In his own time George A. Custer was quite the celebrity-soldier, so it is certainly appropriate that he has become such a frequent character in the movies.
Unfortunately, few of the actors who have played him over the last century were nearly as good at acting the Boy General as the original was at playing himself. Over 50 films have dealt with Custer or his last battle since the first in 1909, although in recent times, as with the HBO series Deadwood or the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai, he is mostly just ranted against in absentia.
Historical accuracy, needless to say, has not been a strong point of the Custer movies. The remarkable evolution of Custer from a heroic martyr for civilization into a snarling representative of an evil military-industrial complex despoiling the West is the real story told by the movies. In terms of historical accuracy the best Custer battle sequence is in the 1991 ABC mini-series Son of the Morning Star – although Gary Cole’s depiction of Custer is abysmal. The battle in Disney’s 1958 film Tonka (about the horse Comanche) is also remarkably accurate, especially considering its target audience of children. The most flamboyant last stand is Errol Flynn’s in They Died with Their Boots On (1941), where his Custer is the last man standing. He is shot by Anthony Quinn’s Crazy Horse as the Sioux ride over the doomed Seventh Cavalry as the magnificent Max Steiner score swells on the soundtrack. The most evocative last battle is in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) where Henry Fonda’s doomed band calmly awaits the Indian onslaught which bursts upon them in a cloud of dust that obscures everything about the battle’s final moments. It is over in a heartbeat. After Fort Apache, Custer was generally treated by filmmakers as the whipping boy for America’s sins against the Indians. He was often played for laughs. The most absurd last stand is a toss up between Touche pas la Femme Blanche (1974) where Marcello Mastroianni’s Custer is wiped out by Vietnamese refugees (playing the Sioux) in a Paris excavation pit (playing Montana) and Won Ton Ton the Dog who Saved Hollywood (1976) where Rob Leibman’s Rudy Montague (as the actor playing Custer in the film within the film) survives the battle thanks to the stalwart canine and a lovely Indian maiden. In Hollywood terms that’s a fairly accurate version. Before heading to your video store to rent any of these gems you might consult Paul Hutton’s The Custer Reader for a complete filmography.
Paul Hutton teaches at the University of New Mexico, writes for Investigating History on the History Channel and is the editor of The Custer Reader.