CUSTER OF THE WEST
by CLIVE SINCLAIR
(Originally for the Custer Association of Great Britain, 2012)
REVIEWING Custer of the West upon its release in 1968, Showguide (a precursor of Time Out) informed its readers that: “The script of the film— based on several years of research—has been splendidly written by Bernard Gordon and Julian Halevy, who delved into a private library of more than a thousand books, folios and letters to find their facts.”
The review is quoted in Bernard Gordon’s memoir—Hollywood Exile: or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist—which admits a less scholarly genesis. Walking along Madrid’s “main drag” with Philip Yordan—boss of the European script factory in which he toiled—Gordon was informed that his next task would be to write a motion picture about George Armstrong Custer. The news was not well received.
“Custer?” said Gordon. “My God. All I know about him is that he was an Indian killer, and the Indians finally killed him at Little Big Horn!” Yordan shrugged, and Gordon continued: “Who in this day and age would want to make a film hero out of someone who did his best to butcher Indians?” “I don’t give a damn about Custer or the Indians,” said Yordan. All he was interested in was the fact that he had been paid to produce a film about Custer.
Gordon died in 2007, but his writing partner Julian Zimet (who—also being blacklisted—used the pseudonym Halevy), lives on in Rome, in an apartment he shares with his wife Anna Maria (Primo Levi’s sister). At 93 some of his senses are failing, but not his memory. And his tongue could still run a marathon. Nor has it lost its sting. “The first thing you should know,” he said, “is that Gene Autry was a prick. A prick and a shit both.”
Raised on the east coast, Zimet had ventured to Hollywood early, and then, by dint of perseverance and native talent had risen from script reader to script writer. Among his early sales was Sierra Sue, a vehicle for Gene Autry. Not only did he write it, he also found himself advising the director how best to shoot it, at least until its star noted his presence. “I don’t want any Jew spies on my set,” said Autry.
On the other hand the government thought him patriotic enough to be drafted (though prompted by Joseph McCarthy the powers-that-be eventually came to share Autry’s opinion). When the witchfinders decided to dignify prejudice with judicial authority, Zimet elected to quit America: he had no intention of naming names, as other quasi or real communists had done, but he had no wish for martyrdom either. First he went to Mexico, then Italy.
It was from Rome—many years later—that he travelled to Madrid to work with his old comrade, Bernard Gordon, on the Custer project. By 1966, the year in question, Vietnam was beginning to dominate the political agenda. One major side-effect was that it overturned the authorized version of America’s past, in particular the conquest and colonisation of the West. The few Westerns that went into production were made with reversed polarities; the Indians were now freedom fighters—the Viet Cong in warpaint—and the US Cavalry the militant arm of colonial oppression.
It was these changing times that prompted Gordon to say to Yordan: “Fine. Let’s do a film about Custer, a really modern film that tells the truth about him and the whole American policy at the time.” Policy which—it went without saying—found its modern equivalent in Vietnam. But Yordan had no interest in contemporary relevance: “It’s people like you with your antihero ideas who are ruining Hollywood! We’ll just figure a way to turn Custer into a hero!”
Even so, the finished movie is far from innocent. Robert Shaw was cast as Custer, and Mary Ure—his wife—as Libbie. According to Zimet, the actor was even more determined than the script writers to view Custer through modern eyes. “The original brief was to turn out a typical Western sainted hero martyr script, which Gordon and I duly delivered,” he told me. “But Robert Shaw figured he would make it over to suit himself. Which he did. He turned Custer into a sadist of Shakespearean depth.”
Gordon, in his memoir, implies that he retained some of his original scepticism, and gives the leading man only a secondary role in shaping Custer’s character: “Production stumbled along on Custer as Julian and I tried to give the Indians a fair shake. Robert Shaw was helpful. A bright man and a fine writer, he approved of our point of view of that the Indians were victims right to the end. He even wrote one speech for Custer… that made this point sharply.”
Either way, Shaw had no time for either Gordon or Zimet. According to the latter, he regarded the pair as “American philistines,” to be treated with contempt. As far as Shaw was concerned movie-making Hollywood-style was little better than a criminal enterprise. This disdain was extended to the director hired by Yordan. As a matter of fact both scriptwriters were also unimpressed by the appointment of Robert Siodmak, a former Hollywood insider, now involuntarily retired, and so eager to work that he would (in Zimet’s words) “have agreed to direct the telephone book.” “Why are you hiring Siodmak?” he protested to the producer. “Why do you want a broken down, dying man, when you could have a splendid new director such as Lindsay Anderson?” “You jerk,” said Yordan, “Siodmak is a name I can take to the bank.”
In Hollywood Exile, Gordon elucidates this terse response: “We need a star or we have no deal,” said Yordan. “We have no script to show to a star, so what do I do? I go to Robert Shaw and ask him to do the picture. He wants to be helpful. But without a script, how can he agree? I tell him I’ll get him an experienced director. How do I get a respectable director to take the job? I still have no script. I find out Siodmak is hungry. He has an impressive track record, but he’s out of work in Switzerland. The phone isn’t ringing. He’s dying to do another picture and pick up another fee. So I get Siodmak and I’ve got Shaw—and I get the four million bucks to make a picture.”
Similar considerations lay behind the casting of Sgt Mulligan, a character who appears out of nowhere, has a couple of big scenes (in the second of which he pleads with Custer for his life, forfeit on account of desertion), and then vanishes as if he had never been. Mulligan owed his brief existence—was enlisted—because Yordan felt it necessary to attract another star name, to put on the marquee and in advertising. Enter Robert Ryan, who took the money, said the lines crafted for him by Zimet, and ran.
“Shaw took care of the battle scenes himself,” recalls Zimet. “Siodmak preferred directing ballroom scenes, which he had done so often in his long career they required no invention. What he didn’t anticipate, as he choreographed fifty couples, was that the actor—whose intervention was designed to give coherence to the scene—would go crazy, punch him in the chops, and walk off the set. I was already working on another project, but Yordan insisted that I write some lines for a minor actor, which would account for the miscreant’s absence. This would allow the ballroom scene to continue, save having to locate the crazy or drunk actor, and save having to reshoot. While Siodmak kept the dancers in motion, I rehearsed the new actor in his role, and tailors stitched together a bespoke uniform. Within minutes he burst upon the scene, apologised on behalf of the government minister for his absence—due to a crisis in Washington—and announced an impending honour for Custer. It was a weak solution, but it saved a lot of money. That’s show business for you.”
In short, the producer, having cooked up a deal to sell a Custer movie (with profits assured in advance), had no real interest in whether the end product was any good, let alone historically accurate.
When John Ford made My Darling Clementine he boasted that his friendship with Wyatt Earp guaranteed authenticity, then went on to set the film in the wrong year, and kill off both Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton before their time. No such claims were ever made for Custer of the West—pace Showguide—so scholarly analysis would be as useful as using a tomahawk to scalp Yul Brunner.
Even so there is one howler that cannot pass unremarked. The movie contains no reference to either Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, and the entire Lakota nation is only mentioned en passant. Instead the uneducated viewer is led to believe that Custer’s nemesis was Chief Dull Knife (who, in reality, thought it more politic to sit out the conflict), and his primary antagonists the Cheyenne. At one point Custer confronts Dull Knife with the following piece of realpolitik: “I’ll make it very simple for you. The fact that we seem to be pushing you clear off the earth is not my responsibility. The problem is precisely the same as when you Cheyenne decided to take another tribe’s hunting ground. You didn’t ask them about their rights. You didn’t care if they had been there a thousand years. You just had more men and more horses. You destroyed them in battle. You took what you wanted, and right or wrong, for better or worse, that is the way things seem to get done. That’s history. I’m talking about history. You are a militarily defeated people. You are paying the price for being backward. And whatever my personal feelings, and I don’t say I have, there’s nothing I can do to change all this. Do you understand?” In fact, of course, it was the Cheyenne who were driven from their ancestral lands—including the Black Hills—by the Lakota.
If the movie has no place in the lecture hall, how well does it fare in the movie theatre? Like the 7th Cavalry it stands or falls on the performance of its star. At least Robert Shaw’s hair is the right colour. And he looks sufficiently like the ‘boy general’ who sat for Matthew Brady that the portrait hanging on the wall of his quarters does not appear out of place. Moreover the sadistic impulses that Shaw sought to emphasise are only apparent in a few scenes, all of them early; for example, he orders his new command to run in circles until—one by one—the men drop. But as Shaw’s performance progresses sadism becomes less and less Custer’s defining characteristic; he becomes more complex, and his impersonator more beguiled, as though a dybbuk—the General’s—had taken up residence within.
This internal conflict becomes manifest in his behaviour: natural justice, personal liberty, and romanticism versus manifest destiny, military discipline, and patriotism. It is best expressed during a scene in which a representative of the military-industrial complex demonstrates the efficacy of a new weapon: a gatling gun mounted upon an armoured railway carriage. Custer—a chivalrous man—recoils in horror: “War isn’t just killing, you know. It’s a contest. It’s a man against a man.” Later he has the following exchange with Libbie: “If this is the future, I don’t want any part of it!” “Where does that leave you?” “With the Indians!”
In which case the final battle represents the psychological struggle made flesh and blood, as the irreconcilable positions take up arms against each other. The movie began with a montage of Civil War charges, and it ends with a civil war made personal. This dualism finds further expression in the contrasting characters of Custer’s two fellow officers; Benteen and Reno. Jeffrey Hunter plays Benteen as a “bleeding heart” liberal, forever expressing the other side’s point of view, whereas Reno is presented as a gung-ho racist.
The pivotal moment—when Custer is most himself—occurs when he is summoned to Washington to appear before a congressional committee. Obviously the scene could not be shot in situ, and budgetary constraints ruled out reconstruction. “It was inconceivable that we should build a replica of the real chamber and people it with the dozens of representatives and senators in period dress,” wrote Gordon. “Yordan solved the problem economically by having Shaw, as Custer, pose in front of a painting of the crowded congressional chamber. I thought it looked fake but few other people noticed or cared.” Obviously Gordon had not viewed the movie for some time when he wrote those sentences: the backdrop is not the chamber, crowded or otherwise, but the dome itself.
In any event, the important feature is the speech, and Shaw’s delivery of it. “There is no Indian problem,” he says. “There is only a White problem.” The problematic issues par excellence being hypocrisy—treaties broken even as they are signed—and corruption. It is not officers in the field who are growing fat, Custer says, only politicians. “The American people have the right to know who is responsible…” thunders Shaw. “The guilty parties… You are going to have to look right here in Washington. And you are going to have to look in high places. I know the men who are responsible and I am going to give you their names.” I can well imagine the secret smiles of satisfaction on the faces of Zimet and Gordon, for whom (in a different context) the naming of names would have been abhorrent, as Shaw concludes the accusatory speech, the sort of speech they must have dreamed of throwing back in the faces of their persecutors at HUAC.
A curious postscript to the movie suggests that the Committee might have been better advised to look in a different direction for un-American activities. It turned out that Ty Hardin, who played Reno, was typecast. He could have been Clint Eastwood, but instead of directing Unforgiven and being elected Mayor of Carmel, his career went nowhere, and four years after playing Reno, he became the guiding light of the Arizona Patriots, a quasi-fascist militia, and editor of their in-house magazine, which urged Christian patriots to band together, and reprinted antisemitic diatribes. Its members stockpiled weapons and ammo in anticipation of Armageddon. Eventually even the FBI reckoned that these self-styled “freedom fighters” were anything but, and raided their HQ, scattering their members to the four corners.
Like all movies about the Frontier, Custer of the West is a palimpsest, in that it uses the past to comment upon the present. Gordon’s wry joke about how “a couple of blacklisted writers did succeed in smuggling a bit of red propaganda into a Hollywood film… well, redskin propaganda anyway,” is both funny and true. It seems that Custer’s dybbuk—or ghost—is doomed to shuttle between left and right, between martyrdom and villainy, depending upon contemporary circumstances, notwithstanding the best efforts of the Custer Association of Great Britain to stick to the facts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CLIVE SINCLAIR began his career as a writer in 1973. In 1983 he was one of the original Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. So far he has produced fourteen books, which have earned him the Somerset Maugham Award, the PEN Silver Pen for Fiction, and the Jewish Quarterly Award. His latest book of stories, Death & Texas, was published in 2014. He lives in London, with the painter Haidee Becker. His son, a film-maker, lives in Los Angeles.
Matthew Asprey Gear’s interview with Clive Sinclair appeared in print in issue 2 of Contrappasso and is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
[The title picture is a detail from the original movie program as reproduced at In Cinerama]