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They Died with Their Boots On
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Robert Fellows
Written by Wally Kline and
Æneas MacKenzie (screenplay)
Starring Errol Flynn
Olivia de Havilland
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Editing by William Holmes
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) November 21, 1941
Running time 140 minutes
Language English

They Died with Their Boots On is a 1941 western film directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Despite being rife with historical inaccuracies, the film was one of the top-grossing films of the year, being the last of eight Flynn–de Havilland collaborations.

Like Flynn's earlier film Sea Hawk, this film was digitally colorized in the early 1990s and later released on VHS tape in 1998. Then in 2005 the film was released on DVD.[1]


The film follows the life of George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) from attending West Point, wooing of Elizabeth Bacon (Olivia de Havilland) who becomes his loving wife, the American Civil War, and the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Custer enters West Point and quickly establishes himself as a troublemaker, after showing up in an outfit he designed himself that made him appear as a visiting officer. After he is almost kicked out of West Point for the misunderstanding, he signs up as a cadet, and stacks up demerits for pranks, unruliness, and disregarding the rules. Although he does not graduate with the rest of his class, he is given an officer position with the Union Army when the Civil War breaks out, at the reluctance of most of his supervisors. They ultimately decide that his impetuousness will be valuable in an officer, and he is given his orders to report to Washington, D.C.

Custer's relationship with Libby Bacon begins at West Point, when he is walking a punishment tour around the campus. On punishment, he is not allowed to talk, but he is approached by Libby who is looking for directions. As soon as his punishment is over, he runs after her, and tells her he will meet her at her front porch that evening. Because of his orders to travel to Washington, D.C., Custer misses his meeting with her.

Once in Washington D.C., Custer befriends General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) who aids him in being placed with the 2nd Cavalry. He becomes a war hero after disregarding his superiors' orders in a crucial battle and successfully defending a bridge for the infantry to cross. He is awarded a medal while recovering in hospital after a shot to the shoulder.

Upon returning home to Monroe, Michigan, as a hero, Custer marries Libby and they set up a house together. However, Custer is bored with civilian life and has begun to drink. Libby visits Custer's friend General Scott and asks him to assign Custer to a regiment again. He agrees, and Custer is given orders to go to the Dakota Territory, where he will ultimately be involved in Custer's Last Stand.

When Custer and Libby arrive in the Dakota Territory, Custer finds the soldiers he is supposed to lead are drunken, rowdy good-for-nothings. An old enemy from West Point, Ned Sharp, is running the bar in town, as well as the General Store which is providing firearms to the local Native Americans. Furious, Custer shuts down the bar and teaches his troops a song, Garry Owen, which brings them all together. He whips them into shape in time for an inspection by the General. However, his old enemy, Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) gives the troops each a bottle of liquor right before they are supposed to report, and they embarrass Custer by riding passed the General drunk. Custer is relieved of his post and sent home.

On the train home, Custer hears from Libby that Ned Sharp is trying to start a Gold Rush in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, the Native Americans' sacred land. The Gold Rush would bring lots of business into Sharp's shipping line. Outraged, Custer takes the information to Congress, where he is laughed at. When news arrives that Native Americans and American troops are getting into battles over the gold miners, Custer returns to the Dakota Territory with Libby to help his battalion.

On the day of Custer's last stand, Custer realizes that a group of infantry will march into a valley where thousands of Native Americans stand ready to fight them. Knowing the infantry won't have a chance, he says a tearful goodbye to Libby and leads his battalion into the battle to save the infantry. Arrows fly and horses trample across the valley, and all are killed but Custer, who is finally downed by an arrow.

In the film, the battle is blamed on unscrupulous corporations and politicians craving the land of Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn) and his people.

Custer is portrayed as a fun-loving, dashing figure who chooses honor and glory over money and corruption. Though his "Last Stand" is probably treated as more significant and dramatic than it may have actually been, Custer (Flynn) follows through on his promise to teach his men "to endure and die with their boots on." In the movie's version of Custer's story, a few corrupt white politicians goad the Western tribes into war, threatening the survival of all white settlers in the West. Custer and his men give their lives at Little Bighorn to delay the Indians and prevent this slaughter. A letter left behind by Custer absolves the Indians of all responsibility.


  • Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer
  • Olivia de Havilland as Elizabeth Bacon Custer
  • Arthur Kennedy as Ned Sharp
  • Charley Grapewin as California Joe
  • Gene Lockhart as Samuel Bacon
  • Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse
  • Stanley Ridges as Maj. Romulus Taipe
  • John Litel as Gen. Phil Sheridan
  • Walter Hampden as William Sharp
  • Sydney Greenstreet as Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott
  • Regis Toomey as Fitzhugh Lee
  • Hattie McDaniel as Callie
  • Joseph Crehan as President Ulysses S. Grant

This film went on to gross $2.55 million for Warner Bros. in 1941 making it the studio's second biggest hit of the year.

Historical accuracy[]

The film, as a fictionalized account of Custer's life, deviates from the historical record in various ways: in its depiction of Custer's personal life, his record during the Civil War, and the Battle of Little Bighorn itself.

  • The commandant at West Point before the Civil War is claimed to be Colonel Philip Sheridan, who was a second lieutenant in the Oregon Territory until March 1861. He never served as superintendent of West Point. In fact, the superintendent of the Military Academy from 1852 to 1855 was Col. Robert E. Lee, and during January 1861, P.G.T. Beauregard, both later Confederate generals.
  • Among the other historical inaccuracies is that Custer served as a messenger at the First Battle of Bull Run; he did not command troops, and Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott was commander of the United States Army only until November 1861. The film claims he served in this position throughout the war.
  • After the First Battle of Bull Run, it is depicted in the film that Custer was decorated, but in reality he never received any medals (though he did receive brevet promotions for gallantry.) During this time, the only medal awarded by the government, or the Army, was the newly introduced "Medal of Honor", which George Custer never won. However, Custer's brother Tom actually won 2 Medals of Honor during the Civil War. This fact is referred to in the movie "Son of the Morning Star" when Tom replies to his brother George, "I didn't have to be a General, I won all the medals."
  • The film shows Judge Samuel Bacon having a large number of African Americans employed in his household. The portrayal of him having some black domestic help may not have been inaccurate at that time, however his employing such a large number in Michigan was not likely. The great migration of blacks from the south to the northern cities such as Detroit, MI, had not yet occurred, and did not happen until around 1920, another 65 years after the war ended. To have such a large number of blacks in the north, concentrated in such a small area as Monroe, MI, would have been highly improbable at that time. From a sociological perspective, prior to the Civil war, the vast majority of free blacks lived along the east coast in cities such as Boston, MA, New Haven, CT, the State of New York, Philadelphia, PA and Providence, RI. If they did venture away from the east coast, then the most likely place to for them to settle would have been Ohio (a state with strong abolitionist cities, towns, organizations and colleges).
  • Although it is true that Libbie Bacon's father did not approve of Custer it was not because Custer insulted him in a bar. Bacon simply disapproved of Custer based on social status. He believed that Custer was not good enough for his daughter, but eventually came around after Custer was promoted to Brigadier General in 1863.
  • His promotion to Brigadier General was not accidental as depicted in the film, but a deliberate act. He was promoted by General Alfred Pleasonton (not Romulus Taipe) on June 28, 1863, three days before the battle of Gettysburg.
  • At the time of the battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, Major General Henry Wager Halleck was the Commanding General of the United States Army. He would have been the individual in charge of the headquarters command scenes (if the strategy scenes are accurate to the period) and organizing the battle strategy depicted in the film along with General George Meade, not Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. Although retired, it was Scott's overall war strategy called the Anaconda Plan, continued by President Abraham Lincoln and waged by General's U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan that led to the Union's decisive victory.
  • After the war, Custer did have a period of military inactivity. However, any decision to restore him to active duty would have been not been made by retired Lt. General Scott, but General U.S. Grant, who was the Commanding General of the United States Army, from March 9, 1864 to March 4, 1869, when he was inaugurated as President of the United States of America.
  • In the film, Custer is shown leading a saber charge against an oncoming Indian war party, which leads to his unit being surrounded and him being the last man standing before finally being killed. In reality, the troopers had boxed their sabers and sent then to the rear before the battle and by some accounts Custer had been among the first to die.
  • Following the end of the Civil War, Custer is depicted as a drunkard in the film, while in reality, Custer neither drank nor smoked. After an 1862 drinking binge in which he humiliated himself, Custer vowed never to touch liquor again, and he never did. Furthermore, Flynn's hair is long at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Custer had cut his hair short prior to the battle.
  • The movie depicts Custer having a private meeting with Crazy Horse to discuss a peaceable solution to a land dispute. In reality, Crazy Horse detested whites and never conferred with them.
  • Custer is shown as being utterly faithful and devoted to his wife Libbie, but by some accounts, during his time on the plains he was alleged to married an Indian woman and had children with her. However, some historians view this as innacurate, due to the fact that Custer had contracted gonnorhea while attending West Point and that he might have been rendered sterile, leading them to believe that the father was really his brother Thomas.
  • Another inaccuracy of this film is that the studio did not show how the Sioux and Cheyenne mutilated the bodies of the soldiers after the battle. Custer's brother Tom, who died with him, had his face so badly mutilated he could only be identified by the tattoo on his arm.
  • In other regards, however, the film is more accurate - Custer was genuinely sympathetic towards the Indians plight, and opposed the Grant Administration's Indian policy. He spoke out against the abuses suffered by Indians on the reservations, which proved an embarrassment to the administration and, as depicted, was regarded by many of his superiors as a trouble-making glory seeker. He also said that if he were an Indian he'd fight the encroaching white expansion, which is repeated in the film.

"Custer's Last Stand" sequence[]

Although the rest of the film was shot in various locales throughout southern California, the film makers had hoped to capture this climactic sequence near the location of the actual Battle of Little Bighorn. Due to scheduling and budget constraints, however, the finale of the film was relegated to a rural area outside of Los Angeles.

Crazy Horse, played by Anthony Quinn, is the only individualized Indian in the scene and represents the "red man" whose lifestyle is coming to an end. Quinn, who is of Tarahumara ancestry, is one of the few actors of American Indian descent in the film.[2] Only 16 of the extras were Sioux Indians. The rest of the Native American army were Fillipino extras. Knowing the scene would be dangerous, Anthony Quinn ordered a hearse on the day of shooting as a joke.[citation needed] Two extras did die during the filming of the sequence. One untrained rider, George Murphy, died in a fall from his horse, reportedly while drunk. A second extra, Jack Budlong, fell off his horse and was fatally wounded by his prop sword.[3]


The score was composed by Max Steiner. He adapted George Armstrong Custer's favorite song, "Garryowen", into the score. Custer first heard the song from Irish soldiers. In the film, he hears it from an English soldier who claims its origin is Australian. This connection is apocryphal. Warner Brothers recycled some of the music from the film and it, or variations of it, can be heard in "Silver River" and "Rocky Mountain", both starring Errol Flynn, and "The Searchers" starring John Wayne.


  2. Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

External links[]

de:Sein letztes Kommando (Film) es:Murieron con las botas puestas fr:La Charge fantastique it:La storia del generale Custer nl:They Died with Their Boots On pt:They Died with Their Boots On