Custer of the West (1967)

Custer of the West (1967)

“Dead men make better legends.”

After the end of the Civil War, General Sheridan (Lawrence Tierney) sends General Custer (Robert Shaw) to take over the Western Cavalary, where he eventually becomes involved in a fight-to-the-death against Indian warrior Dull Knife (Kieron Moore).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Biopics
  • Historical Drama
  • Lawrence Tierney Films
  • Military
  • Native Americans
  • Robert Ryan Films
  • Robert Shaw Films
  • Robert Siodmak Films
  • Westerns

Robert Siodmak directed and Philip Yordan produced this highly fictionalized western — shot entirely in Spain on 70mm film, with British actor Shaw in the lead — about General George Armstrong Custer.

Unfortunately, Shaw can’t seem to keep his accent under control; it’s distracting hearing him shift in and out of sounding reasonably American. Even worse, most of the storyline is a mess: we don’t really get a sense of who Custer was (from this cinematic depiction) other than that he was a teetotaler (until suddenly he… wasn’t?), a commander with no compunction about driving his soldiers to the ground from exhaustion:

… and generally disliked by his top men, Major Marcus Reno (Ty Hardin) and Captain Benteen (Jeffrey Hunter). Benteen is meant to be the voice of reason about how badly the Native Americans have been treated:

… but then at one point Shaw suddenly stands up for them in front of Congress (who we don’t see; apparently none of the $4 million budget was spent on this scene).

To that end, random parts of the script are refreshingly progressive: “There is not an Indian problem; there is only a White problem,” Custer tells Congress, calling out the corruption he knows exists (and ultimately paying dearly for this). His relationship with his loyal wife (Ure) is sweet:

… though she’s barely given anything to do other than literally serve him; and Tierney is fine as General Sheridan, a military figure who I didn’t know much about until reading up on him, but who had quite the storied career.

Meanwhile, as DVD Savant writes:

The most embarrassing part of the movie are the “Cinerama” episodes confected to show off the widescreen dynamics of the Ultra-Wide Super Technirama 70 format. Railroad cars are set rolling by themselves, a wagon runs wild down a road without any brakes, and a lumberjack escapes down an endless wooden water logging chute. Whenever these scenes hit, the story stops dead for minutes at at time, to allow for repetitive POV shots of blurry scenery whizzing past.

The film’s most impressive feature by far is the often-effective use of a widescreen landscape to show off the vastness of the West.

Note: Robert Ryan has an extended cameo in an entirely unnecessary bit about a gold seeking deserter.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious.


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