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2:07:47 Sharp's Choice

Prelude to Demise: Heroification of Custer, Degradation of the Native Americans

By Douglas McKerns

The Film

[1] They Died with Their Boots On is a classical piece of film history. Not only does this film recount historical events, it creates some fiction in the process. 1941, the year of this movie's release, the United States was on the verge of entering into World War II as the last hope for democracy. The American people needed to unite. This epic tale of General George Armstrong Custer's life provides the spark that was needed to ignite the flame of American nationalism. The legend of General Custer is brought to life, and with it his mythical persona is glorified. In watching this film, the American public can view a cause worth fighting for, a cause worth dying for, the very same cause Custer died for.

The Scene

[2] The scene I will discuss takes place during the second hour of this lengthy film (2:07:47). My analysis includes examination of the battle of the Little Bighorn as well as a prelude to the battle--a man-to-man confrontation between General Custer and his nemesis Ned Sharp. The purpose of the prelude to the battle is to increase the importance of the movie's climax and to add suspense to the already tense situation. Also, major insight is given into the character of Ned Sharp. Sharp is shown to be the sinister turncoat as had always been suspected. In this scene, Custer's image as a hero is defined, and the opportunity for redemption he provided to Sharp allows greater insight into Custer's humanity. The climactic battle scene that ensues is the most exciting point of the film. Specific analysis of the scene's treatment of the Native Americans provides evidence that the film adheres to existing stereotypes of Indians. While the Indians are stereotyped, Custer is personified as the savior/ hero. Music plays a key role in the advancing of these perspectives.

The Prelude

[3] Custer is serious. His face projects his demeanor. There seems to be a strength behind his eyes. In the background, music beats steady and simple. This adds to the feeling of seriousness in the scene. The beating of a drum sounds like music being played by Indians in the distance, as if Custer's savage death awaits there.

Custer: Sharp's Savior

[4] The lighting of the scene engulfs Sharp in light as Custer is surrounded by darkness. This symbolizes the shroud of death that Custer brings with him. Sharp is immersed in light as if it was emanating directly from Custer. The light on Sharp symbolizes the goodness of the redemption Custer offers. The character of Sharp needs to be examined. Sharp represents everything wrong with America. He is a greedy, sinister, cold-hearted traitor. Sharp was an officer in the U.S. Army and, according to this movie, forced Custer to sacrifice himself and his regiment. Sharp represents the evils of the American Dream, but Custer offers Sharp redemption, which heightens Custer's position as savior/hero. He has kidnapped him to Bighorn and wants Sharp to either join them in the fight or walk out of the plains alone. Either way he will die, but with Custer he can have some honor in death. Everything bad about Sharp raises Custer to even greater heights. Sharp--"it's murder!" Where Sharp sent the innocent to death in the Black Hills, Custer sends the innocent to death as well. But Custer has purpose. He is the sacrifice to redeem the sins of Sharp. When Sharp asks Custer where he is going, Custer replies "to hell… or to glory." Custer says the answer depends on point of view. This signifies Custer's knowledge of his own death and heightens his image as a martyr about to be sacrificed.

[5] Music is the catalyst to this scene. The music sets the tone for the overall connotation of the Indians, the United States soldiers, and the Hero -- Custer. The music takes us on a wild ride, through the tranquil heartbeats of the prelude, following that to the beginnings of an ambush, and then finally climaxing along with the film at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

The Music

[6] The music played for the Indians and the music played when the US Cavalry and Custer ride is different. The music played for the Indians is very sinister. The sound of it is high pitched and frightening--fear is created. The music creates fear in the audience. The high-pitched rhythmic screeching of the music beats faster and faster as the action of the film increases. When Custer and his troops roll across the Plain, the music is tranquil and peaceful. As if playing a proud death-march. The Indians have pride in their music as well, but the sound of the music instills a different image. As the first wave of the Indians lead Custer and his troops to the Bighorn for the arrival of the other tribes and the ambush, the high-pitched frenzy of the music is slower. The ambush has not begun yet--the Indians are leading Custer and his troops toward their demise.

[7] What is interesting to note is the increase in pitch, speed of the beats, and volume of the music as the battle progresses. While trumpets sound for the U.S., and the music is complex in quality, the music for the Indians is relatively simple. Drum-beats are the backbone of the Indian's song, but what is sinister about the song is the high-pitched screeching of the sound. The music creates a frenzy and relates to the frenzy created by the Indians in their plan of attack. As the Indians lure Custer and his troops toward the hill at Bighorn, the music leads the emotion of the audience. We are taken on a journey; like Custer and his troops, we follow the beats of the music as the frenzy increases. Custer realizes he is trapped as he stands among his troops, surrounded by all the tribes of Indians. The music stops, pauses for a moment, and then attacks as the united tribes attack. The tribes have united, with their chiefs leading them in the charge. They pounce on the helpless U.S. Army.

Sinister Ambush

[8] Lurking in the wilderness, the savage natives sit with sharpened arrows, poised--ready to fight. The Native Americans of the Plains are displayed with a sinister quality. Custer and his troops roll across the moss-covered morning of the Plains, the sun breathing mightily behind them, while the savages lurk, unseen, in the shadows. Peering eyes creep in-between the blades of the tall Plain-grass. Ambush!!! The first retreat of the Sioux is a sneaky ploy to ambush the Americans. The Sioux have tricked Custer and his troops and once again attack from the backside with large forces. This plan of attack presents the Native Americans as having sinister war tactics. Another aspect that adds to the negative myth of the Indians is the disorder in their charge. Once the ambush has been set up, the Indians constantly charge toward the US troops. There seems to be no organization in the way the Indians attack once the troops are surrounded. The constant charge creates a feeling of an insurmountable force the fearful Americans are up against. With the U.S. soldiers holding position in a tight group, the Sioux do not develop the best plan to their attack; instead they advance with reckless fury.

Cowardly Savages

[9] The Indians are shown to be cowardly savages who lack honor and general knowledge of proper military tactics. Cowardice is evidenced by the Indians even before the battle ensues. A U.S. scout is found laying on the ground, dead, killed by two arrows to the chest. The American scout was defenseless. This killing of an unarmed man is presented for the explicit purpose of showing the Indians' actions to be cowardly. Another directorial decision to heighten the Indians presentation as cowards is the inclusion of shots where Crazy Horses' forces fire arrows into the backside of U.S. soldiers. This is considered a cowardly action. If two individuals are involved in a duel, they stand back-to-back and walk twenty paces, turn, and fire. The action of shooting these soldiers in the back would be like one of the duelers turning around at nineteen paces and firing at the backside of the other. I'm certain that in an all-out melee of this kind both sides of the fight took any necessary measure to eradicate the opposing force. My gripe is that the director chose to show the Indians as the only party guilty of committing such cowardly action.

Military Simplicity and Dishonor in Battle

[10] Many more Indians appear to be killed than U.S. troops. Custer seems to be the most effective harbinger of death; he never fails to kill at least one Indian with his shot. It seems almost magical when he fires his gun. Breaking the pattern of charging Indians, masses fall to his mighty bullet. The sheer numbers of the Indians are greater than the Americans, but many more of them are shown to die than are the American troops. The Indians seem to fall dead off their horses like waves of flies hitting a bug-zapper. This is meant to convey the might of the U.S. Army and to downplay the effective military tactics of the Native American forces.

[11] This presentation invites the question: "If the U.S. only had more forces, could they have won?" Close up shots show Indians screaming and yelling. This adds to native element of these people. When Custer and his troops ride, they are composed, and music plays in the background. When the Indians ride they are frenzied, and like music plays in the background. The hectic music, presented with simple means, adds to the presentation of the Indians as simple, savage, and frenzied. To get the audience to dislike the Indians, as Custer dies, Crazy Horse steals the American flag, and he and his soldiers trample over the dead bodies of Custer and his soldiers. This presents the forces of Crazy Horse as dishonorable as well as savage.

Heroic Custer

[12] Not only is Custer portrayed as a martyr and a hero, he is savior of the American cause. This is the image that the film presents, and here is how it is accomplished.

[13] Custer is presented as the hero, leader, savior, and martyr. Because Custer is aware of the massacre that awaits him, his image as a hero is more prevalent. Custer not only leads through words but also by example. Custer leads the charge against the first wave of the Sioux forces. He is the first soldier to be exposed to battle. With reckless abandon he charges in front of his troops, his saber held high above his head, and locks flowing in the wind. As the attacking wave of Indians pounce on the forces of the United States, Custer and his troops are forced to stand their ground and hold their position. Custer gives the order to "Fight on Foot!" and with his words, following the action of their leader, all dismount and hold their position.

[14] The formation of the troops is reminiscent of a bulls-eye. Custer in the center. Concentric circles surrounding the U.S. flag, where Custer stands. All the troops are squatting as they fight, but Custer stands. This shows dominance; Custer is standing above all his troops, beside the American flag, symbol of the country they are defending. Since he is the only one standing, Custer seems invincible. No shots hit him though he is the soldier most exposed in his position. Custer is always next to his companions when they die. He kills the Indian that stabs Butler and watches him breathe his last breath. Custer holds California Joe in his arms as Joe speaks of his dream to get to California--dying, Joe will never get there. Custer speaks to Sharp as he gets his. Sharp involves himself in "myth creating" of Custer since his last words are that Custer was right about glory. In his death, Sharp took some glory with him. Custer is the last man standing. With all of his troops lost, he continues to fight to the death. Having run out of bullets--he stands next to the flag, accepting the charging death that awaits him. If he had more bullets he would have continued to fight. He accepts death and becomes America's sacrifice. Custer is shown to be glorious, honorable, and courageous, even in death.


[15] The general effect of this scene has major significance towards the purpose of the entire film. If this movie was supposed to rouse nationalistic feelings in the American public, then They Died with Their Boots On succeeds. General George Armstrong Custer is made out to be, first, a savior to his nemesis Ned Sharp, then a leader of his troops into the battle at Bighorn. His image is intensified as he continues to make his stand amongst his troops at Bighorn--he seems almost invincible. Custer is the last man standing as the Native American forces lead by Crazy Horse charge with unbridled fury to take from him his life and to send him into infamy--the hero of America, the savior of a cause, the myth of a man in a fight for his country.