The remarkable thing is that it took so long for George Armstrong Custer to lose his luster. He and much of the 7th Cavalry he commanded died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. Despite that, Custer was seen as a hero for nearly a century - a martyr to the cause of settling the American West. Why that was so, and why that view came to change so radically, is examined tonight with skill and insight in “Custer’s Last Stand.’’ The two-hour documentary, written and directed by Stephen Ives, is part of PBS’s “American Experience.’’
Custer cut a storybook figure. Having finished last in his class at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he was a brigadier general in the Union Army at 23. His courage and flair and leadership qualities on the battlefield were that impressive. General Philip Sheridan wrote to Custer’s wife: “Permit me to say, madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desired result [of Union victory] than your gallant husband.’’
It wasn’t just what Custer did, it was also how he looked - even how he smelled. (He used cinnamon oil to perfume his hair.) With his flowing locks and gaudy attire, Custer could have been a modern-day rock star. Or movie star: a younger Viggo Mortensen? a less complicated Christian Bale?
Even without a place in the history of warfare, Custer would still have a place in the history of celebrity. He had a genius for self-publicity. He was good copy, as journalists say. Even more important, the camera loved him - and he loved it right back. There are many, many pictures of Custer, and Ives puts them to excellent use in tonight’s broadcast.
A fair number of the pictures show him with his wife. George and Libbie Custer were a package deal. Devoted to each other, they were no less devoted to advancing his career. Americans have never taken kindly to losers. No small reason for Custer’s retaining the status of hero after his epic defeat was how carefully his widow nurtured his reputation, publishing no fewer than three memoirs of him.
The end of the Civil War put Custer’s career in peril. The Army shrank drastically, and so did opportunities for advancement. Custer was sent out West (taking a pack of stag hounds with him), but his headstrong behavior got him court-martialed.
A combination of assiduous politicking and the clear need for a man of Custer’s singular military abilities returned him to command of the 7th Cavalry. “Sheridan knows that he can count on Custer to do the nasty, dirty, really unpleasant business that is Indian warfare,’’ explains the Western historian Paul A. Hutton. “He knew Custer had the energy, vigor, and ambition to accomplish what was needed.’’ He certainly did have all those qualities, too much so, as it would turn out.
Hutton is one of several excellent talking heads in the broadcast. Others include author Nathaniel Philbrick, cultural historian Richard Slotkin, and historian Edward Linenthal. Ives nicely blends their comments with period photographs and contemporary location shots of sites associated with Custer. Unfortunately, there’s also a scattering of reenactments. As they inevitably are, the reenactments look distracting and feel cheesy. Hey, who knew that cavalry horses in the 19th century moved in slow motion? See the things you can learn watching public television. At least there isn’t a reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
What’s best about “Custer’s Last Stand’’ is how it puts Custer’s career and his posthumous reputation into a larger cultural context. The distance between Errol Flynn’s matinee-idol Custer in “They Died With Their Boots On’’ (1941) and Richard Mulligan’s blowhard-madman Custer in “Little Big Man’’ (1970) feels more like three centuries than three decades. Ives helps explain why. Without scanting the genuinely heroic qualities of its protagonist, “Custer’s Last Stand’’ shows the disastrous consequences of those qualities and of the shortcomings that went with them. As Linenthal says, Custer possessed “a streak of either courage or foolhardiness, and you can take your pick.’’Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.