The theme of They Died with Their Boots On is that glory is of greater value than money. And George Armstrong 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 for anyone in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries (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 as a reason for going to war.
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 on account of his superior qualities as a cavalry officer. By making his promotion to general be just a lucky break instead, the movie is telling us that chance is the only difference between us and a man like Custer. That way we will like him better.
Lately, people have begun to object to statues of Confederate generals and to army bases named after same, calling such men traitors. But this was hardly the attitude when this movie was made. Because the Confederacy lost and was eventually reunited with the North, for a long time Confederate soldiers and the civilian population that supported them were regarded as basically good Americans, a magnanimous gesture on the part of the North, made for the sake of unity. In The Birth of a Nation (1915), that unity of North and South was their “Aryan birthright,” illustrated when Yankee veterans protect southern white women from being raped by a mob of recently freed black men. In Gone With the Wind (1939), the southerners are first portrayed as noble, but later as tragic victims of war. Confederate soldiers are almost always portrayed as honorable, as in The Red Badge of Courage (1951), when a rebel sentry on one side of a river warns a Yankee on the other side to move back into the shadows so he won’t have to shoot him. And Confederate veterans are likewise favorably depicted, as in The Searchers (1956). We might have expected the South to portray itself in this flattering light, but it is interesting that there are no movies from this period of comparable status that show the war from the point of view of the North. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Abe Lincoln of Illinois (1940) honor the president who presided over the Civil War and ended slavery, but both movies stop before we get to the war itself.
In the spirit of unity and reconciliation then, They Died with Their Boots On 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 this makes sense when we recall that the theme of this movie is glory. I have never seen a movie in which killing Confederate soldiers is represented as something glorious, comparable, say, to killing the Redcoats during the American Revolution or killing the Nazis during World War II. And so, while we do see movies in which Confederate soldiers are killed, there is always a sense of the futility of their cause, of the tragedy that such a war had to be fought at all. It would have been unthinkable in this movie to have Custer and his men gloriously slaughtering Confederate soldiers. And so it is that just as the Lincoln movies stopped before the beginning of the Civil War, so too does this movie stop before Custer and his men reach the point of killing Confederate soldiers. His glory during those charges must be inferred. But that’s all right, because later in the movie, when war breaks out with the Indians, we get to see lots of killing 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,” which they all sing, except for that one fellow in the back who was reportedly singing “Mr. Custer.” 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.
And it is also in keeping with another simplistic opposition, which is that Custer is good and Sharp is evil. After Custer’s death, his wife Libby (Olivia de Havilland) presents a letter to General Sheridan, written by Custer in anticipation of his death in the coming battle against Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). Libby sums up the most important part of the letter as follows: “The administration must make good its promise to Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). The Indians must be protected in their right to exist in their country.” How fine and noble must Custer have been to express such sentiments about the Indian chief and his tribe who would soon kill him and his men!
To this, Sheridan assures her that Custer’s final wish will be realized: “I have authority to answer that from the administration, the president himself. Come, my dear. Your soldier won his last fight after all.” Certain detractors would have us believe that Sheridan said that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, but this movie informs us that he cared as much about Native Americans as Custer did.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the battle, 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 7th Cavalry 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.
But Custer did not go to all this trouble so that we could imagine him and his regiment singing a song. As he stated at the beginning of the movie, it is the physical manifestation of glory in the form of a statue that he cared about. And for a while, it seemed that he got what he wanted. But there is now a petition to remove the equestrian statue of Custer in Monroe, Michigan, on the grounds that he and his 7th Cavalry were responsible for the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans. Sic transit gloria mundi.