The theme of They Died with Their Boots On is that glory is of greater value than money. And George Custer (Errol Flynn) is all about glory. Right at the beginning of the movie, when he arrives at West Point, he announces that he wants to be a cavalryman in the army for the sake of glory, to leave behind a name the nation will honor, noting that there are more statues of soldiers than there are of civilians. We shrink from positing glory as a motive today (we prefer to say that soldiers fight for our rights and freedoms), but for any story set prior to the twentieth century, glory seems to be acceptable.
Custer makes this statement about glory to Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy), who will prove to be his nemesis. But at this stage of the movie, he appears to be just a prankster, playing a trick on Custer on account of the fancy uniform and entourage of dogs and a servant he brought with him, a trick Custer seems at this point to deserve. Eventually, Sharp will come to represent the evils of capitalism, which values money above all else. But this side of him must wait until after the Civil War.
Speaking of which, the Civil War breaks out while Custer is still a cadet. He is given his commission early and sent to Washington. And then he is made a general through a clerical error. Most Hollywood movies take liberties with history, and this one is no exception, there being so many it would be tedious to list them all. But this one deserves special comment. The reality is that he was made a general because there was a shortage of generals needed to command the ever increasing number of brigades, and Custer seemed to be suitable. By making his promotion to general be just a lucky break instead, the movie is telling us that luck is the only difference between us and a man like Custer. That way we will like him better.
Because the Confederacy lost and was eventually reunited with the North, we like to think of southerners as basically good Americans. To this end, the movie never lets us see a single Confederate soldier being killed, and only one wounded Yankee is seen after a battle. We see Custer leading a charge, and we expect to see what we usually do in such cases: men on horseback slashing and shooting the enemy soldiers as they break through the ranks of the opposing infantry. But the camera stops filming just as they approach the Confederate soldiers. Then another charge is led, and we think that this time we will get to see some bloodshed; but once again we are denied such a scene. And then a third charge is led, and we think, “All right, the first two charges were just a tease, but now we are going to see a complete battle.” Nope. But that’s all right, because later in the movie, when war breaks out with the Indians, we get to see lots of slaughter to make up for the bloodless presentation of the Civil War.
Just as Sharp kept turning up wherever Custer was during the war, as a thorn in Custer’s side, so too does Sharp seem to show up everywhere Custer is after the war, except after the war it is always about money. Sharp and his father approach Custer about having him lend his name to a corporation, so that they can all cash in on his renown, but Custer is insulted by the suggestion. Later, when Custer is assigned to the Territory of Dakota, he arrives to find Sharp selling guns to the Indians and liquor to the troops, who spend all day in the bar.
Custer closes down the bar and runs off the Indians. Then he decides to get the regiment in shape, to make them a fighting unit. To this end, he has them learn the song “Gary Owen.” I guess songs go more with glory than with money, which is why Sharp doesn’t have a song to go with his money-making schemes. In addition to the song, Custer tells his men that their regiment will be immortal, even should they die in battle. And later, he tells Sharp that unlike money, which you cannot take with you when you die, glory stays with you forever.
The Sioux Indians sign a peace treaty, giving them the Black Hills. But when Sharp and his associates want to get their hands on the land for development purposes, they start a rumor that there is gold in them thar hills, hoping to cause a gold rush that will overwhelm the Indians with settlers, who will then be supported by the government. Actually, it was Custer who started the gold rush by announcing that he had found gold in the Black Hills, but that would not be in keeping with the movie’s simplistic opposition, which is that Custer wants glory and Sharp wants money, and so the story about gold is attributed in the movie to Sharp instead.
Custer kidnaps Sharp and brings him along to the Little Bighorn. Custer figures they will all be killed in the coming fight, and by bringing Sharp along, he will bring about the demise of the one person in the movie in whom all the evil seems to be concentrated. Instead of running away, however, Sharp redeems himself in the battle, and dies telling Custer he was right about glory after all. And apparently he was too, because in the last scene of the movie, we see the images of Custer and his regiment riding to the tune of “Gary Owen,” thereby reassuring us that the regiment and its glory are immortal, whereas we do not get to see any final images of Ned Sharp engaged in his various profiteering schemes, stuffing money into his pockets as he puffs on a big cigar.