Back in the late '70s, a tiny twin screen movie theater opened in Dobie Mall here in Austin. It was called, appropriately enough, the Dobie Theater. One theater was a long, narrow rectangle, the other a weird wedge-of-pie shaped room with a huge column in the middle of the seats. The Dobie ran art, foreign and independent films and, every now and then, older, classic films. It was at the Dobie that I first saw KING KONG (1933) on the big screen, EASY RIDER (1969) and MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). It was also where I saw THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941) for the first and, until the other day, only time. I revisited this classic film while on vacation this week and found it to be the rousing, stirring adventure that I remembered but also a horrible example of American history Hollywood style.
Having recently read THE LAST STAND (2010) by Nathaniel Philbrick, the real story of George Armstrong Custer is fairly fresh in my mind. Anyone looking for historical accuracy in THEY DIED, needs to just move on along. There's nothing to see here kids. If you're truly interested in a very complex individual and a complicated series of battles that involved Custer and other American forces before the final battle at Little Big Horn, check out Philbrick's book. He's a terrific historian as well as a skilled wordsmith and I highly recommend not only THE LAST STAND but all of his other books as well.
However, if you're looking for an epic (140 minute running time) exercise in American myth-making, you should check out THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON. Errol Flynn (one of my favorite actors), brings the swashbuckling Custer to vivid life. His Custer swaggers across the screen and into the pages of history from his first days at West Point until his legendary "last stand". Along the way he falls in love with and marries the luminous Olivia de Havilland (THEY DIED was the eighth film Flynn and de Havilland made together). As Libbie Custer, de Havilland provides Custer with the steadfast support he needs throughout his military career. And you've got to love any film that features Warner Brothers stalwart Sidney Greenstreet as Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott.
Custer encounters Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) at West Point and the two become instant enemies. Sharp and his father (Walter Hampden), are the real villains of the piece, crossing paths with Custer throughout his career. The Sharps engineer a phony gold rush in the Black Hills, causing thousands of treasure hunters to flood into sacred Indian territory, land that Custer had promised to Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). It is this scheme which precipitates the final confrontation as Custer goes to his death a martyred, noble figure.
THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON is handsomely produced with several well staged action set pieces including the final battle (filmed in California, not in the Dakotas). Director Raoul Walsh keeps things moving at a crisp pace while Max Steiner provides a rousing score (you'll have "Garryowen" in your head for days after seeing the film). THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON was one of the top grossing films of 1941, grossing over $2 million dollars, making it the second biggest Warner Brothers film of that year.
THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON is a very entertaining film taken on its' own merits. Just don't come to it expecting to learn any real, accurate American history. You'll have to go to books for that.