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Film / Son of the Morning Star

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Son of the Morning Star is a 1991 TV movie directed by Mike Robe.

The film, which originally aired on ABC in two parts, is the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, in which Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and five companies of his 7th Cavalry were annihilated by Sioux and Cheyenne. It stars Gary Cole as George Custer, Rosanna Arquette as Custer's wife Libby, and Buffy St. Marie as the voice of Cheyenne woman Kate Bighead. Dean Stockwell appears as Phillip Sheridan, Terry O'Quinn plays Alfred Terry, and David Strathairn plays Custer's biggest enemy within the 7th Cavalry, Frederick Benteen.

It recounts the history of the northern plains from 1866 to 1876 through two different perspectives. One thread follows Custer, starting with his post-Civil War career fighting Indians in Kansas. Custer is court-martialed for leaving his command and placed on suspension from the army for a year. He returns to command, and makes a name for himself by attacking and destroying a peaceful Cheyenne camp on the Washita River. Yet advancement in rank does not come, and Custer pisses off President Ulysses S. Grant by his testimony at a Congressional hearing on corruption in the Grant administration. Only reluctantly does Grant allow Custer to have command of the 7th Cavalry for its fateful 1876 campaign against the Sioux.


The other thread follows Kate Bighead, a Cheyenne native who first meets Custer in Kansas in 1866. Bighead recounts the history of broken promises and violence that marks relations between Native Americans and their white oppressors. She is there when Custer and the 7th Cavalry fall on the Cheyenne at the Washita in 1868 and annihilate a peaceful village. She recounts the 1868 treaty that gives the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Sioux, and how the treaty is broken by the white man when gold is discovered in the Black Hills in 1874. She tells the story of Crazy Horse and how he rose to a leadership position among the Sioux. Finally Bighead and the Cheyenne join Sitting Bull's and Crazy Horse's Sioux, and meet Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

Based on Evan S. Connell's nonfiction book, Son of the Morning Star. And since it was based on a non-fiction narrative it's far more accurate to history than most other Custer works, either pro (They Died with Their Boots On) or anti (Little Big Man).



  • Age Cut: From Crazy Horse as a teenaged boy having his mystical vision, to Crazy Horse as a grown man.
  • Artistic License – History: Not very much, as this film is faithful to Connell's book. The attack at the Washita took place in the depths of winter in deep snow, which the movie doesn't show, probably due to budget constraints. Reno was visibly and audibly intoxicated during his charge and retreat, slurring his words and swigging from a flask filled with whiskey; the movie omits this. Finally, in Real Life Custer divided his already divided command once again, separating his own detachment into two wings, one of which was annihilated at Calhoun Hill while Custer died with the other wing at Last Stand Hill. The movie collapses this into one fight; the dramatic charge by Crazy Horse which wipes out Custer in the movie actually took place against Lt. James Calhoun's wing on Calhoun Hill.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: As the position on Last Stand Hill is collapsing, a soldier is shot down. His buddy takes one look at his wounded comrade on the ground, shoots him, then shoots himself in the head. (This is taken from history, as the Sioux and Cheyenne recounted several soldiers shooting themselves as Last Stand Hill collapsed.)
  • Catapult Nightmare: Libby pops up out of bed in classic style when she has a nightmare of Custer's death, right before he departs for the Little Bighorn.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The Little Bighorn, yep. But also the Fetterman Fight of 1868, in which Crazy Horse and a band of Sioux lead Captain William J. Fetterman and 81 men into an ambush in which the whites are killed to the last man, much like Custer eight years later.
  • Died Standing Up: Upon realizing all is lost, the gravely wounded Custer tries to invoke this. Although barely able to stand, he nonetheless rises from cover, fully exposing himself and defiantly firing several wild shots from his revolver, before being shot dead.
  • Dies Wide Open: Custer, as seen when his body is discovered on Last Stand Hill.
  • Dirty Coward: Reno at the Little Bighorn, who calls a halt to his charge, panics while in the timber, and then takes his men on a chaotic retreat across the river to what was later known as Reno Hill. Then Reno and Benteen, after their detachments were reunited, refusing Lt. Weir's appeal to ride to Custer's aide.note 
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: Lots of guns get cocked, but one shot specifically shows Crazy Horse cocking his rifle before leading the mounted charge against Last Stand Hill which wipes out Custer's command.
  • Dramatic Thunder: Thunder and lightning for Custer's dramatic (and foolish) ride back to Libby in 1866, which results in sex (and later a court martial).
  • Eye Open: The first we see of Custer is a tight shot on his eyeball as he is carefully grooming his mustache.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Custer complains when a band of Sioux separates as he's chasing them, saying "They always scatter!" This foreshadows the cause of his destruction at the Little Bighorn, namely, that he never dreamed the Indians would stand and fight.
    • General Terry complains about the carbines issued to the 7th Cavalry, with their copper-jacketed rounds that tend to get jammed when the gun heats up during rapid fire. During the Little Bighorn fight, we see soldiers frantically trying to pry jammed rounds out of their carbines.
  • Happily Married: George and Libby Custer are a love match, even if he did take an Indian mistress while out on campaign.
  • Historical Domain Character: All of them. Kate Bighead was a real person whose eyewitness account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is still referred to as a primary source.
  • How We Got Here: The first scene has General Terry and the infantry arriving at the Little Bighorn, meeting what's left of the 7th Cavalry, and then going to Last Stand Hill, which they find littered with corpses, Custer's among them. Then we jump back to Custer in 1866 Kansas and the story plays out from there.
  • In the Back: How Crazy Horse is killed in 1877, stabbed in the back by a soldier while another Sioux held him, after Crazy Horse balked at the prospect of being thrown in a jail cell.
  • Last Stand: Yes. Although the movie takes some license by collapsing Calhoun Hill and Last Stand Hill into a single location (see Artistic License – History above), the fight on Last Stand Hill is shown as much like it really was: not determined and heroic with the whites holding out to the last man, but chaotic, brutal, and quite short. (In Real Life it didn't take more than half an hour for the soldiers on Last Stand Hill to be wiped out.)
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Custer leaves his regiment and rides alone 300 miles to go back to Libby, because he was worried about a cholera epidemic, but mainly because he missed her. It's very romantic, but he gets court-martialed for going AWOL and is suspended from the Army for a year.
  • Narrator: Libby Custer giving the perspective of the whites, Kate Bighead giving the perspective of the Native Americans. Sometimes they directly contradict each other, like when Libby recalls that Custer killed over a hundred fighting braves at the Washita, followed immediately by Kate saying that only thirteen braves were killed and the rest of the dead were women and children.
  • Oh, Crap!: Custer gets two of these before the end. First, he realizes just how many Indians he's attacking, saying "This isn't the end of the village, it's the middle!" when making an abortive approach to the river. (Something like this seems to have happened in Real Life when Custer's men approached the river at Medicine Tail Coulee, only to retreat back to the ridge.). Second, with his position on Last Stand Hill already in desperate trouble, he hears Crazy Horse's Dramatic Gun Cock, and turns to see another large group of Sioux about to hit him from the north. They wipe out his command.
  • Orbital Shot: Around Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan as they sit at a dinner table and plan the 1868 winter campaign that ends with the massacre of Black Elk's Cheyenne at the Washita.
  • Shown Their Work: Highly faithful to Connell's book and historical events. Frederick Benteen really did love to play baseball.
  • Title Drop: "Son of the Morning Star" was a name given to Custer by the Crows.