Thursday, June 30, 2016

They Died with Their Boots on (1942)

I took a while deciding what film to write about for the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon. I love so many of her films and wish I could write about all of them. I wrote about one of them last month for the Royalty in Film Blogathon - Princess O'Rourke.

After waiting and seeing what everyone else was covering, and seeing that no one was covering (by itself) They Died with Their Boots on (1942), the first Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland movie I saw (I saw part of The Adventures of Robin Hood when I was young but all I remembered from it was the balcony kissing scene and that Maid Marion was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen), I decided to go with it.

They Died with Their Boots on is the last film Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland made together, out of a total of eight beginning in 1936. Because of this, there is an added poignancy to the film that otherwise would not be there.
One of America's Immortals! Custer's last stand...and the story of his life...his love and his death-defying courage!

A somewhat loose biopic of General George Armstrong Custer, the film follows Custer (Flynn) from his early days at West Point up to the infamous Custer's Last Stand (1857-1876). Like all biopics, the film is long, especially for 1940s standards, running a total of 139 min. But with such a great cast, including supporting actors Hattie McDaniel, Sydney Greenstreet, Anthony Quinn, John Litel, Gene Lockhart, and Regis Toomey the film doesn't feel long.

The film also features a beautiful score by Max Steiner and is directed by the great Raoul Walsh (138 directing credits including several Flynn and de Havilland films, High Sierra (1940), and Battle Cry (1955). Hal B. Wallis produced the film and his brother-in-law, Wally Kline, wrote the screenplay, along with Aeneas MacKenzie. Kline also contributed to Hard to Get (1938) starring de Havilland and Dick Powell and a few other films. MacKenzie has a slightly larger resume, including The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), a couple John Wayne films, and The Ten Commandments (1956).

The film opens on Custer's first day at West Point. His entrance (above) says a lot about him. His reason for joining the army? That's where the glory is! One sees far more statues of soldiers than of civilians.

A year before his graduation, the Civil War breaks out. However, because of Custer' record - he has the lowest marks and the highest demerits in the history of the Academy - he is not allowed to graduate early with the rest of his class... at first. While the heads of the school are deciding who else to graduate early, Custer meets a very important young lady.

Custer first meets Libby while doing a punishment tour for his latest "escapade." Libby is looking for Col. Sheridan's office and asks Custer where it is. Since he is not allowed to speak, he ignores her and keeps walking.
I've never been so outrageously treated in all my life!
Once he is allowed to speak though, he explains the situation and she is, of course, smitten with his charm and good looks.
Custer: Do you think if I were to come strolling past your house around nine o'clock at night you might be just sitting around on the veranda?
Libby: Life is full of surprises.
Custer: And if I did find you sitting on the porch perhaps you and I could go for a walk together.
Libby: [laughs] We seem to have been walking together ever since we met.
Custer: Well, I can't imagine, ma'am - if I may say so - any pleasanter journey, ma'am, than walking through life with you beside me, ma'am.
Even when he doesn't show up for that walk, Libby has definite plans for him. To her father, who is upset that the young man his daughter was waiting for didn't show up and threatens to report him:
Libby: You musn't talk about him like that!
Mr. Bacon: Why not?
Libby: Because he's the man I'm going to marry! 
The reason Custer didn't show up is because it was finally decided to graduate him, as he is their best swordsman and he is the kind of man that inspires loyalty in his men, and he must leave for Washington immediately. He has to overcome the spiteful actions (or inactions) of some enemies from West Point, but he eventually gets assigned to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, just as he wanted. He is just in time to fight in the Battle of Bull Run, at Manassas (which I've been to). He disobeys orders to retreat and wins the battle, getting wounded in the process and receiving a medal for it (as well as a letter of introduction to Mr. Bacon).

Custer is a favorite of the nurses ;)

After Custer leaves the hospital, he heads straight to Monroe and the Bacon residence. On the way there he stops at a saloon and inadvertently meets Mr. Bacon, who is there to collect the rent, who insults him. Custer calls him a "fat little pip-squeak" among other things.

Libby, meanwhile, who has been waiting for Custer's return, is in the act of having her maid (Hattie McDaniel) read her tea leaves. It works, and Custer appears on the doorstep. Libby is excited to finally see him again but acts a little cold, at least, for a few minutes.
And I'm not really angry. I just thought I should pretend to be.
After hearing his explanation, she says wisely, "And a train won't wait, but a woman will."

When her father comes home, he discovers who he daughter's sweetheart is and kicks Custer out of the house. Custer sneaks back after dark and meets Libby on her balcony. Unfortunately he already has orders to rejoin his regiment, but not before he proposes marriage. However, he wants to become a General first, that way her father will be proud of him.

As luck, or fate, would have it, he is mistakenly made a Brigadier General of the Michigan Calvary Brigade, by none other then his enemy, the Adjutant General. By the time they realize their mistake, Custer is already leading him men in charge after charge against the enemy, contrary to the orders to go the other way. After winning the battle, and saving the war, Custer becomes a hero and returns to Monroe with a hero's welcome, including the welcome of Mr. Bacon. Custer and Libby marry that same day, with Col. Sheridan as best man.

After the wedding however, not all is rosy. Custer is frustrated at his inactivity, and living off of his wife's estate. Libby visits his old friend, General Scott (Greenstreet), to ask that her husband be put back into active service.

The next day Custer gets the letter that says he is assigned to a regiment at Fort Lincoln, where he will protect 100,000 square miles of territory from the Indians. He is overjoyed to be put in command once again. De Havilland as Libby is wonderful in this scene, as she eagerly awaits her husbands reaction to his appointment, which she got for him, and her enthusiasm for him, even though she knows this means she will have to leave her genteel life behind. She thinks only of her husband.

On their way to their new home, they are attacked by Indians, led by none other than Crazy Horse himself (Anthony Quinn).  Custer has him arrested and thrown in the guardhouse, from which he quickly escapes.

The Fort is in terrible disarray, with the soldiers drinking and rifles being sold to the Indians. He soon turns it into one of the finest regiments in the United States.

It doesn't take long for Custer's enemies to strike again. They fix it so that the treaty with the Indians, one protecting the Black Hills, is broken. Custer fights back and gets sent to Washington to be court marshaled. He talks President Grant into pushing back the date and reinstating his command.

The best and most touching scene of the entire film is when Custer says goodbye to Libby for the last time. He knows he won't come back and she knows it.


Walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing.
He then goes off to fight what became known as the Battle of Little Big Horn. The day: June 25, 1876 (140 years ago). You can watch the battle below.
To Hell or to Glory. It depends on ones point of view.
They Died with Their Boots on will air on TCM on the 8th at 9:45pm ET and again on the 27th at 4pm.

Because of new union laws, producers were forced to use regular screen extras without stunt experience. In the opening days of shooting 80 were injured and 3 were killed. The filming of the "Last Stand" sequence from this movie involved some 200 horsemen charging around in pretend battle and was so dangerous that one day during filming Anthony Quinn, who played Crazy Horse, arranged as a gag for a hearse to show up at the filming location.
Jim Thorpe, famous Native American athlete, was an extra in the film and had an off-camera fight with Flynn. He knocked Flynn out with one punch.
Another athlete, Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete and subject of Unbroken (2014), was an extra in this film just before being drafted into the United States Armed Forces during World War II.
Libby Bacon Custer died in 1933, just eight years before this film was made. 
When shown on Swedish TV in the mid 90s there was an additional scene between the scene where Custer, California Joe and Lt. Butler leaves Custer's tent on the night before the final battle and when Custer subsequently frees Sharpe at the wagon where he is held "kidnapped". It contained two shots, first an Indian banging a drum, then a shot of Crazy Horse, on a hill overlooking the Indian camp, addressing the spirits. The scene is missing in present DVD copies.
If you want to learn more about the real General Custer, the Landmark book Custer's Last Stand by Quentin Reynolds is very good and an easy read. However, it barely mentions Libby.

If you want to read about the historical inaccuracies of the film, click here.

You can watch a lecture on Custer and this film here. I haven't had a chance to watch it.

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Wrap-up

Happy Birthday, Olivia ♥
Olivia's 25th birthday


  1. They are so incredibly sweet together! Just reading those quotes and looking at those pictures makes me feel mushy. :)

    I saw this once as a child and what I really remembered was that he ate onions just like I would eat apples (I couldn't get over it!), but then I watched it again last year and that beautiful farewell really struck me. You're so right, it does have that extra poignancy.

    1. Haha yes the onion scene is funny. I had forgotten about it. I too hate onions. I would never eat them, even for Errol ;)

      I could watch that scene over and over and tear up every time.

  2. The spotty history in this film used to bother me immensely, but now I pretend the lead character goes by another name and thoroughly enjoy the movie as a movie - and, oh, that final scene.

    1. Yeah, you can never watch a movie and expect to learn real history haha. I read a book about Custer shortly after watching the film the first time so I was able to spot all the incorrections. But their chemistry makes everything ok :)

  3. "A somewhat loose biopic of General George Armstrong Custer" -- That was a nice piece of understatement, Phyllis. I enjoyed your review very much. The chemistry saves it.

    1. Haha I almost put "A VERY loose" but it didn't fit the tone of the post. Thanks for reading!

  4. What a terrific post! Great use of multimedia. Most biopics play fast and loose with the truth. I watch this film for entertainment and for the Flynn/OdH pairing. Thanks for your kind words about my post. :)

    1. Thanks! Yes they do haha. Love the chemistry in this film and had a lot of fun watching it again and writing about it. And you're welcome :) Thanks for reading!

  5. I do remember this is completely historically inaccurate, but that Flynn and de Havilland are great together in it. Enjoyed your piece a lot, and thanks so much for organising the blogathon.

    1. Thank you for the complement! The facts may be wrong but I'm sure the emotions are accurate :)

  6. I really want to see this, so I'm not going to read this review until I do. Sometime soon!

    1. And then I went ahead and read it anyway, and watched their parting scene, which had me in tears even though I haven't seen the rest of the film. Oh, me.

    2. Lol. It's beautiful, isn't it :')

  7. Very nice, Phyllis. Lots of cool tidbits and photos, which I always enjoy when I read your posts.

    1. Aww thanks Todd! Glad to hear you enjoy them! :)

  8. I agree with most commenters: You can't watch this for historical accuracy, but it's still a wonderful movie. It's been some time since I've seen it, but your thorough post has made it seem fresh again. Time to see this again!