The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Great Sioux Massacre

I caught part of They Died With Their Boots On recently on a cable movie channel. It got me thinking. There just isn't many movies made about George Armstrong Custer, and then I quickly corrected myself. There aren't many good movies about Custer. Yeah, Boots is good if dated, and the TV miniseries Son of the Morning Star is an exception. Well, here we sit with another entry. Where does 1965's The Great Sioux Massacre end up?

Having received new orders, Lt. William Benton (Darren McGavin) rides west to the fort where the Seventh Cavalry is stationed. He's looking forward to meeting his new commander, Colonel George Armstrong Custer (Philip Carey), a renowned Indian fighter who's reputation precedes him. Tensions with the Plains Indians are rising with each passing month, but that's just part of the problem for Benton. A woman from his past, Caroline Reno (Julie Sommars), is stationed at the post with her angry, alcoholic father, one of Custer's officers, Major Marcus Reno (Joseph Cotten). Benton immediately requests a transfer to avoid the drama, but Colonel Custer convinces him to stick it out. A fight with the Indians is coming, and Custer has some master plans for his cavalry regiment and for his future beyond.

One of the most fascinating personalities in American history, George Armstrong Custer is a divisive individual. Was he a hero, a brilliant military strategist and Indian fighter? Was he a bumbling officer, a gloryhound seeking his own fame? It's some of both most likely, but the moral of the story is pretty simple. This isn't a good movie. From director Sidney Salkow, 'Sioux' takes the history of the late 1860s and into the 1870s, throws it into a blender and pours what's left into this 102-minute B-western. He rewrites the history that is really interesting in itself and makes it....well, not interesting. That takes some doing when you consider the background.

So where to start? It's based on Custer, the Seventh Cavalry and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but there are tweaks at basically all turns. Everyone else is named after the historical individuals they're based on, except for McGavin's Lt. Benton, supposedly based on Lt. William Benteen. The actual Benteen isn't interesting though so let's switch things up!!! In the facts, Benteen and Major Reno were both born in 1834, but here Benteen (um, Benton) has dated Reno's daughter. Yeah, personal drama! Reno is also apparently an angry Southerner who still holds a grudge against the North. Benton is also a Southerner with McGavin sporting a painfully awkward southern accent. Seriously, folks? Are we really doing this? We're degenerating a really fascinating historical story into a really forced, not worthwhile love story.

But somehow and some way Colonel Custer will save us. Right? Right?!? No, not especially. Carey doesn't have the star power or charisma to bring Colonel Custer to life. There is so much potential for character development and really delving into the guts of a military leader with an instantly recognizable name. Some of the actual history is explored, especially Custer's efforts to expose government corruption surrounding the Indian agencies. Before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the actual Custer was actually removed from command and potentially facing some serious threats from President Grant. The story and facts are interesting, but the actual execution is not unfortunately in the film. Also look for Nancy Kovack as Libby, Custer's supportive wife.

Much of the screentime is focused on Custer, Benton and Reno, wasting some potentially cool supporting parts. I thought the most interesting character was the cavalry scout, Dakota (John Matthews), a white man who saw his family wiped out by Indians. Also look for Michael Pate as Sitting Bull and Iron Eyes Cody as Crazy Horse, underutilized as warrior counterparts to our bumbling cavalry officers. There's also House Peters Jr. appearing late as Cambridge, a reporter tasked with building up Custer's heroic actions.

So Custer couldn't save things. Could the actual battle scene, the infamous Custer's last stand? Um, no. Throughout the movie in hopes of hiding the film's small budget, footage is liberally borrowed from a 1954 western, Sitting Bull, also directed by Salkow. Small world, huh?!? Basically any shot of cavalry leaving the fort or riding across the plains or heading into battle is from the 1954 movie, not the 1965 one. The filming locations are vastly different so this footage stands out like a sore thumb. Just not good. Oh, so not good.

The Great Sioux Massacre (1965): * 1/2 /****

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