On June 25 1876 Lt Col George Armstrong Custer led his famed 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn, and into the pages of history. Exactly how subsequent events unfolded have remained the subject of debate and conjecture to this day. What is certain is the result of that fateful engagement between Custer’s 7th and the enormous force of Indian warriors, largely Sioux and Cheyenne, ranged against them. Custer and his entire command were massacred, wiped out to a man. Over the years, that event has come to symbolize different things to different people: heroism, folly, retribution, or flawed judgement. A number of films have offered various interpretations of what transpired in the heat of battle, and a few have also turned their attention to the aftermath. 7th Cavalry (1956) is one of those movies that looks at what followed and, for a time at least, toys with the notion of saying something definitive about the actions of Custer. Ultimately though, it backs away from this – it’s essentially a film of two parts, with the potentially interesting beginning gradually giving way to a more familiar and standard outdoor adventure that’s nowhere near as satisfying as it could or should have been.
The story is told from the perspective of Captain Benson (Randolph Scott), apparently one of Custer’s favourites, who is first seen returning to Fort Lincoln in the company of his bride-to-be, Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale), shortly after the ill-fated Little Bighorn expedition. At this stage Benson is unaware of what has befallen his regiment, but the uneasy silence hanging over the fort as he approaches it alerts him to the fact that something is badly wrong. These opening scenes are eerily atmospheric, as we follow Benson through the deserted fort, and share in his confusion and sense of foreboding. And then the full, horrific truth is revealed – the overwrought widow (Jeanette Nolan) of one of the slain soldiers confronts Benson and tells him of the massacre and the ugly fate of those who fell, practically accusing him of cowardice and deception in the process. What follows is the return of the surviving units, the establishment of a board of inquiry and the airing of various recriminations. The inquest into this military disaster is to be conducted by the father of Benson’s betrothed, a stiff and uncompromising army man of the old school (Russell Hicks) who has always regarded his potential son-in-law with suspicion at best. This section is where the film is at its strongest, holding out the possibility that a range of themes, ranging from the classic one of redemption through notions of honour and class prejudice, will be delved into. Yet few of these, barring the former, are ever fully explored as the movie progresses. The second half sees the tone, emphasis and setting shift completely as the investigation winds up rapidly and Benson sets out on a suicidal mission to recover the remains of Custer and the other officers of his command. Here we retreat towards more standard fare as Benson picks a troop of “volunteers” made up of drunks and shirkers (Jay C Flippen, Denver Pyle, Leo Gordon, Frank Faylen et al) who also avoided the initial battle to undertake the perilous mission. Despite being weaker, this portion of the movie is not without its own points of interest, not least the introduction of the idea of spirituality. Sadly though, here’s another potentially fascinating avenue that’s left undeveloped and actually treated in a hokey fashion in order to facilitate a convenient climax.
Over on his site on 50s westerns yesterday, Toby made a very good point when he mentioned Night Passage. If you follow that link you will see exactly what he was saying, and the essence of it is that the way we approach a film, or the weight of expectation that we bring along, can unfairly colour our assessment of it. It’s an idea that I’ve had buzzing around in my own head for a while too, and Toby’s reference to it made me wonder if it didn’t have some application to the movie in question here. What I mean is this: how far does one’s preconceptions based on cast, crew and subject matter impact on the evaluation of a movie? In this case, we have a mid-50s western starring Randolph Scott, directed by Joseph H Lewis, and dealing with one of the most controversial figures in western lore. I think all of these factors are bound to raise expectations in the minds of viewers, expectations on which the finished product doesn’t really deliver. Is that position fair though? On consideration, I think it is, or partially so at least. Lewis has a reputation for making tight and economical little B pictures that frequently transcend their modest production values and offer visual and thematic riches. I don’t think his direction is especially weak in 7th Cavalry, but the script, and its execution, tries to pack too much into a pretty brisk running time. There’s simply too much going on and too little time to expand upon any of it. Ultimately, we’re left with a first half that flatters to deceive, and a visually attractive follow-up (beautifully shot by Ray Rennahan) which leaves us short-changed. The specter of Custer hovers over proceedings throughout, and indeed helps effect a resolution which is far too pat for my liking. I do wonder if the film had had a director and star of lesser standing whether my overall reaction would have been different – I don’t know, but it is something to ponder.
And back again to expectations. Randolph Scott made 7th Cavalry just as his collaboration with Budd Boetticher was about to see his iconic status within the western genre fixed permanently. It’s difficult to put that thought to one side while watching the movie but, in all fairness, Scott acquits himself well enough despite the shortcomings elsewhere in the production. Anyone familiar with this site will be well aware of my admiration for Scott, and the roles he took on in the latter stages of his career are easily my favorites. No one ever played pride on screen quite so effectively as Scott, and that aspect forms the cornerstone of his portrayal of Benson. His quiet dignity and innate self-confidence are to the fore as he plays a man whose motives and character are called into question by almost everyone – it’s not quite the conflicted loner that he and Boetticher would so successfully explore but it’s not a million miles away either. As the principal female lead, Barbara Hale is fine, yet the role is limited in scope and offers her few opportunities. The supporting cast in the film is particularly strong – Jay C Flippen, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle and Jeanette Nolan all have their chances to shine and deliver telling little performances, with Faylen and Flippen getting the more interesting and rounded roles. I also want to take this opportunity to mention the small (yet pivotal in terms of the plot) part played by the recently deceased Harry Carey Jr. Over the years, his presence contributed a lot to so many films, especially westerns, and his passing sees yet another link to the golden age of cinema severed. In 7th Cavalry, as in so many movies, Carey displayed an honesty and simplicity that always helped ground a picture and added a certain warmth.
7th Cavalry is one of those films that has been hard to get hold of in an acceptable edition on DVD. There are a number of options available, but most are problematic in one way or another. There’s a French release by Sidonis that reportedly sports a fine transfer but forces subtitles on the original soundtrack, there’s a UK disc that I understand is of appalling quality, and there are no fewer than three editions in Spain. Of those Spanish releases, two are either full frame or non-anamorphic letterbox transfers. The one to go for is this edition by Regia Films, which sees the movie paired up on separate discs with another Lewis title Terror in a Texas Town. The disc has a good anamorphic widescreen transfer, with subtitles which can be deselected via the setup menu. The print used is in pretty good condition, without any noticeable damage, although the colours can appear slightly muted on occasion. In the final analysis, I’d have to say 7th Cavalry is a middling western; there is the promise of something different that’s never fulfilled, and that’s what I find most disappointing.
33 thoughts on “7th Cavalry”
Hi Colin, Well, you got me into Randolph Scott…….actually since I was a child, my first Scott watch was Riding the High Country where I was also introduced to an older Joel McCrea. I am not fond of them in early movies……not nearly so much as when they are older. However, there are still some good ones left to see, so I believe I will put this one on the back burner. Thanks for the heads up.and the spot on aritcle.
Hi there Keith. You’ll get no arguments from me on that score – both McCrea and Scott certainly improved with age. Having said that, both did plenty of fine work when they were younger too and I can watch them in just about anything.
A fine review Colin ad a great way to start 2013! This is one of those movies that regularly turns up on the box in the UK and I’m always eager to watch it but my interest flags a bit after the first half and I really think you nailed how divergent the two parts of the narrative are. It would have been nice to see more from Scott and Lewis, I agree, but on the other hand, how many films, up to this point, had taken an even remotely critical stance on Custer? I can’t really think of any.
Hi Sergio. The big problem with this film is how it loses its way somewhat in the second half; it doesn’t actually become a poor movie as much as a lesser one.
As for the film’s attitude to Custer, I’d say it tries to offer a more balanced assessment rather than out and out criticism, which may actually be more unusual. If we’re talking about movies that had challenged the heroic image of Custer before this, then I guess we could say Ford’s Fort Apache might fit the bill, albeit with the identities disguised.
On a slight tangent, I read Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen E Ambrose a few years back, a nice attempt at a dual biography that traced the parallels in the lives of the two men.
Spot-on Colin – FORT APACHE is definitely the only one I can thinks of. I haven;t read anything by Ambrose and I know he’s supposed to be good. It is amazing how long the myths around Custer were maintained though I did find it intriguing how even in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON there is more than a hint of controversy. Obviously nothing compared with Richard Mulligan’s ranting lunatic in LITTLE BIG MAN of course …
I think an element of controversy was always there when it came to Custer. Of course Flynn’s portrayal played up the more positive aspects but there are hints there too if you keep your eyes open. Mulligan’s take went way too far in the other direction though in my opinion and is too much of a cartoon depiction.
Robert Shaw in Siodmak’s flawed Custer of the West is an interesting one.
Good review Colin. I agree that 7th Cavalry fails to fulfill the full potential of the story. I always enjoy it though. You’ve also provided a very useful guide to the various DVDs available. I had been wondering about the various Spanish ones.
Yes…Harry Carey Jnr. I was sad to read his obit in the paper last week. He had been one of the last survivors from the western’s golden age, as you point out. There are very few of them left now. He was always a solid presence…and a character actor who moved into ‘grizzled veteran’ type roles quite early in his career.
Cheers Dafydd. I wanted to try to clarify the DVD situation for anyone interested, especially with the range of options from Spain. The Regia release I linked to is really quite good and value for money even if, as I do, you already own a copy of the other Lewis movie.
And yes, Harry Carey Jr will be much missed.
I’m always happy to get your take on a Scott western. In this case, I think I agree with you – “a middling western” – all the ingredients of an interesting drama which wasn’t quite well enough written. A good opening, (reminds me of Beau Geste), interesting court room scenes and then the change to the battlefield. With all the very capable actors in the group maybe there could have been better interaction as they battle to stay alive.
I agree Barbara Hale was wasted though her presence did provide the reason for Scott’s absence from the battle.
Just a thought, although I love some of Scott’s westerns, there are some I don’t care if I never see again! In that list would go Rage at Dawn, Ten Wanted Men,The Doolins of Oklahoma,Coroner Creek, The Nevadan,THE Stranger wore a Gun. – !
As I said earlier, I feel the second half of the movie just took things in a less interesting direction – I don’t feel that section is poor, merely less original than what preceded it.
For me, the Scott westerns which I’m less keen on (I can’t say I actually dislike any to be honest) tend to come from his earlier period. Of the ones you listed, I quite like Coroner Creek, Rage at Dawn – such a powerful climax – Ten Wanted Men – the cast is fabulous – & The Nevadan.
From his later movies, I can honestly say I got very little from Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend.
Great piece as always Colin,you are not alone in considering 7th CAVALRY as a “middling”
Western.Boyd Magers on his site gives the film a “trash can” rating. I however really like the
film,its one for me that always delivers no matter how many times I see it.
Perhaps its something to do with the great cast;I really like the way Scott is hated by his
rag-tag troop platoon;but being Randy we KNOW he is going to pull through in the end.
I love Joseph H Lewis but I just cannot get along with THE HALLIDAY BRAND one of his few
Regarding other Scott films some already mentioned before,I rate THE DOOLINS OF
OKLAHOMA really highly.Also really like THE WALKING HILLS which is not only top-drawer
Scott but top drawer John Sturges as well.Other Scott films I really like (apart from the Boettichers
obviously) are WESTERN UNION,CORONER CREEK,MAN IN THE SADDLE and A LAWLESS
Minor league Scott for me is MAN BEHIND THE GUN (the very least of his pictures IMO)
and CANADIAN PACIFIC.
The UK DVD of 7th CAVALRY was terrible and I understand another ghastly PD UK
imprint is about to release the film again soon. I have the Sidonis version which is stunning
and luckily I have someone who can dis-able those wretched “forced” subtitles for me.
Why do Sidonis keep doing this they have some great titles announced for this year but I
am avoiding them until they resolve this subtitle thing.
While we are on the subject of “Custer” movies Sony/Impulso in Spain have just released
THE GREAT SOUIX MASSACRE in a lovely widescreen version.Despite the fact that the
film lifts tons of footage from SITTING BULL its still quiet an interesting film with a good take
on Custer by Phil Carey.No classic but worth a look.
Hi John. From all those movies you mention there, the one that I would most like to see available is The Walking Hills – great cast, great director and bags of atmosphere.
On The Great Sioux Massacre, I saw that’s out in Spain but always heard it had a poor reputation. However, I may give it a go.
I suspect the subtitle business with Sidonis releases is in some way tied in with licensing – they may be obliged to author the discs that way. The positive thing is that the majority of their stuff seems to come out in Spain sooner or later anyway.
Yep! THE GREAT SIOUX MASSACRE does have a bad reputation but the high quality of
the DVD does improve it somewhat. In any case its far superior to Sidney Salkows
previous attempt at the Custer story SITTING BULL.
Film is interesting in that Custer starts out pretty decent then becomes more manic as the
film develops.Oddly enough on the reverse of the DVD cover is a photo of Wild Bill Elliott
and Bobby Blake (and Peggy Stewart???) someone at Impulso/Sony goofed,I guess.
Thanks for the reply John. I have an extremely full shopping cart at Starscafe right now, hoping for a few discounts to come along, but I’ll add this in.
I would’ve never made the connection between this and Night Passage, but you’re entirely right. Both films would have entirely different reputations if they existed in a vacuum. This can be the curse of a movie nut — knowing too much to be able to simply WATCH A MOVIE.
Like John, I like 7th Cavalry, even though I agree with almost every criticism it gets. To me, it’s another chance to spend 70-something minutes with Randolph Scott in his prime, backed by a great cast, working with a solid director (especially visually), and in gorgeous Technicolor.
Hi Toby. This movie and Night Passage certainly don’t have a lot in common, but that piece you posted the other day just made me think about the whole matter of weight of expectation.
Overall, I do like the movie, mainly for the same reasons you cited there, even if it’s a touch disappointing.
As I name-dropped Peggy Stewart a post or two back I thought I would go way off
topic and share this with you. By the way Peggy turns 90 this year and is still working;she
appeared in an Adam Sandler flick last year!
Anyway some years back she was guest at a B-Western convention in London.
This lady had some amazing stories to tell.She did not like Charles Bronson very much.
She does however like Robert Blake.She told this bizarre story about when Blake was
incarcerated Anthony Hopkins used to go visit him. According to Peggy they used to read
passages of Moby Dick to each other.
Just thought you would like to know;and Colin I promise I will try in future not to go too far
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Go off topic as much as you want John – little anecdotes like that are always most welcome, and interesting.
Very interesting John K. Always loved Robert Blake. Don’t know what to think about him now, except still love his work. Anthony Hopkins is an icon, LOL. Strange imagining the two of them friends, much less reading Melville’s classic to each other. Will try to find out more about that relationship. Most intriguing.Must be a lot more to Robert than I ever imagined. You have any insights to their relationship, Colin? Hmmm, might be a really good story there. You have a link for the Peggy Stewart story that mentions them, John K. Thanks again, Keith
What a great story.
Hi Colin — I haven’t seen a Randolph Scott film in years though I have been reading reviews of his western films on some blogs over the past several months. You make a compelling case for 7th CAVALRY even if it didn’t entirely live up to your expectation. Simplistic as it may sound, the poster and the pictures have already tempted me to watch this film and I’ll see if I can get hold of it online.
Hello Prashant. I certainly wouldn’t want to sell this movie as anything other than what it is – a competent if flawed western. For all that, it is quite enjoyable and worth looking out for.
As for the poster, it sounds like it did its job by selling you on the concept.
So was I equally disappointed by this Joseph H. Lewis’ western (or should we say Lewis directed western since Harry Joe Brown & Randolph Scott obviously had more than a single hand on it), a genre he seemed to be less at ease with (cf. “A Lawless Street”) than film noir (cf. “Gun Crazy” or “The Big Combo”). Would you know which snowy mountain shows in the background behind Scott reading a letter and Jay C. Flippen standing up?
The film was apparently shot around Amecameca, Mexico so that ought to be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains I guess – maybe Popocatepetl.
Actually Samuel, I’m fond of A Lawless Street. I guess Lewis’ noir pictures are stronger overall but that movie has a very good performance by Scott, a much better script and a more interesting visual style.
I love A Lawless Street. One of the real sleepers of 50s Westerns, in my opinion.
And you wrote an excellent article on A Lawless Street a while back too Toby.
Colin, our discussion earlier tonight got me in the mood for a Western, so I watched this one, which I’d recorded from TV recently. The print on Film 4 looked fantastic, with the most beautiful, sharp Technicolor (just a shame about the constant ad breaks), and Scott is excellent, but I must agree with your review and the comments that the film doesn’t live up to the promise of those powerful opening scenes. Like Vienna, I was also reminded of Beau Geste, and I was fully expecting that the angry widow would play more of a part, but no. I agree the second half isn’t exactly bad, but it is a disappointment after that opening.
Thanks for coming back and commenting on this one, Judy. Yes, we’re back to expectations again. The way everything is cued up leads us to expect something stronger as the movie progresses, and it just doesn’t come. I still like the film overall but it frustrates me a bit too.
Lewis’ other westerns – Terror in a Texas Town & A Lawless Street – are worth looking out for if you haven’t seen them.
Thanks, Colin. I believe ‘A Lawless Street’ is on TV here this week (Film 4 again), so I’ll record it.
Hope you get something from it. There are some really nice examples of visual flair from Lewis in that movie.
For a Scott film I found it a bit of a light-weight western. But even a lesser Scott film is always worth a look. Fine review as always.
That’s it, Gord, a Scott western will deliver to some extent no matter what. Sure it could be better but it’s still entertaining as it is.
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