"They Died With Their Boots On" marks a rather low-key, fitting farewell to the intense, onscreen pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Their final scenes, as charismatic General George Custer leaves his supportive wife for the doomed battle with Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn, is exceptionally moving. As an onscreen couple in British and American period epics, the two generated an intense energy, and one gets a sense the actors were also saying farewell to their bygone roles, before de Havilland embarked on her quest to get richer, more prominent female parts, and Flynn more or less became trapped as an aging action hero.
As an accurate historical chronicle of Custer's years from cadet to famously determined General, "They Died" is sandwiched tightly between fleetingly acceptable, and hogwash - sentiments openly acknowledged by the trio of historians in the DVD's very brief making-of featurette. Even those unfamiliar with Custer's life will sense the screenwriters are responsible for the stereotypical villain: former cadet school bully Ned Sharp (colourfully played by a young Arthur Kennedy) becomes a greedy exploiter, before voluntarily and honorably redeeming himself, Hollywood style. Mike Robe's 1991 TV mini-series presented a more detailed and straightforward biography of Custer's life, while this early studio production during the war years shaped events to reflect more contemporary morals: heroism, self-sacrifice, and the preservation of democratic ideals are sacred, while greed and war profiteering - via Ned Sharp - are ruinous, and unconscionable.
Warner Bros. have used a sparkling print for their superb transfer, and Max Steiner's lively score booms from the film's original mono mix. Even better-looking, however, is the WWII Technicolor short, "Soldiers in White." During wartime, the studio was enlisted by the Army to produce educational shorts, and while designed as patriotic anthems, they also functioned as small morality plays for disengaged civilians. Meant to illustrate the virtue in working for the Army, the short follows a med student who ridicules his duties after being drafted into the medical corps, and chases the skirt of a curvaceous brunette from field to field. Most of these shorts haven't seen a carbon arc lamp light in decades, and this particular print is an absolute stunner; it's virtually devoid of any nicks and scratches. The short's also noteworthy for the cast, which featured gorgeous Eleanor Parker (better known as the Baroness in "The Sound of Music"), William T. Orr (son-in-law-to-be of studio bigwig, Jack L. Warner), and John Litel, from "They Died," playing the doctor who straightens out Orr with gentle reasoning (and not a big stick).
A big stick (and countless head bashing) is what happens to a Lou Costello-styled cat named "Babbit," in Bob Clampett's outrageously funny cartoon, A Tale of Two Kittens," with a Bud Abbott-styled partner who's after an early Tweety Bird prototype. Plenty of "Hey, BABBIT!" screams dominate the soundtrack, before a classic wartime reference blacks out the show.
WWII also figures prominently in the short MGM Newsreel, although the real curio is a piece on the burnt, half-submerged shell that was once the elegant French ocean liner, the Normandie. The newsreel offers some detailed close-ups, and sad shots as welders chop up her hull for scrap.
Another well-produced Errol Flynn release - and for film buffs, look fast for Gig Young, unbilled in an early speaking role in the movie!
This Warner Bros title is available as part of the “Errol Flynn Signature Collection” that includes “Captain Blood,” “The Sea Hawk,” “They Died With Their Boots On,” “The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex,” and “Dodge City” and a bonus documentary disc “The Adventures Of Errol Flynn.”
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan