how does They Died With Their Boots On hold up for over two hours when everyone knows what’s coming at the end?
It does it, by telling a much larger story. The worst recruit at West Point, the young George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) is almost drummed out of the academy for varied, but often harmless acts of insubordination. He has a natural flare for victory, but as one stuffy superior says, Custer is the kind of guy who wins brawls, not battles. But when the Civil War kicks off, the army needs all the men they can get. So Custer graduates and heads to war against the Grey Coats, where he proves himself as an effective leader of men and a great wartime tactician.
After the war, he settles down and marries Elizabeth Bacon (Olivia de Havilland). But Custer isn’t the settling down type. Without the thrill of war, he’s soon bored and drinking too much. Taking one for the team, Elizabeth gives up the easy life and arranges for Custer to receive a new posting. In the remote Dakota territories, Custer takes over a ragtag group of soldiers in Fort Abraham Lincoln, close to several large bands of Native American tribes.
By telling so much of Custer’s life story before the thought of Sitting Bull and the battle of Little Big Horn is even a possibility, They Died With Their Boots On did a great job of making me forget that I knew where the movie was headed. The first half was full of stories about the man that I had no idea about. Then, when the inevitable last stand did become the focus of the movie, I had become so invested in Errol Flynn’s version of George Armstrong Custer, that knowing the ending didn’t matter. Seeing it unfold did.
Also surprising for a movie from 1941 is its portrayal of the Native Americans. Sure, by today’s standards, it’s pretty cartoony and offensive, but I expected to be even more so. But it never makes Crazy Horse or his men the bad guys. Custer and Crazy Horse are both forced into a terrible situation and both have to make difficult decisions. Of course, that may have carried a little more weight if Crazy Horse and his tribe weren’t quite so cartoony and broad. But it was 1941, so I can look past some of that.