Judge Eric Profancik wants to die wearing a tasteful pair of Birkenstocks.
"To Hell…or to glory. It depends on one's point of view."
I'm not a history buff, yet just about every time I find myself watching a movie with some connection to actual historical events, I end up doing a little bit of research on the topic. That holds true for my recent viewing of They Died With Their Boots On, an entertaining film about the life and times of the infamous George Armstrong Custer; you know, the one who didn't quite make it out of the Battle of Little Big Horn in one piece.
In addition to that, this film was also my first experience with the legendary Errol Flynn (The Adventures of Robin Hood) and Olivia de Havilland (Gone With the Wind). Much to the dismay of film purists, I've never dabbled into the realm of the classics, and while I have seen Gone With the Wind, that film was forced on me in elementary school so I don't believe it counts. With this movie, I finally had the chance to see these greats in action, truly for the last time. And while that was enjoyable, my lingering thoughts of the movie don't involve them.
Facts of the Case
They Died With Their Boots On tells a story about the life of George Custer (Flynn). It begins with his entry to West Point, and it ends (obviously) with his defeat at the Little Big Horn. We get a glimpse into the days of the supremely confident, brazen, rule breaking man who would rise quickly to the rank of General during the American Civil War. A proud man and a proud cavalryman, Custer would happily marry Libby Bacon (de Havilland), and the two would eventually find their way out to the great and Wild West.
First, I feel compelled to say that the title, They Died With Their Boots On, is horrible. It's too long, too cumbersome, and doesn't allow the movie to have an epic ring to it. There's a brief line near the end of the film that gives an explanation for the title, but my mind was slightly wandering and I missed it; but I didn't care enough to rewind and hear what I missed the first time. Maybe the movie should have been called "The Adventures of George Custer"? Who really cares what they were wearing when they passed on?
Perhaps I should actually focus more on the final pairing of Flynn and de Havilland? Perhaps. As I said, this was the first time I've seen either of them, and my general opinion is that they did a "nice" job of acting in the movie. Films from sixty years ago recall an era when acting was different, and the style of that era is well done by these two veteran actors. I found myself enjoying their characterizations and have no quibbles or complaints about the work they did. After eight films, they had clearly developed what we now call a solid "comfort level" with each other, which is conveyed on the screen. However, I wasn't particularly impressed by what I saw, and I don't have a strong urge to go out and see any of the work they did, together or separately.
Yet what clearly caught my interest in They Died With Their Boots On was the heroic story of Custer and its place in history. Immediately after watching the movie I thought, "Hmm, I didn't know Custer died at Big Horn for a reason. I just thought he blundered into a massacre." The movie places Custer on a pedestal. It makes him out to be an arrogant hero. Custer may have been a troublemaker, a loud mouth, a thorn in many sides, but he was a great cavalryman with noble intents…according to the movie. And as we get to that infamous moment in history, it's told to us that Custer led his men, the cavalry, into unbeatable odds solely because he knew the infantry regiments wouldn't fare as well as men on horses. Custer led his men into battle, thereby giving everyone else a fighting chance. He defied orders for the most noble of reasons. At least that's what They Died With Their Boots On tells us. Though surely discussed ad naseum prior to this little review, Boots is overflowing with historical inaccuracies, and the events leading up to Little Big Horn are the biggest fallacies of them all. From all accounts that I could unearth, Custer simply defied orders and led his men to defeat and death. It wasn't because his cavalry could handle the Indians better than infantrymen; it was just because he was cocksure and, in the end, a bad tactician who clearly underestimated his enemy. Beyond that, the rest of the movie is filled with many other half-truths and outright exaggerations. They Died With Their Boots On was meant to inspire and entertain and not necessarily educate the masses. It was a time of war, and America needed heroes. Hence, George Custer and Errol Flynn helped lead the way.
This release from Warner was also my first introduction to the "Night at the Movies" line. Being a rookie, I didn't know how to fully appreciate and get the most out of the experience, so, technically, I did it wrong. What I did was watch the movie and then viewed the bonus items. It turns out that most of the bonus items should be watched before the movie because the disc is recreating the experience of a night at the movies in 1942…but you knew that already. Starting things off is an "Introduction by Leonard Maltin" (4 minutes), giving the viewer a quick overview of the package. Beginning the evening is the trailer for All Through the Night. Next up is a newsreel (5 minutes) from 1942, mainly showing the war effort. Finally we have a real feature, a short recruiting film called "Soldiers in White" (20.5 minutes), which is meant to encourage doctors to join the Armed Forces. Last up is a cartoon, "A Tale of Two Kitties" (6.5 minutes), which features a young Tweety and two cats that have a remarkable resemblance to Laurel and Hardy. It's at this point you're meant to watch the movie. Outside of the "Night at the Movies" group are two other bonus items that have specific relevance to the movie itself. The first is the trailer for They Died With Their Boots On, and the other is a featurette, "They Died With Their Boots On: To Hell or Glory" (9.5 minutes). This piece talks about the movie, its inaccuracies, and Flynn and de Havilland. I liked the feature and learned a few things and felt it was just the right length for me. On the whole, however, I think the bonus items are a bit thin, but considering the age of the film, I think Warner made a good effort to make this disc something of value to those who cherish classic films.
With regard to the transfers, though the movie is over sixty years old, it holds up very well. Presented in its 1.33:1 ratio and in glorious black and white, the video is in good shape. The print is mostly clean, though specks and dirt to pop up on occasion. It does feel soft, lacking great detail, and black saturation isn't as precise as we're accustomed to today; also, some flickering is apparent in a few scenes. The mono audio track serves the film well and gives us clear dialogue free from any hiss or distortion. Overall, I feel those who purchase this disc will be happy with how the film is presented.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's one little thing that "annoyed" me in the film, and that's Custer and Libby's lightning-quick courtship. After a brief, somewhat contentious first meeting, Libby has decided that she will marry Custer. Their second meeting is also a bit rocky, with her having to eat raw onions, yet she's still head over heels for this man. And, shortly thereafter, they are wed. No consideration is given to courting and developing this relationship, and now I know where George Lucas found the wanting inspiration for his courtship between Anakin and Padme.
They Died With Their Boots On is by no means a bad movie, and I hope that I did not portray it as so for it has its enjoyable moments. It's a breezy tale with solid acting and some nice action moments. Yet, in addition to those worrisome historical hiccups, the movie runs a bit long and could have used a nice trim in the second hour. I cannot say that there's any lasting value for someone in my shoes, but for those who enjoy this type of classic epic or are fans of Errol Flynn and/or Olivia de Havilland, I believe you'll find much more to appreciate. For the novice like me, I'm recommending you take a pass on this one. If you are already familiar with this movie, then I'll give you a recommendation to add it to your collection. It's a solid effort by Warner to give you value for your dollar.
They Died With Their Boots On is hereby found not guilty. Please wipe your boots before coming in.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Leonard Maltin
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