Monday, August 1, 2011

They Died with Their Boots On (1941)


“To hell ... or to glory. It depends on one's point of view.”

            Hollywood loves to take stories from the pages of history and turn them into romantic mushed up love affairs or just totally mangle the way things unfolded. I think the only book or movie to ever mix both romance and history together perfectly was Gone with the Wind. At least Margaret Mitchell researched the Civil War, Atlanta and the south, and the customs of that time period and the film was faithful to the book. I despised Pearl Harbor to no end I thought it was horrible especially the “love triangle” (maybe it is more due to the fact that I HATE Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett with a passion). Pearl Harbor was trying to be Titanic and it failed miserably.
            They Died with their Boots On is just one example of Hollywood taking a historic figure and turning that figure into a romantic, accidental hero who dies valiantly for the sake of his country. The historic figure being portrayed here is General George Armstrong Custer the famous Custer of Custer’s Last Stand. Errol Flynn plays the ill fated general. Custer starts off on the wrong foot at West Point when the film begins. He has the worst record ever in the school since he is always getting in trouble. One day at school he happens to meet a general’s niece named Elizabeth “Libby” Bacon (Olivia de Havilland) and they fall in love.
            Custer gets to graduate from school early due to the Civil War. The professors/board of the college is reluctant to pass the poor student through but soldiers are needed desperately. They send the young soldier down to Washington DC to await assignment. He is not given one for some time and he grows anxious and impatient. Custer meets the head of the army and the man gets him a spot in the best cavalry. Along the lines someone messes up in the War Department and Custer is given the title of Brigadier General. He makes a good general leading his unit to a major victory.
            In the mean time he meets Libby again and the two are still in love. They marry when he returns home from the war and he becomes the pride of the town. A few months go by and Custer turns to drink and he gets depressed with nothing to do. He wants to do something with his name and for it to mean something. Libby helps him out by talking to one of Custer’s superiors. The superior officer gets him a place out in the Dakota Territory at Fort Lincoln and Custer could not be happier.
            Custer is in way over his head. An old enemy from school is causing trouble with his trading posts and the Indians attack left and right if they leave the fort. On top of it all the soldiers of the fort are all disorganized and constantly drunk. Custer changes that by closing down the saloon and keeping the Indians out of the fort. The unit keeps fighting the Indians but after too much fighting the Indians make peace telling Custer that they can have all the land they want except for the Black Hills to which Custer agrees. Unfortunately Custer’s old enemy and some government officials want the land to make a railroad and they break Custer’s promise to the Indians. Custer is furious but no one will listen to him.
            The Indians and the unit wage a fight which will turn into Custer’s last stand. He does not want to fight but he feels it is his duty as a soldier of the United States.
            This was the last film that paired Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland together. I wish their last pairing could have been in a better film but their scenes were very good and they were the only ones worth paying attention to. They were such an excellent pair you can see how great their chemistry was, well it should have been after having done nine films together. You can see they were giving this paring their all and it clearly shows especially in their last scene. By this time in her career de Havilland wanted to do other roles, roles she felt were more important and had more substance since she had become a star in her own right. I mean come on, two years previously she had just played her best known character Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind and was even nominated for Best Supporting Actress I think she fully deserved to demand and want better roles. And seriously how much longer could she have gone on just playing Flynn’s love interest? Errol Flynn, being a good friend, fully supported her.
            The supporting cast was very well made up. Hattie McDaniel played Callie, Libby’s maid. Sydney Greenstreet was Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott. Anthony Quinn was Crazy Horse.
            Raoul Walsh directed the film. The guy was amazing. His films are always of the highest quality. Walsh got some great shots from close-ups of the actors to shots of the cavalry from high in the mountains. Max Steiner created the score and the man was (I believe) a total musical genius. His scores always add much more to a film.
            I was bored to death with They Died with their Boots On. I really only paid attention to the scenes Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland were in together. I felt the film was way too long. I guess I did not like it too much because I am not a huge fan of Westerns. The film obviously has more battles, horse riding through deserts, and fighting while I like more of a story even a mushy romantic story.
            They Died with their Boots On is definitely a romanticized historical drama (just go to IMDB and check out the long list of all the inaccuracies). I did not have a fantastic time watching it. It is not a god awful film but it was not the greatest. Check it out for the fact that it is the last film Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland made together and it is a Raoul Walsh film.