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Warner Home Video presents
They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

"To the devil with the orders! We'll ride to the sound of the guns!"
- George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: August 12, 2005

Stars: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland
Other Stars: Sydney Greenstreet, Hattie McDaniel, Anthony Quinn
Director: Raoul Walsh

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:19m:32s
Release Date: April 19, 2005
UPC: 012569704022
Genre: western

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- CC-B- C+

DVD Review

The first thing you'll want to do here is throw out the history books—"based on a true story" is a filmmaker's license to make up absolutely everything, and Raoul Walsh and his crew go whole hog on this one. While this is ostensibly the story of George Armstrong Custer, it's really sort of a meditation on heroism, and on the matinee-idol power of Errol Flynn—there's certainly something dashing about Flynn's Custer, but you'd be a fool to follow him into battle, or anywhere else, even if you didn't have the foresight to know what would happen at Bull Run.

We meet this Custer first in 1857, when he arrives at West Point, and already his character is formed—more than anything, he resembles an overbred golden retriever, with a shaggy mane and boundless energy, beautiful but stupid, the dog that gets lost at the end of his own leash. He's a dandy, with his brocaded uniform and plumed hat; his career at the Academy is a pretty sorry one, principally because he's impudent and bloodthirsty, a dangerous combination, especially in a soldier. Custer is champing at the bit for action, and he probably would have been drummed out of the Army or given the worst possible assignments were it not for the Civil War, for which all hands were needed on deck—for this young man eager for battlefield action, it's a historical bit of serendipity.

Custer loves Custer, and he loves the daguerreotypes; the first thing he does when promoted (by accident) to general is to track down his tailor, for new duds. The film in large measure plays Custer's life for comedy; what else is there to do with his career? Dumb luck leads him to some battlefield success, and he even finds a great patron: General Winfield Scott, played by a hilariously muttonchopped Sydney Greenstreet, who bonds with Custer over plates of creamed onions. The film is essentially divided into two parts: the first concerns Custer getting covered in glory during the Civil War; the second drives toward his ignominious demise. In both parts, however, Custer's vanity and disregard for authority make him a menace, especially in an institution that prides itself on its order, and on the sanctity of the chain of command.

Conveniently enough, a single pretty girl shows up at West Point, and she falls for our hero—frequent Flynn co-star Olivia de Havilland plays Elizabeth Bacon, who shares Custer's love of onions. (What an aromatic first kiss that must have been.) Walsh directs the battle sequences with verve, but he seems to have a thinly veiled contempt for his protagonist; Flynn fills it up, but even he can't sell us on the notion that Custer was a brave martyr against the white man's forces of imperialism. Part of that is because the Native Americans are portrayed in the worst Hollywood ways as crafty, wily and bloodthirsty; still, they're preferable to the soldiers, who, like their commander, are frequently drunk and hopelessly dim.

The movie is notable as well for a couple of supporting performances. Anthony Quinn plays Crazy Horse, Custer's eventual bête noire; his early career as Hollywood's version of The Other gives few glimpses of the storied career he'd go on to have for decades. And de Havilland is reunited with her Gone with the Wind co-star Hattie McDaniel, who is given close to nothing to do in a stereotypical role as a housemaid; equal parts institutional racism and poverty of imagination are likely to blame for the enduring underuse of her talent.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is a very sloppy transfer of a poorly maintained source print. It's full of scratches and nasty discolorations, and is frequently very unpleasant to watch.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is very limited in its dynamic capacity, though the aural interference is limited.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring All Through the Night
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Warner Night at the Movies 1942 (see below)
Extras Review: They Died With Their Boots On: To Hell or Glory (09m:44s) features Warners reliables Lincoln D. Hurst, Rudy Behlmer, and Robert Osborne discussing, among other things, the liberties taken with the source material; Osborne describes the movie "as historically inaccurate as it could possibly be." Especially interesting is the discussion of Flynn using his star power to get Michael Curtiz off of the picture, replaced by Walsh.

Leonard Maltin hosts this edition of Warner Night at the Movies, an effort to re-create what the theater-going experience might have been like on the film's original release; unsurprisingly, the recurrent theme is the U.S.'s recent entry into World War II. The newsreel is accompanied by a pitch by Nelson Eddy to buy war bonds: A Tale of Two Kitties features Abbott and Costello rendered as felines, and marks the first appearance of a certain bird and his signature line: "I taut I taw a puddy tat." Soldiers in White is a pitch for enlistment thinly disguised as a short; the package kicks off with a trailer for a Humphrey Bogart picture.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

A deeply silly movie, in which Flynn fills out the suit very well as George Armstrong Custer, but one that reminds us that looks aren't everything.


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