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Custer of the West

Custer of the West(1968)

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teaser Custer of the West (1968)

In the mid-'60s the prolific writer-producer Philip Yordan, who spent the better part of the decade attached to prodigiously mounted screen epics filmed in Spanish locations (El Cid, 1961, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964), chose to mount a comprehensive biography of one of the more controversial figures in American military history. When the dust finally settled around his efforts, Custer of the West (1968) stood as an intriguing if flawed portrait of the general's final years due to its ambivalent tone which viewed him as both hero and villain.

The opening sequences follow the headstrong Custer (Robert Shaw) through various skirmishes as the War Between the States waned. Conscious that no other peacetime assignment would sit well with the restless warrior, General Philip Sheridan (Lawrence Tierney) assigns him command of the Seventh Cavalry, whose outpost faces constant conflict with the Native Americans of the region. (In one of the script's more pronounced breaks with history, it identifies the Cheyenne, rather than the Sioux, as Custer's nemesis.)

Accompanied by his dutiful wife Elizabeth (Mary Ure, Shaw's real-life wife), Custer settles into his new command, and wastes no time alienating his new charges with his dictatorial, off-putting manner. Of his new seconds-in-command, he regards Major Reno (Ty Hardin) as a hopeless alcoholic, and is contemptuous toward Lieutenant Benteen (Jeffrey Hunter) who feels sympathetic towards the Cheyenne. Matters get progressively worse when Sheridan mandates an attack on a Cheyenne village, which disintegrates into open slaughter. Compounding matters, several soldiers desert the outpost to pan for gold, spurring the capture and execution for desertion of the ringleader, Sergeant Mulligan (Robert Ryan, making the most out of the small but showy role.)

In reprisal for the massacre, the angered Cheyenne commence a brutal assault on a passenger train making its initial run through the territory. The appalling casualties result in Custer's recall to Washington as a scapegoat before Congress; in a remarkably politically loaded sequence, Custer blames the deteriorating situation on the government's and military's willingness to kowtow to big business. Relieved of his command, the general becomes mired in disillusionment and despair, until Elizabeth's pleadings and machinations result in the restoration of his commission. His return to the Dakotas, and the miscalculations that lead to his destiny at Little Big Horn, take the movie to a sobering close.

After the original director, Akira Kurosawa, bowed out of the project, Yordan handed the director's reins to Robert Siodmak. The German-born helmer who had been responsible for a raft of film noir staples from The Killers (1946) to Phantom Lady (1944) to Criss Cross (1949) had by the '60s been relegated to turning out unremarkable fare in Europe. His health was in decline, and his work on Custer of the West is perfunctory at best.

As a completed whole, Custer of the West suffers from a reduction of its original scope and concept. Shot with the intent of making the film one of the final releases in Cinerama, the film was almost exclusively exhibited in conventional widescreen. There were no less than three prolonged, point-of-view set pieces in the script--a driverless stagecoach's mountainside descent, a runaway railroad car's trek towards a doomed trestle, and a soldier's attempt to escape a Cheyenne ambush via a log flume--that had their potential thrill-ride impact diminished as a result.

The film's chief virtue is Shaw's intense work in the title role. The characterization is neither the glossy treatment given by Errol Flynn in They Died with Their Boots On (1941), or Richard Mulligan's darkly comic megalomaniac in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970). Shaw gave a textured effort that resulted in a more complex portrait of Custer as soldier and man. Notably, many of the principal performers came to untimely ends. Shaw was only 51 when he succumbed to a heart attack in 1978. The London stage veteran Ure, whose onscreen resume was relatively spare, had died three years earlier at age 42 as a result of an accidental overdose of liquor and tranquilizers. Hunter, whose most noted performance was as Jesus in the Yordan-scripted King of Kings (1961), died in 1969, age 42, as a result of injuries sustained in a domestic fall.

Producer: Irving Lerner, Philip Yordan
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Bernard Gordon, Julian Zimet
Cinematography: Cecilio Paniagua
Film Editing: Peter Parasheles, Maurice Rootes
Art Direction: Jean d'Eaubonne, Eugene Lourie, Julio Molina
Music: Bernardo Segall
Cast: Robert Shaw (General George Armstrong Custer), Mary Ure (Elizabeth Custer), Ty Hardin (Maj. Marcus Reno), Jeffrey Hunter (Capt. Benteen), Lawrence Tierney (Gen. Philip Sheridan).
C-143m. Letterboxed.

by Jay S. Steinberg

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