Custer of the West

Overview

Opening with a montage depicting its subject's Civil War exploits, Custer of the West carries us across four years of fighting in less than four minutes of screen time. The Civil War ended, George Armstrong Custer Robert Shaw longs for action and to hold onto his rank of general, so General Phil Sheridan Lawrence Tierney sends him West, admitting that there will be no nobility to his cause there -- the government and the people want the land, and that means getting the Indians off of it by any means necessary. He...
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Overview

Opening with a montage depicting its subject's Civil War exploits, Custer of the West carries us across four years of fighting in less than four minutes of screen time. The Civil War ended, George Armstrong Custer Robert Shaw longs for action and to hold onto his rank of general, so General Phil Sheridan Lawrence Tierney sends him West, admitting that there will be no nobility to his cause there -- the government and the people want the land, and that means getting the Indians off of it by any means necessary. He arrives in time to see a party of Cheyenne whom the real Custer never fought kill a pair of miners by sending them rolling down a long hill in a runaway wagon -- that motif is repeated, in ever more striking, elaborate, and violent fashions, in two subsequent action scenes. Custer organizes his command around Major Marcus Reno Ty Hardin, depicted as an ambitious officer with a drinking problem, and Captain Benteen Jeffrey Hunter, a humane officer with a strange, almost mystical streak, who understands the Indians better than anyone else in Custer's command. Also present are Mary Ure as Custer's loving wife and Robert Ryan in a very flamboyant performance as a larcenous sergeant who comes to no good end after being stricken with gold fever. After getting his command into the shape it needs to be -- mostly by running everyone except a lone sergeant into the ground in an extended drill -- he carries out his mission, quietly detesting the motives behind his orders but executing them out to the letter. Regarded as a hero in the East, Custer returns to Washington only to jeopardize his career by testifying about the corruption he's found around him in the West. He is left a political pariah but once more. Sheridan intercedes, again getting Custer posted with the Seventh Cavalry now engaged against the Sioux. He is, by this time, disillusioned with the army that he serves and the politicians and the business interests in whose service it functions. Though he craves the glory that comes with battle, he sees soldiering of the type he is being asked to carry out as little more than organized slaughter, even relying on machines to do the killing in ever more indiscriminate ways with none of the contest between men, of strategies, and arms and resourcefulness -- that was his real joy. The demons and goals that drive him culminate with Custer's disastrous action at Little Big Horn, which is beautifully if not necessarily accurately staged, in a stunning visual and aural denouement.
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Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Bruce Eder
One of the many attempts to dramatize the life and career of George Armstrong Custer, Robert Siodmak's Custer Of The West is no more devoted to historical accuracy than the others, but it is interesting in ways that many of the others aren't. It is filled with good actors (and performances), who are intrinsically fascinating to watch, and it was also the first film to bring a modern political sensibilities to the story of the man's career -- that should come as no surprise, since the screenplay is the work of ex-Hollywood blacklistees Bernard Gordon and Julian Halevy. It might not be the first movie to ascribe plain institutional greed to the policies that sent Custer out west after the War Between The States, but it was the first to place that motivation in center stage, right up front at the outset of the movie. Stylistically, the movie is a mess, one of those sprawling international productions put together by writer/producer Philip Yordan, with a cast and crew from two continents and an over-reliance at times of obvious screen conventions -- there are enough hokey shots of Native Americans watching oncoming soldiers from atop a hill as ominous music comes up on the soundtrack, to make one want to laugh; but there are more than enough visually stunning sequences of soldiers and Native American warriors stalking across the plains and the desert to more than offset those conventional moments. The massacre of a group of townspeople in the midst of their Independence Day celebration, and the aftermath of the massacre, are especially well staged and filmed; an attack on an Indian village (seemingly based on the Sand Creek Massacre, an action in which Custer didn't play a hand) is presented in startling savagery; and one extended sequence, involving an Indian attack on a logging camp and a railroad, is worth the price of admission. Strangely enough, given that this was his first western, Robert Siodmak does a good job despite a somewhat choppy script -- he was suffering from what eventually proved to be terminal cancer at the time, but the drama flows well within the limitations of the script, and meshes well with the killer action sequences. There are problems, to be sure -- even the 141 minute version of the movie (a 120 minute version exists as well) seems choppy at times, as though some scenes were left unshot or excised from the final cut of the film, and highly inventive and exciting scenes are interspersed with dull, predictable shots. Among the movie's virtues, in addition to the acting, Cecilio Paniagua's cinematography, in Super Technirama-70, makes use of every part of the widescreen frame, and the music, by Bernardo Segall is appropriate to the size and scope of the subject, even as it works in some very interesting and engaging elements of modernistic dissonance.
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Product Details

  • Release Date: 5/25/2004
  • UPC: 883904130048
  • Original Release: 1968
  • Source: Mgm (Video & Dvd)
  • Format: DVD

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Robert Shaw Gen. George Custer
Mary Ure Elizabeth Custer
Jeffrey Hunter Lt. Benteen
Ty Hardin Maj. Marcus Reno, Major Marcus Reno
Kieron Moore Cheyenne Chief, Chief Dull Knife
Charles Stalnaker Lt. Howells
Lawrence Tierney Gen. Philip Sheridan
Robert Hall Sgt. Buckley
Marc Lawrence Gold Miner, Goldminer
Robert Ryan Mulligan, Sgt. Mulligan
Barta Barri
John Clarke
Jack Cooper
John Dillon
Dennis Kilbane
Fred Kohler Jr.
Carl Rapp
Robert Reynolds
Luis Rivera
Jack Taylor
Joe Zboran
Technical Credits
Irving Lerner Director, Executive Producer
Robert Siodmak Director
Jean D'Eaubonne Art Director
Laure de Zarate Costumes/Costume Designer
Louis Dolivet Producer
Bernard Gordon Screenwriter
Julian Halevy Screenwriter
Will Holt Songwriter
Eugène Lourié Art Director
Antonio Mateos Set Decoration/Design
Julio Molina Art Director
Cecilio Paniagua Cinematographer
Maurice Rootes Editor
Julian Ruiz Makeup
Bernardo Segall Score Composer, Songwriter
Julio Segall Score Composer
Robert Shaw Songwriter
Philip Yordan Producer
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