Friday, January 13, 2012

The American (Western) Experience: Custer’s Last Stand

His name is pseudonymous with military failure, but for over a century he has been portrayed in glowingly heroic terms. Yes, good publicity is a gift that keeps on giving. George Armstrong Custer was always good copy and he was not what you would call shy. He had a multitude of shortcomings as a military leader though, all of which are analyzed at length in writer-director Stephen Ives’ Custer’s Last Stand (promo here), the second of two recent western-themed editions of The American Experience, premiering on PBS this coming Tuesday.

In fairness, Ives gives Custer his just due for his Civil War heroics. A terrible student from humble origins, Custer essentially talked his way into a West Point appointment. His only asset was his willingness to risk life and limb. What came to be recognized as “Custer’s luck” held out until that fateful day in the Black Hills.

Frankly, it is nearly impossible to be a Custer partisan with the benefit of historical hindsight. Many will be appalled by his record as a zealous “Indian fighter,” whereas others will be disgusted with the hash Custer made of his command. In fact, Ives’ Stand is strongest when explaining the bad karma working against Custer in the Little Big Horn debacle.

While depicting Custer as a Horatio Algerish social climber undone by deep character flaws, Captain Frederick Benteen emerges as the most intriguing figure of the story. A former commander of a “Buffalo Soldier” regiment with little taste for war, Benteen’s sentiments would appear to more accurately reflect those of the modern American military. He bitterly resented Custer for abandoning a fellow officer during a controversial engagement at the Washita River. As a result, he was not exactly fired up to save Custer’s bacon.

While just exactly what happened to Custer and the majority of the men of the 7th Cavalry remains somewhat obscure (for lack of survivors), Ives explains the details of the side battles involving Benteen and his whiskey-addled comrade Major Marcus Reno quite lucidly and compellingly. Of course, the bottom line is pretty simple. Sitting Bull had a whole lot more men with him than Custer figured and they were pretty ticked off.

For all its tsktsking of Custer’s arrogance and recklessness, Stand puts him in understandable context. Following the Civil War, the standing army drastically contracted, with wartime officers brusquely reduced in rank. It is understandable why a self-promoter like Custer would conclude valor was the better part of prudence.

Stand also heavily relies on talking head historians, who are sufficiently authoritative on the subject, by and large. However, a late soundbite claiming Custer’s misadventure in the Black Hills is emblematic of America’s continuing eagerness to leap into ill-conceived wars is a bit of a partisan eye-roller, cheapening nearly two hours of solid history preceding it. Mostly informative and straightforwardly executed, overall it is another respectable tour of the Old West from The American Experience, airing this coming Tuesday (1/17) on most PBS outlets.