They Died with Their Boots On

“What do you Yankees think you are? The only real Americans in this merry old parish are on the other side of that hill with feathers in their hair”

If most old movie fans were asked to name their favorite Errol Flynn picture I think that a significant majority would probably plump for The Adventures of Robin Hood. I couldn’t really fault that choice as it comes in near the top with me too, but it’s still not my favorite. That honor would have to be reserved for They Died with Their Boots On (1941). I don’t know if it’s Flynn’s best film but it is up there and must surely be seen as one of the high points of his career. The character of George Armstrong Custer is one that Tasmania’s most famous son must have seemed ideally suited to playing. When the film was made Custer’s reputation as one of America’s greatest military heroes was only beginning to be reassessed, so there’s no axe-grinding revisionism to be found. Judged as a faithful biopic or character study, the movie is open to all sorts of criticism; but that’s not really what They Died with Their Boots On is all about, and it would be doing it a great disservice to treat it too harshly on those grounds. No, this is a Boys’ Own adventure of romance and daring, of guts and glory – and taken as such, it works perfectly.

There have been numerous portrayals of Custer on screen, dating back to Francis Ford in 1912, but I doubt if any have imbued the man with the glamour that Flynn brought to the part. The film traces his life and career from his entry into West Point up to his final moments at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s arrival at the US military academy, in all his gold-braided glory with a pack of hunting dogs in tow, is largely played for laughs, although it does set up a simmering rivalry with fellow cadet Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) that’s crucial to the plot’s development. In fact, this is a film of two distinct parts; the first hour or so is mostly lighthearted knockabout stuff with only the occasional foray into more serious matters, while the second half takes on a decidedly darker and moodier tone. Therefore, we get to see Cadet Custer as a kind of fun-loving prankster who liked to ride his luck and chance his arm with authority, which, by all accounts, wasn’t too far from the truth. When the Civil War intervenes and necessitates his early graduation, Custer finds himself torn between pursuing his interest in the love of his life, Libby (Olivia De Havilland), and his enthusiasm to get into the thick of the action. Naturally, the pursuit of glory and honor wins out, and this leads to a nice little scene in Washington with General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet). Interestingly, Custer did have a fortuitous meeting with the Union commander on arrival at the Adjutant General’s office which led to his first active posting – albeit without the business with the creamed onions. The war, which ironically brought enormous fame to Custer, is given only minimal attention but it does show his rapid rise through the ranks. While all this is presented in a highly entertaining fashion, you still get the sense that we’re only marking time until we get to the real meaty stuff – the move west and the Indian Wars.

With the action shifting to Dakota, the whole feel of the film changes and raises it up to a different level. There’s still time for the odd lighter moment but it’s quickly apparent that this new war is no gentleman’s affair. Custer almost immediately clashes with his old foe Sharp who’s running a saloon and trading rifles with friendly Indians from within the fort. The first order of business is to end the drinking and whip the drunken recruits into some sort of fighting force. This is achieved via a wonderful sequence whereby Custer adopts the old Irish drinking song Garryowen and uses it as a means of instilling a sense of pride and unity into his ragtag 7th Cavalry. There’s also the first view of the red men, and in particular their chief Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). One notable aspect of this movie is the respect afforded to the Sioux; at no point are they portrayed as anything less than a disciplined fighting force with legitimate grievances. The real villains of the piece are the corrupt officials and their businessmen backers from the east. The point is made very clear that the Sioux are left with no choice but to rise against the whites when treaties are broken and their shrinking homeland is further encroached upon. When Custer leads out his last fateful expedition he does so in the hope of earning more personal glory of course, but it’s also obvious that his political masters and their moneyed allies have left him with no other option. So, he leads his 7th to the Little Big Horn – to hell…or to glory, depending on one’s point of view.

Flynn gave one of his better performances in They Died with Their Boots On, particularly in the second half. You can see the character gradually mature as the story moves along, his youthful optimism giving way first to disillusionment and then, finally, to a perversely jaunty death wish. If you wanted to stretch a point, it’s possible to see parallels in the course of Flynn’s own life. There’s also much more maturity in the relationship between the characters of Flynn an Olivia De Havilland; this would be their last film together and that fact adds considerable poignancy to their farewell scene, which is pitch perfect in its playing. However, even though the film marked the end of one partnership, it would signal the beginning of another – this was the first movie that Flynn made with director Raoul Walsh. If the star’s relationship with Michael Curtiz was a less than happy one, his collaboration with Walsh was much more congenial. These were two men who were much closer in temperament and Flynn seems to have felt a lot more comfortable in the company of the buccaneering old director. Walsh was one of those directors who was always in his element shooting outdoors on location. I’ve already made the point that when the film switches to the west it moves up a gear, and I think that’s due, in part, to Walsh’s affinity with the outdoors. The last half hour or so has a dreamy, poetic quality that’s the equal of some of John Ford’s best work – and that’s no mean feat. It should also be pointed out that the movie benefits enormously from one of Max Steiner’s finest and most memorable scores, which is built around the rousing yet vaguely melancholy Garryowen.

Warner’s R1 DVD (I believe the R2 is the same transfer) of They Died with Their Boots On is quite fabulous, clean and sharp with barely a damage mark in sight. It has a good selection of extras though it lacks a commentary, which I feel this movie deserves. OK, maybe this isn’t the best western you’ll ever see but it’s right up there among my all time favorites – one of those films that unfailingly pushes all the right buttons on every viewing. Next up, San Antonio.

Santa Fe Trail


If you’re the kind of person who gets hot under the collar when movies play fast and loose with historical facts, or if you find the political undertones of times gone by to be unbearably offensive then Santa Fe Trail (1940) is most assuredly not the film for you. This is the kind of movie that’s awfully easy to criticise and denigrate, and it’s probably a simple task to find lots of sites on the web that have done just that. Well, I’m not going to indulge in that kind of shot-taking. I can live with a movie twisting history for dramatic effect as it seems foolish to expect what is essentially an entertainment medium to stick only to the facts. As for politics, there are always going to be positions that we either agree or disagree with. If I were to limit myself to those movies that conform to my personal views I would in all likelihood be looking at a very small pool of titles. So, while I can acknowledge that Santa Fe Trail has some shortcomings, I’d still say it ranks as an enjoyable movie experience.

The story is a fairly straightforward good guys versus bad guys tale, with the role of the heroes being assumed by the army, and the new West Point graduates in particular. So, we are presented with the fanciful notion of Jeb Stuart, George Custer, Phil Sheridan and other famous military figures all graduating the same year. That’s all nonsense of course, but it does allow the point to be made that the Civil War was an event that was to set former friends and allies at one another’s throats. The focus remains firmly on Stuart (Errol Flynn) and, to a lesser extent, Custer (Ronald Reagan) as they strive to run to ground the abolitionists in Kansas led by John Brown (Raymond Massey). This is the point that most people object to; namely the fact that the film seems to demonise the anti-slavery activists. Now, while there can be no doubt that these characters are portrayed as the villains of the piece, it’s not that simple. The movie actually takes pains to keep to a middle line and actually shows the pro-slavery crowd (albeit in far fewer scenes) to be no better. As I said, the viewers perspective is that of the army in the middle. There are numerous occasions where the characters all voice sympathy for the ultimate aims of, if not the tactics employed by, the abolitionists. If anything, this is the source of the issues many have with the film – it fails to come right out and condemn the southern states advocacy of slavery. Personally, I’m not sure if this should be seen as a weakness. The fact that it doesn’t take the easy route gives it a unique quality. There’s always a certain satisfaction and reassurance that a viewer feels when a movie follows the line that he himself believes to be right. However, there’s also a different satisfaction to be derived from those rare movies whose message remains more ambiguous. Santa Fe Trail is such a film, it never really takes sides clearly and saves its condemnation for the kind of murderous zeal that that can tarnish even the noblest of causes.

Flynn again gives another variation of his laughing cavalier character. He must surely rank as the most swashbuckling cowboy ever to ride the frontier, and the script offers him ample opportunity to do so here. He was still in his athletic prime at this point, and is in his element whether chasing gun-runners on horseback at breakneck speed across the prairie or storming Harper’s Ferry with sabre drawn. After his unconvincing pairing with Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City, it’s good to see Olivia De Havilland cast opposite him once more – the obligatory love story seems much smoother and more comfortable with these two. Ronald Reagan seems an odd choice for the role of Custer for he possessed neither a physical resemblance to the man nor any of that driving ambition that characterized him. Instead, we get a slightly  comedic figure who’s relegated to playing second fiddle to Flynn’s more Custer-like lead. Raymond Massey’s John Brown is all fiery passion and outrage. His wild-eyed reformer borders on parody but, despite chewing up the scenery, stops just short of that. He still invests his role with a sense of credibility and even manages to bring some humanity to what could easily have become a caricature. A word also for Van Heflin who gives solid support as the mercenary Rader who finds redemption at the end.

This would be the last western collaboration for Flynn and Michael Curtiz, and their penultimate film. By all accounts there was no love lost between them despite the fact they made a dozen movies together. Curtiz again makes good use of both locations and studio, and his handling of the action scenes is exemplary. There’s also a memorable little interlude before the climax, when the group of soon to be famous soldiers all gather round an old indian squaw and have their collective fortunes told. As the old woman sits drawing pictures in the dirt, she tells them that they will all achieve honours and rank but in the process become bitter enemies. This is pure Hollywood fantasy but it’s beautifully filmed and quite poignant in view of the historical context.

Santa Fe Trail has long been a staple of various PD companies on DVD. There has yet to be an official release in either the UK or the US, but there is a Warners DVD of the movie out in France. The disc is a barebones affair but it does present the film better than I’ve seen before. The print used is a little soft in places and a little too bright in others but it is remarkably clean and free of damage. The audio is generally strong although I did notice a momentary dropout on two occasions. If anyone’s looking to get their hands on the best extant version of this interesting and frequently overlooked film I would suggest seeking out this French copy, which has the Warners logo intact at the beginning, and mercifully removable subs. Next time – They Died with Their Boots On.


Virginia City


When Errol Flynn’s first stab at a western, Dodge City, proved to be a financial hit Warners wasted no time in casting him in another. They reassembled as many of the cast and crew from the previous movie as possible and threw in a few more stars for good measure. The result was Virginia City (1940), and although this one wasn’t in technicolor the sweep of the narrative was every bit as epic as its predecessor. It’s not quite the movie of Dodge City but it does come close, only let down by a couple of questionable casting decisions which I’ll look at later.

The story of Virginia City takes place towards the end of the Civil War, and deals primarily with a last ditch attempt by the Confederacy to secure a bullion shipment which would allow them to fight on. Four years of warfare, and the accompanying blockade, have left the South on the verge of bankruptcy and staring defeat in the face. Their one chance of survival hangs on obtaining the necessary funds to keep them afloat. Virginia City was the site of some of the richest mines in the country and provided the Union with untold wealth. Of course some of those same mines were owned by Confederate sympathisers who had managed to raise $5 million to aid the cause. The difficulty for the South was to get that money out of Nevada and safely into their own territory. Enter Vance Irby (Randolph Scott), a Confederate officer who has the requisite knowledge of the territory to head up an expedition to bring the contraband through. In the film’s opening scenes Irby is in charge of a military prison which counts a certain Captain Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn) among its inmates. When Irby foils Bradford’s attempt to escape it sets up a personal rivalry between the two men that is added to later on when they meet again in Nevada and find themselves competing for the attentions of saloon singer Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins). Although both Bradford and Irby find themselves on opposing sides in the war they have a good deal in common, and indeed end up fighting shoulder to shoulder against a mutual threat in the closing stages. Since both of the leads were cast in essentially heroic roles it meant that another, more obvious, villain was needed. That’s where Humphrey Bogart comes in, playing the mustachioed Mexican bandit John Murrell.


Flynn and Scott both play their parts well and it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for both. However, it has to be said that Scott comes off the best. He was the better actor but that’s not the only reason; his mission was also more romantic, and the fact you know it’s doomed from the outset lends more pathos to his character. In fact, the northerners of the film (with the exception of Flynn and perennial sidekicks Hale and Williams) are generally an unpleasant bunch who are difficult to sympathise with. Douglass Dumbrille’s Major is a straight-backed martinet and other pro-Union characters are shown in a highly unfavorable light. It’s notable that many films of this period tended to side with the Confederacy and painted the Yankees as the villains. Only in the closing moments, when Lincoln (appearing as no more than a shadow cast on a document) makes an appeal for national reconciliation, does the film show the Union in a positive way. If Flynn and Scott give a good account of themselves the same cannot be said for Bogart and Miss Hopkins. Bogie just didn’t belong in westerns; he was too eastern and urban, and he gives a stiff and unconvincing performance that borders on pantomime. Miriam Hopkins also looks all at sea belting out old standards in a can-can dress in a rough saloon. There is a bit of back-story for her character to show that she came from an altogether higher class of family, but it still fails to hide the fact that she was a poor choice for the part. Most of the time she appears uncomfortable and too old for her role. It’s a pity Olivia De Havilland couldn’t have been given the part for, although she wasn’t exactly the saloon girl type either, she at least had chemistry on the screen with Flynn.

Michael Curtiz did another fine job of directing and every shot is professional and well framed. The movie benefits a lot from the extended use of locations that are especially important for westerns. He created plenty of excitement in the action scenes, in particular the sequence where Bogart escapes from the runaway stagecoach. That scene also features a repeat of master stuntman Yakima Canutt’s patented under-a-moving-vehicle manouevre that he first used in John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s also worth mentioning that Max Steiner provided another thundering score to match the on-screen action, and it adds a great deal to the film’s atmosphere.

Virginia City is available on DVD from Warners in R1 in their set of Flynn westerns. The transfer is excellent and Sol Polito’s black & white photography positively glows. There’s the usual array of extra features, including a commentary track by Frank Thompson that provides plenty of detail on the film’s production. Warners have also released a set of Flynn’s westerns in the UK, but omitted this title. I’m not sure why this happened but I have to wonder if it may not have something to do with some of the horsefalls; there’s one particularly brutal shot that would surely cause a problem with the BBFC. I would rate this film at just a notch below Dodge City, but it’s still pretty good. The plot is strong and Flynn and Scott’s characters have enough depth to keep you watching, but the miscasting of Hopkins and Bogart does damage the picture. Coming next, Santa Fe Trail.


Dodge City


OK, time for a new series. Over the coming weeks I’m going to be covering the westerns of Errol Flynn. He made a total of eight oaters between 1939 and 1950, and I’ll be looking at each in turn. Flynn may not have been the most natural choice as a western hero but he managed to adapt to the genre reasonably successfully. While some of these films are undeniable classics, others are more mediocre. However, they all remain entertaining and this is due, in no small part, to the presence of Flynn. His first venture into the west was Dodge City (1939), when he was still at the top of his game, and his name was box-office gold. This, of course, was the year when the western was making its comeback as an entertainment for adults. It seemed like every big Hollywood star was heading for the frontier, and so it’s only natural that Flynn should follow suit.

The film begins in the expansionist, nation-building years that came after the Civil War. Wade Hatton (Flynn) has been earning a living as a buffalo hunter in the employ of the railroad. The opening scenes highlight the unstoppable drive towards progress as the new steam locomotive races, and beats, the overland stage into Kansas. When the iron horse pounds its way into the fledgling Dodge City it signals a new and dangerous future. The railhead will allow Dodge to grow into a major hub for the shipment of cattle. However, the boundaries of civilisation will always be home to those who hope to make a quick profit and take advantage of the fact that the law invariably trails along as a distant second in the wake of a sprinting capitalism. So, while Dodge City becomes a thriving commercial centre, it also gains the reputation of being an anarchic, ungovernable place. The lawless element of the town is represented by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his hired gun Yancey (Victor Jory). These men have all the illegal activities sewn up and have no hesitation in removing anybody who threatens their interests. Although Hatton and Surrett clash early on, it’s not until the rampant disregard for the law causes the death of a child that matters come to a head. Hatton accepts the position of sheriff and is set on a collision course with Surrett. Along the way, the hero finds the time to romance Abbie Irving (Olivia De Havilland), although it’s a relationship that gets off to a bad start when her wastrel brother dies in an accident after fighting with Hatton.

Dodge City is a movie where the action never lets up and it moves along at such a brisk pace that it rewards repeat viewings. So many of the themes and elements that would later become staples of the western genre are given their first exposure here. The massive and memorable bar room brawl that forms the centrepiece of the picture is the template for just about every cowboy scrap that followed. Director Michael Curtiz handles this sequence masterfully, the scale of the fight is always obvious and it’s so well choreographed that the viewer is never left feeling confused or lost. In fact, it’s almost an object lesson in how to film a big action set-piece with excitement and still retain clarity. Curtiz was nothing if not versatile, and was at home with pretty much every setting and style of film making. Throughout Dodge City he manages to move effortlessly from comedy to drama, to action, and on to romance, without once missing a beat – a model of smooth, professional direction.

One of the biggest obstacles for Errol Flynn when he started playing western roles was the fact that he didn’t sound like cowboy. However, Hollywood was always clever at circumventing such inconveniences, and the writers got around the issue by providing a backstory for Hatton’s character and making him an Irish adventurer who’d travelled extensively. Anyway, as I said, the story moves along at such a lick that minor inconsistencies are soon forgotten as you get drawn into the plot. Flynn manages reasonably well and the man’s natural charm helps a lot. Olivia de Havilland was certainly the finest leading lady Flynn ever had, and the films they made together were always worth watching for their on-screen chemistry. I couldn’t honestly fault any of the performances in Dodge City; Cabot and Jory make a fine pair of villains, and there’s the inevitable comic relief from Alan Hale, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Frank McHugh. One of the nice things about the movie is the way more serious points manage to get slipped in amid the humour. For example, Hale and Williams’ clowning around and bemoaning of the fact that Hatton’s brand of law and order is turning Dodge into a genteel, sissy town, and their consequent need to push on deeper into the west, makes the point about the feminine nature of civilization as eloquently as many a more serious and heavy-handed film.

The R1 DVD (and I guess also the R2) of Dodge City from Warners is generally a pleasing transfer, but it’s not without its problems. There’s no damage to speak of, but there are technicolor registration issues which cause a blurry image with some fringing from time to time. Having said that, the problem is not one that should spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film. There are a number of extras including Warners Night at the Movies and a short featurette on the film. All told, Dodge City may not be Errol Flynn’s finest western performance but it is still a fine western. Next up – Virginia City.