American Experience: To understand ‘Custer’s Last Stand’

With long blond hair, oiled with the homey scent of cinnamon, a wide-brimmed hat and an extravagant velvet jacket above tight pants, in today’s world he might have been the front man for a hair band. But in the mid-1800s, George Armstrong Custer was one of America’s first media-hounds. From a modest ethnic German-family background, Custer finished last in his class at West Point (34 out of 34 in the class of 1861), but had a taste of war and glory when he became the boy-general during the Civil War. Custer and his hunger for fame are explored on “American Experience: Custer’s Last Stand,” premiering 17 January 2012, on PBS.

The Civil War movie “Glory” is about black men fighting for their honor and the right to be considered free men, but for the Civil War hero like Custer, glory was a means to obtain recognition, attention and perhaps, a fortune.

In battle, he was known for his aggressive style and the “Custer Dash,”  a carefully planned cavalry attack. Custer, unlike many other officers who stayed behind their men, would lead and only survived due to luck. We already know that his luck didn’t hold in Montana.

There’s something I didn’t quite get when I watched “American Experience: Billy the Kid.” All those shots of the desert seemed like a waste of time. I wanted more story, but I’m glad I didn’t say that in my review. I forgot that not everyone has been warned about rattlesnakes since childhood or lived in a school district where scorpions were found in the office. “Custer’s Last Stand” has similar moments when we view the green expanse that are the plains that the Native Americans once road on and where Custer would meet his end. The hills are gentle and long and the expanse calls for horses.

We see Custer as a dashing man, a bit desperate to be and remain a celebrity. That’s before telephones and TV, when telegraphs carried a code of dots and dashes. Brief news reports were easily embellished to sell papers. It was poor Custer. Picture the Budweiser depiction of “white men surrounded by a dark hoard.”

Yet it was about a fundamental problems in American history. Celebrating a birthday of a country that existed for a certain race for many years prior to the white man’s arrival? And what about the “contempt for Indian people as human beings”?

While this program does include a Native American voice, one wishes for more (such as Black Elk‘s account). How intriguing to discover on Wikipedia that the Native Americans called the “Battle of Little Bighorn” (25-26 June 1876) the “Battle of the Greasy Grass.”  Modern day insights into things such as post traumatic stress disorder gives us a more sympathetic view of Major Marcus Reno who did have a traumatic incident during the battle. Reno was vilified by Custer’s widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer.  Custer’s widow is credited with keeping the legend of Custer alive and for that reason, a lot of time is spent on their relationship, which seems idealized but wasn’t always so smooth running.

The program notes that not everyone thought Custer was so heroic. And depending upon the era, Custer was portrayed differently in the movies. Although former president Ronald Reagan played Custer (“Santa Fe Trail” in 1940), this PBS program showed a heroic Errol Flynn playing opposite Olivia de Havilland in the 1941 movie “They Died with Their Boots On.” This movie didn’t make the Native Americans the bad guys. Instead, the fault was with the corrupt corporations and politicians.

In the 1970 movie “Little Big Man,” Custer seems like a joke–a egotistical ruthless man who murders and is murdered. There was once, oddly enough, a TV series about Custer in 1967, that lasted for 17 episodes and came no where near his “Last Stand.”

When you listen to the details of the actual battle, you might be surprised. Today, the thought of men hobbling their own horses while attempting to fight or killing their horses in order to use as protective breastplates would seem anything from silly to cruel. There’s a contrast between the traditional cavalry charge and the guerrilla warfare of the Native Americans. The change in warfare would also become an issue in World War I, decades later.

However one ends up viewing Custer, one must consider that he got what he wanted–fame so great that he is known to all Americans, a controversial man in history. He gave us something to talk about, even today. In death, he did find glory.

“American Experience: Custer’s Last Stand” premieres on PBS 17 January 2012 at 8 p.m., but check your local schedule.

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