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, ...
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. Bruce Eder, Rovi
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