FiLM REViEW: Custer of the West, 1967

Despite the rather ludicrous liberties taken with the real historical Custer, and a few set pieces that seem a bit odd and gratuitous – Sgt. Buckley’s lengthy but ultimately pointless log-flume escape for example – there’s enough here to enjoy. 

Robert Shaw has sufficient charisma to play the part, even if it’s a part as muddled as the movie itself. Show’s Custer, a humourless puritanical martinet, who’s dedication to military duty makes his Washington episode rather odd, esp’ when contrasted with his later career fighting the ‘Injuns’. 

The production is pretty epic, with large numbers of extras and the landscapes (Spain, or so I’ve read!) playing their parts in evoking the grand spectacles of the ol’ West. Such scenes as the attack on the gold-miners train, featuring a model of a high wooden rail bridge, are valiantly done, but, from a modern post CGI perspective can occasionally look rather clunky. 

Numerous actors – Robert Ryan as the doomed Sgt. Mulligan, Ty Hardin, Jeffrey Hunter and Lawrence Tierney as Reno, Bentine and Sheridan (all suitably manly, but otherwise rather one-dimensional) – acquit themselves reasonably enough. But Custer’s wife, played by Mary Ure, and his Nemesis, Kieron Moore in ‘red-face’ as Chief Dull Knife, lack presence. 

The film also tries to bighorn (titter!), er… sorry, shoe-horn numerous disparate threads into one overall narrative, with mixed success. These range from facing up to the guilt of American crimes against the indigenous ’Indians’, to the changing culture of that era, from the theatre (where Custer sees himself depicted) to armoured railroads, harbingers of a machine age which threatens Custer’s ideas of equine war with honour!

But nonetheless, for all this, I have dim recollections of the powerful impact portions of this movie had on me as a kid. An even now there are moments when it is either moving, exciting, or both. And some of the various sundry sub-plots alluded to above are also actually interesting. 

Still, all told, and despite the occasional flashes of interest or excitement, it’s a bit of a muddled mess. Not quite a massacre, perhaps. But confused, disjointed, and fluctuating wildly, even in its entertainment value. A long way off being a classic. But still worth watching. 

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