Hollywood’s Depiction of The Battle of Little Bighorn

There have been over 30 movies and several television films that document the events of Custer’s Last Stand in 1876 during The Battle of Little Bighorn during The Great Sioux War. George Armstrong Custer was a cavalry commander tasked with removing a group of Native Americans from The Black Hills in South Dakota. Unfortunately, Custer was greeted by thousands of Indians. Rather than retreating, he fought on leading his troop of 210 men to death.

The first Hollywood depiction was a silent film in 1912 entitled Custer’s Last Fight, directed and starring Francis Ford as Custer. In 1936, the first “talkie” was produced about Custer’s Last Stand. The film starred Frank McGlynn Jr and was produced by Poverty Row Studio. The movie was well received despite having many historical inaccuracies. The same year, famed director Cecil B. DeMille also directed The Plainsman, a film that fictionalized famous people from the west including General Custer. Custer was played by John Miljan.

In 1940, Santa Fe Trail a movie that has nothing to do with The Battle of Little Bighorn was released. The film had a subplot revolving around Custer attempting to woo Kit Carson Holliday who is not based on a real person. The reason why this movie is significant is that Custer was played by former (but not yet) President Ronald Reagan. This movie is constantly confused with the 1941 movie They Died With Their Boots On in which Errol Flynn starred as Custer. This is because both movies had the same leading woman. However, this movie is actually about General Custer’s life from the military academy to the civil war to his last stand. But it is still considered a highly fictionalized version according to a criminal attorney Odessa.

In the 1950s, the story began to portray Native Americans in a more sympathetic light with films such as the 1954 film Sitting Bull and the 1958 Disney film Tonka. In Sitting Bull, the story follows a soldier who is outraged by the treatment of Indians. In Tonka, a native American (played by white actor Sal Mineo) trains a horse that ends up being used by the US Calvary against his own people. Custer was played by Douglas Kennedy and Britt Lomond respectively.

The mythic quality of Custer has made him a character that appeals to every generation as we will never know exactly what happened at Little Bighorn. He’s been featured in art, featured in music and the subject of many novels and video games. Whether he is an Indian sympathizer or Indian murderer will forever be debated.