Tuesday, May 10, 2016


I know I learned about "Custer's Last Stand" in school but danged if I can remember what I really learned about this pivotal event in the history of the American west. That it happened on June 25th, 1876. That the Little Big Horn is a river in what was at the time the Montana Territory. That Custer's 7th Calvary were vastly outnumbered by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and hundreds of Indian warriors. That Custer and his men were wiped out. That's about it.

Nathaniel Philbrick, one of America's preeminent writers of popular history, goes much deeper into this epic battle in his book THE LAST STAND: CUSTER, SITTING BULL, AND THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN (2010). I finished reading this masterful narrative last night. It's the third Philbrick book I've read in the last year, the other two being SEA OF GLORY and MAYFLOWER and I'm here to tell you that all three are excellent.

Philbrick goes into granular detail in LAST STAND as he gives us portraits of Custer, Sitting Bull and all of the other major players that took part in that doomed campaign in the summer of 1876. While Philbrick draws heavily on a multitude of sources, he never gets bogged down in telling this extremely compelling tale. Even though we know the final outcome, it's fascinating to see how Custer, through a series of tactical errors and his own over-sized ego, led his men to their deaths and into myth. The battle scenes ring sharp and true and contain a real sense of the madness, chaos and horror of close, armed combat. It's not for the squeamish.

Philbrick takes no sides here. He paints a balanced portrait of both the American military and the various native Indian tribes and their chiefs and warriors. The clash of cultures was unavoidable and while many thought it would signal the end of the Indians, it instead rang down the curtain on the age of the Indian fighter and relentless westward expansion. There are no real heroes or villains in this tragic story only deeply flawed human beings capable of acts of magnificent heroism and unspeakable savagery.

Philbrick touches briefly on the aftermath of the battle and the enshrinement of Custer as a great American hero, an image that was greatly embellished in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, a 1941 Warner Brothers epic starring Errol Flynn as Custer and Olivia de Havilland as his faithful wife Libbie. It's horrendously inaccurate from a historical viewpoint but Raoul Walsh's film is nonetheless a rousing, flag-waving ode to Custer as a colossus of the west. I recall seeing the film years ago at the long since defunct Dobie Theater, back when they used to regularly screen classic films. I loved it then but I haven't seen it since and I'd love to revisit it now having read Philbrick's book.

Custer's Last Stand was also depicted in Arthur Penn's revisionist western LITTLE BIG MAN (1970), but it was only part of a larger narrative tapestry of American history. Believe it or not, there was actually a short-lived Custer television series in the '60s. THE LEGEND OF CUSTER, starring Wayne Maunder, ran 17 episodes on ABC-TV from September to December, 1967. The series seemed doomed from the beginning. After all, how do you generate any suspense for the lead character when everyone knows his eventual fate? If it had come later, it might have worked better as a mini-series rather than a weekly, episodic television show. But the show did produce a comic book spin off. THE LEGEND OF CUSTER #1 (and only) (my personal copy pictured below) was published by Dell Comics in January 1968, shortly after the show was canceled. I guess anything with Custer in it is destined to end badly.

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