Monday, March 10, 2008

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (Warner Bros. 1941) Warner Home Video

When audiences recall the frequent on-screen teaming of Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland, Raoul Walsh’s They Died With Their Boots On (1941) is most likely the film they remember best. Indeed, it would be the very last time these two co-starred in a movie together – putting a period to both their on screen and behind the scenes love affair that had been palpable box office for the studio for nearly a decade.

A sweeping saga, presumably about General George Armstrong Custer (Flynn), in truth there was very little of historical accuracy captured in the Wally Kline/Aeneas MacKenzie screenplay. Not that it mattered, but Custer was not the pompous brash cadet of little talent and great ego at the prestigious military academy of West Point as depicted in the film. In fact, he proved an astute pupil with a passion for warfare that was all too quickly exercised when his graduation was cut short by the necessity of troops for the Battle at Bull Run.

Distinguishing himself in battle, Custer is promoted by Major General Sheridan (Sidney Greenstreet) and thereafter endures an aggressive campaign of victories on the field that chart his meteoric rise. Along the way, Custer courts the elegant Elizabeth Clift Bacon (DeHavilland). The construction of their relationship is anything but smooth, though it eventually develops into one of the most sincere and lasting unions in the confederacy.

Custer retires from military life. But his need to succeed soon becomes a burden to his marriage and Elizabeth realizes that her husband’s place in the world is on the field of honor. She concedes to allowing Custer to rejoin the army at the start of the American Civil War and bids him a fond final farewell as he makes ready his ‘last stand’ at Little Big Horn.

Director, Raoul Walsh mounts this would-be historical epic on highly questionable revisions of historical texts seamlessly blended into pure pulp fiction. Hence, the battle against Chief Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn) is portrayed as a crooked deal between wily politico California Joe (Charley Grapewin) and a spuriously absent corporation that desires to reclaim the lands Custer gave the Indians by launching into a full scale systematic genocide of the Nation’s first peoples.

Flynn, who cleverly plays Custer as though he is one part machismo to two parts elegant fop, has never been more ignoble. He literally oozes charm and sex appeal from every pore, easily melting the heart of his loyal heroine.

Resident Warner stock players, Arthur Kennedy and Sidney Greenstreet deliver marvelous cameos that appear to have far more depth of character than is actually written into the material. Overall, despite its loose history in favor of a good romantic yarn, They Died With Their Boots On is ample film fodder for the Saturday matinee or Sunday night in front of the fire.

Warner’s DVD is quite impressive. Although film grain is obvious in spots, the gray scale has been very nicely rendered with deep, solid blacks and very clean whites. Some fading is obvious during scene transitions. Contrast levels are stable. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. The audio has been cleaned up and is presented at an adequate listening level.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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