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Custer of the West

Custer of the West
MGM Home Entertainment
1967 / Color / 2:35 flat letterbox / 141 min. / A Good Day for Fighting / Street Date May 25, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Robert Shaw, Mary Ure, Ty Hardin, Jeffrey Hunter, Lawrence Tierney, Charles Stalmaker, Kieron Moore, Marc Lawrence, Robert Hall
Cinematography Cecilio Paniagua
Production Designers Eugène Lourié, Julio Molina, Jean Pierre d'Eaubonne
Film Editor Peter Parasheles, Maurice Rootes
Original Music Bernardo Segall
Written by Bernard Gordon, Julian Halevy (Zimet)
Produced by Louis Dolivet, Irving Lerner, Philip Yordan
Directed by Robert Siodmak

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Custer of the West is one of those misbegotten epics from the 60s, an independent production that wanted to compete with the Ben-Hurs and Lawrence of Arabias of the film world. Conceived as a roadshow production shot in 70mm, it served its purpose as programming filling for the giant curved Cinerama screens, along with other Philip Yordan Security Pictures presentations like Krakatoa: East of Java. Unfortunately, not only does the production show a penny-pinching cheapness, but the script is barely up to the needs of the story.


With no better offers to be had, famous Civil War upstart officer George Armstrong Custer takes over the Western Cavalry maintaining the peace in the Dakotas. He soon learns that the U.S. treaties are a sham, that Indian lands are being stolen and every excuse for driving them off their hunting grounds is being encouraged. With his wife Elizabeth (Mary Ure) Custer goes in and out of favor in Washington, while failing to keep wildcatting miners like his own deserting Sergant Mulligan (Robert Ryan) from running off to prospect for gold in Indian country. After trying to humble the prideful Indian warrior Dull Knife (Kieron Moore), Custer leads his 7th Cavalry into the biggest military blunder in U.S. history.

In the early 60s, writer-turned-producer Philip Yordan was kind of running amuck in Spain. Flush with script money from large Samuel Bronston epics, he built his Security Pictures through a series of cheap and mostly abortive international productions like 1963's The Day of the Triffids. But clever deal-making kept Yordan rolling, beginning with the King Brothers in the '40s and continuing into the '50s fronting blacklisted writers. His 60s pictures like The Battle of the Bulge were reasonable hits even if the critics thought they were terrible.

Custer of the West is a typical Yordan production - an impressively produced spectacle is let down by overall cheapness. There are a couple of nice setpieces early on and an okay battle at the end, although every scene is hampered by director Robert Siodmak's stiff use of the 70mm camera. The majority of this "epic" is played out in small rooms and under-decorated exteriors. Custer's frontier fort looks understaffed and sketchy and nothing in the film from the costumes up has any layers of detail. Custer visits Washington, and all we see is an image of him speaking, superimposed over a painting of the capitol dome.

What should be a big movie is filmed as if production money was threatening to dry up and the production shuttered at any moment (a chronic ocurrence with Triffids). The slapdash script alternates between half-hearted under-populated action scenes, talky exposition and a few impressive spectacles like the simplified ending battle. The actual text of the script is fairly progressive; movie fans thought the pro-Indian Little Big Man was the beginning of political awareness on this issue, but Custer of the West is almost strident in its cynicism about Washington motives. Robert Shaw's tentative Custer (he neutralizes his British accent, but still doesn't seem very American) at least is not presented as a guilty liberal Indian hunter. He has no compunctions whatsoever about wiping out innocent women and children if so ordered by his Army superiors. In his meeting with Dull Knife (what's the matter, would the Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull estates sue if real names were used?) Custer is brutally honest, telling the Indian chief that his people are defeated and his days numbered. Englishman Kieron Moore (a star in Yordan's Triffids and Crack in the World) is fairly convincing as the Native American.

That doesn't make George Armstrong a very sympathetic character, and Custer of the West loses our interest about halfway through. Mary Ure (Shaw's costar in the very good Irvin Kershner film The Luck of Ginger Coffey) is sweet in the "Olivia de Havilland" role but has little to do but guide her officer hubby Custer from the sidelines, making him sponsor a silly railroad gun to get his command back. Libby Custer seems a big step backwards from Maria Schell's gutsy frontier women in Daves' The Hanging Tree and Mann's Cimarron. Lawrence Tierney, the star of Yordan's 1945 breakthrough hit Dillinger does well as Custer's friend General Philip Sheridan. Jeffrey Hunter and Ty Hardin stumble in poorly written roles as Custer's famous Captain Benteen and Major Reno, with one a drunkard and the other a vaguely conceived soft-on-redskins type. But they're given great treatment when compared to Robert Ryan, a "guest star" with a terrible runaway miner role that could have been shot in a day and adds nothing to the picture.

The most embarassing part of the movie are the "Cinerama" episodes confected to show off the widescreen dynamics of the Ultra-Wide Super Technirama 70 format. Railroad cars are set rolling by themselves, a wagon runs wild down a road without any brakes, and a lumberjack escapes down an endless wooden water logging chute. Whenever these scenes hit, the story stops dead for minutes at at time, to allow for repetitive POV shots of blurry scenery whizzing past. 1

Once-great director Robert Siodmak had been working half in Europe ever since 1952's The Crimson Pirate, and Custer of the West nowhere near approaches his classic noir output of the 1940s. The lighting is resolutely flat, doing no favors for the reputation of Cecilio Paniagua, Mario Bava's cameraman on the creepy Lisa and the Devil. Writer Bernard Gordon wrote undemanding stuff like Hellcats of the Navy and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, and Julian Halevy did the honors on the rather good Yordan production Crack in the World. Together they pump a few reminders of Fritz Lang westerns into the stew. A raucous party thrown by General Sheridan sees women riding on the backs of men as in Rancho Notorious. Custer gets a dose of his own out-of-control fame as he sees himself portrayed on a Washington music hall stage, just as in The Return of Frank James. The disorganization of the production shows other symptoms - when the music-hall Custer sings, it's actor Robert Shaw who provides the lyrics.

MGM's DVD of Custer of the West is a very good-looking 2:35 flat letterboxed presentation, even though the package text incorrectly says 1:85. Color is good and the compression more than adequate. The presentation is full roadshow length minus overture and Intermission.

This is another ABC-licensed film being released by MGM, which should not be blamed for the lack of enhancement in the transfer, as it's not Leo's movie. I've never seen exciting stills from Custer of the West, but the cover photo is dull just the same. A second error in the package text will irk history buffs, when Custer's folly the Battle of The Little Big Horn is referred to as The Little Bighorn.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Custer of the West rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 2, 2004


1. Which always makes me think that the Trumbull/Kubrick Stargate sequence in 2001 was really a high-tech version of the same kind of scene.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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