It is a Biopic of George Armstrong Custer, following him from 1857 to 1876. Custer (Flynn) starts out as a flamboyant, gregarious West Point plebe, who spends most of his time racking up demerits and trying to avoid expulsion. While there he meets and falls in love with Elizabeth Bacon (de Havilland), daughter of the richest man in their mutual hometown of Monroe, Michigan. Custer graduates West Point early due to The American Civil War creating a need for officers. He compiles a spectacular record that includes a key cavalry charge at the battle of Gettysburg, rising to the rank of brigadier general.
The war ends and Custer marries Libby. He finds himself at loose ends until Libby engineers an invitation from the Army for George to rejoin active service. The Custers are sent out to Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, where George takes command of the 7th Cavalry. The 7th divides its time between protecting white pioneers from the Sioux, and protecting the Sioux from white men encroaching into the Sioux homeland of the Black Hills—but unscrupulous businessmen are determined to bring war to Dakota.
Last of eight films pairing Flynn and de Havilland; one of the last films de Havilland made for Warners, as she would soon after file suit to be liberated from her contract. The final scene of Custer and de Havilland parting can be seen in retrospect as a bit of Leaning on the Fourth Wall. A young Anthony Quinn appears in the latter portion of the film as Sioux chieftain Crazy Horse. Max Steiner wrote the score.
Egregiously inaccurate as history; see below.
Provides examples of:
- Artistic License – History: Good God. Basically, almost nothing in the film is accurate other than a few broad points like how Custer went to West Point, fought in the Civil War, and died at the Little Bighorn. Everything else is fiction. It would take too long to list everything, but here are some examples:
- Custer is said in the movie to have been promoted to brigadier general. In fact, that was merely an honorary (brevet) promotion, which was an Army practice back in the day. He never actually rose above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
- Winfield Scott is shown as commander-in-chief throughout the Civil War. The historical Scott retired in late 1861, barely six months after the war started, due to his advanced age and physical unfitness. (The film does score a couple of points for accuracy by casting Sydney Greenstreet, who was almost fat enough to play the real Scott).
- Custer is shown with a drinking problem in the aftermath of the war. The real Custer was a teetotaler.
- Custer's enemies, Commissioner Taipe and the Sharps (themselves fictional characters), spread false rumors of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota in order to trigger an influx of white settlement. Actually, there was gold in the Black Hills, as any fan of Deadwood knows. And not only that, it was Custer who found it, during an Army expedition in 1874.
- Crazy Horse and Custer never met.
- In the film the Battle of the Little Bighorn is portrayed as a Heroic Sacrifice by Custer, who knows he is leading his regiment to destruction but does it anyway, to save the infantry contingents commanded by Terry and Crook and give them time to protect the whites in the Black Hills. This is nonsense. The real battle was part of a campaign to force the Sioux to give up the Black Hills and report to a reservation. Custer fully expected to win that battle, right up until the moment that too many Indians showed up.
- Additionally, the film shows Custer's whole command being annihilated. In Real Life Custer divided his force into three detachments before attacking. This foolish blunder led to Custer's detachment, roughly half the regiment, being completely wiped out. But the rest of the regiment managed to get away, after a two-day siege.
- See further examples below under Historical Hero Upgrade.
- Biopic: A heavily, heavily fictionalized one, following Custer from his enrollment at West Point in 1857 to his death at the Little Bighorn in 1876.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Custer's ridiculous entrance into West Point is followed up by the appalled sergeant turning directly to the camera and ranting about what a disgrace Custer is, a scene that ends with a Curse Cut Short.
- Cavalry Officer: Custer is the standard dashing, handsome, flamboyant cavalryman.
- The Dandy: One of the few things the movie gets right historically is Custer's dedication to frilly, ornate uniforms. He shows up at West Point wearing a ridiculous uniform inspired by Napoleon's Marshal Murat, and he commissions another fancy uniform after he gets promoted to general."He's got more gold braid on him than a French admiral."
- Establishing Character Moment: While all the other cadets arrive at West Point alone, carrying small suitcases, Custer shows up on horseback, with a servant carrying his luggage, with a pack of dogs, and in a ridiculous ornate uniform. This establishes him as a flamboyant dandy.
- Foreshadowing: In the film Custer testifies to a Congressional committee about the corruption going on between the Sharps and Taipe. His testimony is stricken as hearsay, but a lawyer helpfully explains that hearsay can be admissible if it's part of a "dying declaration". Custer thus writes a letter testifying to the corruption the night before going into battle, and Libby uses it to force Taipe's resignation.
- Hero Insurance: Custer's CO, Sharp, refuses to defend a bridge in Bull Run, instead ordering the troop to fall back. Custer punches Sharp in the face, takes command, and defends the bridge. He wins, and thus gets away with assaulting a superior officer.
- Historical Hero Upgrade:
- Beyond all the other myriad historical inaccuracies, this film portrays Custer as reaching a peace agreement with Crazy Horse, and then dedicating the 7th Cavalry to defending the right of the Sioux to live in the Black Hills. The Sharps have to gin up a fight that gets Custer brought up on charges in order to get him out of Dakota, because otherwise he'll go to the mat for the Sioux, going so far as "blowing up bridges" to keep the white man out of the Black Hills. The truth was exactly the opposite. The real Custer had no respect for Native Americans and was only too eager to use the 7th Cavalry to bring them to heel.
- Additionally, as noted above, in the movie the Battle of the Little Bighorn is depicted as a Heroic Sacrifice in which Custer deliberately leads his regiment to destruction as a delaying tactic to save the civilians and the rest of the army. In Real Life, Custer fully expected a glorious victory. He attacked at the Little Bighorn in defiance of orders to wait for General Terry's infantry to join him. He attacked in full disregard of his native scouts, who begged him not to go into the valley and assault an army of natives that outnumbered him by at least 4:1 (and maybe more). And when he attacked, he made it worse by dividing his regiment into three widely-scattered detachments, allowing the Sioux and Cheyenne to defeat each detachment in detail, and annihilate Custer's detachment.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Sharp, Custer's enemy, has to throw back a drink after being told that Custer has arrived at the bar and wants to see him.
- It Will Never Catch On: One of Custer's West Point buddies confidently assures him that "There will be no war." The Civil War breaks out shortly thereafter.
- Last Stand: Of course. In the movie it's a standard heroic Last Stand, as the 7th Cavalry fights to the last man (Custer being the last to die) in order to take out as many of the Indians as possible in a delaying action. In Real Life it was more like Custer's troops panicking and quickly falling apart as they were overwhelmed by Indians, with Custer probably dying early.
- Mammy: Trope Codifier Hattie McDaniel plays her standard sassy maid. In this one she helps get George and Libby together over the objections of Libby's father.
- Meet Cute: Libby Bacon has arrived at West Point with her father to meet Phil Sheridan, an old family friend. Custer is marching on a punishment guard detail, after one of his many many infractions. Libby asks him for directions to Sheridan's house, but Custer doesn't answer, as he is on punishment detail and forbidden to speak. Libby takes great offense.
- Nonuniform Uniform: Custer has a weakness for ordering ridiculously ornate, custom-made uniforms.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Flynn never did, which is why George Custer speaks with a Tasmanian accent.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Barkeeping: When Custer enters the bar at Fort Abraham Lincoln right before the regiment leaves for the Little Bighorn, the bartender is, naturally, cleaning glasses.
- Right in Front of Me: Custer has gone home on leave to Monroe, with a letter of introduction to Libby's father, whom he's never met. He stops off at a bar in Monroe before going to the Bacon mansion. He then gets in a shouting match with the rude rich guy who shows up at the bar to collect the rent. The rude rich guy is, of course, Libby's father.
- Shown Their Work: This film is about 98% fiction—but "Garryowen" really was the marching song of Custer's 7th Cavalry.
- Time Passes Montage: One shows a series of battles during the Civil War; another shows a series of battles in the Dakota Territory.
- Title Drop: When Custer is talking about the spirit of pride that he hopes to inculcate in the 7th Cavalry."Something to give us that pride in ourselves that will make men endure, and if necessary, die with their boots on."
- Trademark Favorite Food: Custer has an inordinate fondness for green onions. Libby bravely tries to eat a batch with him. George prattles on, unaware of the tears that are coursing down her face as she chomps down on onions.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: See above under Artistic License – History and Historical Hero Upgrade. The film bears little resemblance to Custer's real life story.
- Widow's Weeds: Libby is wearing the standard black dress and veil for her final confrontation with Taipe.
- Yellowface: Sort of. Crazy Horse is played by Anthony Quinn, who was Mexican, although Quinn did have some Native American ancestry.
- You No Take Candle: A lot of very painful pidgin English from Crazy Horse and the other Native Americans seen in the latter portion of the film.