General Custer makes his last stand in this dramatization of the Battle of Little Bighorn. The word of the day was authenticity, even if California stands in for Montana and a romanticized vision of Custer is presented.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Like their modern counterparts, the silent era filmmakers knew how to leverage an anniversary into a marketing ploy. General George Armstrong Custer’s death at the Battle of Little Bighorn had just seen its 35th anniversary in 1911 and so it’s not surprising that a major cinematic restaging of the events would be a top priority.
There are few former heroes who have fallen in the public regard as far and as fast as Custer. Thanks to the enthusiastic cheerleading of his widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, any flaws, errors or genocidal intent were swept under the rug or coated with a generous layer of gilding. While no opinion is ever truly universal, when this film was made, Custer was generally regarded as a great military leader who died a hero’s death on the battlefield.
Given Mrs. Custer’s longevity and that fact that she was still very much alive in 1912, even if the filmmakers had wanted to make a more nuanced representation (and there’s no evidence that they wanted to), it would have been an uphill battle against a widow-turned-master-propagandist.
And so with a lot of legend, a dose of Longfellow and the services of a wild west show, producer Thomas Ince forged ahead with Custer’s Last Fight. I should note that my review is based on a 1925 reissue. (More details on that later in the review.)
Most Americans have at least a passing familiarity with Custer but to recap: the general led a force of over 200 men into battle and every single one of them was killed by the forces of Crazy Horse. The motivation for the battle was often presented as making the west safe for democracy but the fact was, there was gold in them thar hills and the Sioux refused to sell. Anyway, Custer had a thing for charging Native American encampments without figuring out how many people he was fighting, another fact that was glossed over at the time.
The first part of Custer’s Last Fight features title cards of unnamed Native Americans proclaiming that they owned their land and they weren’t going to give it up. Of course, settlers and the army came anyway and thus begins a long passage in which everything the Native Americans, specifically the Sioux, do is bad and villainous but white characters doing the same thing is praised as heroic. Raiding a village of civilians? Only bad when the Sioux do it.
Rain-in-the-Face, a Lakota, is arrested for killing settlers by Tom Custer, brother of General George, and thus triggering a likely-fictional blood feud. Rain-in-the-Face breaks jail and joins up with the warriors under the leadership of Sitting Bull, leader of the Sioux resistance movement.
After kissing his wife farewell, Custer heads off under the command of General Terry to face Sitting Bull’s forces but nobody bothers wondering exactly how many Sioux there are and so Custer’s men duly die with their boots on courtesy of commander Crazy Horse’s military prowess. (The cards inform us that Custer’s body was not desecrated out of respect or something but the historical record shows graphic mutilation.) Everyone is sad and then Sitting Bull is later killed while resisting arrest, a fate shared by Crazy Horse. What an amazing and shocking coincidence that could not possibly point to assassination.
Yes, I freely admit that I spent this entire picture cheering for the other side.
I was considering doing a complete fact check of silent film vs. reality similar to what I did with The Great White Silence but I have to admit that I find nineteenth century military campaigns to be considerably less interesting than Antarctic exploration. What it all comes down to is this: Custer is a little too dead to be considered any kind of strategic or tactical genius.
I am not one to get excited about people who get themselves and people under their command or their admirers killed through sloppiness and poor planning. From Robert Falcon Scott to Christopher McCandless, such figures still enjoy a certain amount of reverence and the cult of Custer still has its devotees. Any alleged mistakes were actually part of a brilliant strategy, you see, and the man himself was not to blame, it was somebody else, always somebody else. I’ve heard that particular song and dance too often to take it seriously. Plus, you know, genocide.
Instead, I want to discuss where films were in 1912 and how Custer’s Last Fight fits into the big picture. Just about everyone knows that movies struggled for mainstream acceptance. At first treated as a novelty, movies were later blamed for everything from juvenile delinquency to an uptick in robberies. Motion pictures were gaining mainstream acceptance in 1912 and the goals of producers and filmmakers were two-pronged: they wanted movies to be considered art and they wanted movies to be considered educational.
Most histories of cinema focus on the former but the latter was seen as just as important at the time. Pioneers like George Kleine and John Bunny envisioned education by means of the movie screen and with that in mind, the almost documentary style of Custer’s Last Fight makes sense. While the spectacle, battles and hoards of extras were prominently advertised, the picture was also clearly intended to be a critic-proof piece of history.
Part of the authenticity was provided by the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which Ince hired as a unit to provide props and extras for his western pictures. The Miller Brothers concern employed numerous Native American performers. They are sometimes listed as being exclusively Oglala Sioux but The 101 Ranch by Ellsworth Collings and Alma Miller England states that the nearly a dozen different tribes were represented. (The book’s 1937 publication date does not speak well for its authenticity but it is supported by accounts of Native American actors quitting the show and having to be replaced wherever the touring company happened to be.)
Custer’s Last Fight, when it is discussed at all these days, is generally noted for its use of real veterans of Little Bighorn. I tend to be skeptical of any story that sounds a bit too much like a studio press release but the Miller Brothers show did seem to have employed Sioux veterans of the battle.
However, with the exception of Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-Face and a brief shot of Crazy Horse, the Native American actors are not really afforded much individual character beyond the confusing message of them being kind of noble but also the villains of the picture.
The film is curious in that the screenplay seems to be all about having cake and eating it too. Throughout the picture, there are digs at Sitting Bull’s courage with sarcastic title cards. And then after his final scene, we are informed that he was a great Sioux patriot, which seems rather odd considering the disrespectful tone the film had adopted until that point.
Crazy Horse is surprisingly absent from the narrative except for a brief title card and cameo. Rain-in-the-Face is built up as a main antagonist for Tom Custer but there is no evidence that such a feud (if it existed) could have been indulged on a chaotic battlefield. (The battle was something of a Custer buster as George, Tom and youngest brother Boston all died as well as teenage nephew Henry Armstrong Reed.) The plot element seems to owe more to Longfellow than any proper historical source. Maybe Crazy Horse should have called Longfellow with a poetry commission.
That being said, the outdoor scenes do hold up and the bloody, dusty battle is appropriately gritty. While the claims of thousands of extras and thousands of Native Americans are clearly hooey (a few hundred at most, total) everything looks the ticket in a Remington painting kind of way.
Interestingly enough, this three-reel picture was revived in 1925 with additional footage that expanded it to a five-reel feature and this is the version most commonly seen today. (The AFI catalog calls the original short as Custer’s Last Raid, a more accurate title to be sure but actually a typo or working title in a trade periodical that was corrected. Both the three-reel and five-reel pictures are Custer’s Last Fight.)
The AFI lists the cast as Francis Ford, Ann Little, Grace Cunard, William Eagleshirt, J. Barney Sherry, Charles K. French, Lillian Christie, Snowball and Art Acord but does not confirm their roles. Several sources list Ford as playing Custer as well as directing with Grace Cunard as Elizabeth Bacon Custer and William Eagle Shirt as Sitting Bull. I’m going to be brutally honest: the camera is so timid about approaching the characters that I don’t think I could hazard a guess on who played who and I am not sure it makes a difference. Ann Little could have played Custer for all the change it would make.
This strange reissue story likely explains the somewhat undisciplined way the film is plotted. Not that I’m opposed to learning about the Ghost Dance movement and including it in the context of a Custer picture but Custer’s Last Fight just kind of tacks the sequence on without properly setting it up (though I guess properly setting it up would mean admitting that the Sioux were done dirty by the U.S. government).
In fact, for being ostensibly about Custer, the film does very little to establish him or his wife as characters, focusing instead on the general political and military situation and making digs at Sioux and Cheyenne historical figures. An alien watching this for the first time would be hard pressed to figure out why Custer is meant to be revered. Likely, the cult of Custer was so powerful that it was simply assumed that everyone watching would understand that he was a great man but there were plenty of films made in 1912 and 1925 that managed to set up character and plot more successfully. (For other films that were recut and reissued years later, see my reviews of She Goes to War and The Gold Rush.)
Custer’s Last Fight is an important example of filmmakers using their art to mythologize the American west and protect the reputation of national heroes with actual facts taking the back seat, no matter what screaming claims of authenticity may have been made in the film’s advertisements. Anything involving human interaction is stiff and stagey but the outdoor scenes and battles are pretty spectacular to look at. All in all, invaluable for its place in film history even if it made me shout at the screen a bit more than was probably polite.
Where can I see it?
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