Many moons ago, the executives at ABC-TV, considering themselves "hip" to the long-haired, rock 'n' roll, hippie culture decided that what was needed was a show that would attract that youthful audience.
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The executives reasoned, if human reasoning is actually an attribute of a network television programmer, that a long-haired hero the kids could identify with during the social upheaval of the Vietnam conflict during the 1960s would be perfect in attracting that audience.
They latched onto long-haired, slim, good-looking Canadian actor Wayne Maunder to star as the title character in the series, entitled "Custer," for the Fall 1967 TV season. It was Maunder's first series.
Maunder portrayed Custer as an unmarried bachelor (in reality, he was a very married man), freshly court-martialed (some truth in that) and demoted (he was never demoted for the court-martial, but his temporary rank of Major General of Volunteers in the Civil War was reduced to a regular Army rank of lieutenant-colonel with the end of that war).
Maunder's acting credits remain limited. He had two more TV series after this one as a cast member on the 1968-70 CBS western "Lancer" (with Andrew Duggan and James Stacy) and 1973's short-lived, Jack Webb-produced "Chase" (with Jack Kelley and Mitchell Ryan). His film career vanished after the early 1980s, but he did appear in the films "The Seven Minutes" and "Porky's" (as an abusive, motorcycle-riding parent). He also appeared in the pilot movie for the "Kung Fu" TV series in 1972 (his character was killed off in the film).
Joining Maunder's Custer was a veteran cast featuring Slim Pickens as "California Joe" Milner, a scout for Custer's 7th Cavalry Regiment. Pickens played Milner as a scraggly-dressed, unshaven, pipe-smoking, mule-riding expert on Indians.
Pickens is a veteran of countless films, beginning with his first in 1950 as one of Errol Flynn's soldiers in "Rocky Mountain." The former rodeo clown was always memorable in roles such as the atomic bomb-riding B-52 pilot in "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb," as the pickup truck driver who takes Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw to Mexico in "The Getaway" or as Harvey Korman's sidekick in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles."
Joining Maunder and Pickens in the cast: Peter Palmer as Sergeant James Bustard, a burly, fist-swinging ex-Confederate; Grant Woods as Captain Myles Keogh ("Myles" is the correct spelling, but when the series debuted they misspelled his first name as "Miles"); Michael Dante as Crazy Horse; Robert F. Simon as General Alfred Terry and Mary Ann Mobley as Terry's neice (a fictional character used as Custer's love interest for the series).
Among the cast, trivia buffs might note that Grant Woods played a character named Kelowitz in two 1968 episodes of "Star Trek" (Woods died later that year) and Mobley was Miss America of 1959 (and later, actor Gary Collin's wife). Palmer is best remembered for playing the title character in the 1959 film "Lil' Abner."
In the days before "prime time" TV meant "after 8 p.m.," the network prime time shows aired at earlier times. ABC put the hour-long, color series (color shows had pretty much replaced black and white TV series as the norm by 1967) on Wednesday nights at 7:30 p.m.
The show began airing on Wednesday, September 6, 1967. Due to controversy and weak ratings (the series did make the national Top 20 one of its weeks, however), the series was cancelled and had its last airing on December 27, 1967.
History buffs hated it because it was fictional. The American Indian Movement hated it because it glorified Custer. ABC-TV came to hate it because its rankings rarely came close to the Top 20.
In 1968, the film's studio, 20th Century Fox, tried to recoup some money by releasing the series as a single theatrical film (combining footage from two episodes into one story line), retitled as "The Legend Of Custer."
This was later released to U. S. TV in 1970, usually winding up as a late night film throughout the 1970s. The 90-minute film usually appeared in a 2-hour timeslot (plenty of room for commercials).
The film is floating around in several formats and several titles these days on VHS, including "The Legend Of Custer" and "Crazy Horse And Custer: The Untold Story."
The film footage was directed by Sam Wanamaker (the films "Catlow," "Private Benjamin" and "The Executioner," among others; TV series such as "Columbo") and by Norman Foster (the '50s Disney series "Davy Crockett," as well as 1960s series such as "It Takes A Thief" and "The Green Hornet").
The film follows Custer from his arrival at Fort Hays and his discovery that this regiment is in serious need of discipline (the sentry's asleep and other men are gambling in the stable). Custer gradually wins the men over, and choosing the Irish fight song, "Garry Owen," as the regiment's theme song, he unites the men into a well-trained fighting outfit.
One problem: General Terry has the 5th Cavalry do the fighting and gives the 7th every dirty detail in the book because he doesn't like Custer (at least, according to the film; in real life, the 5th Cavalry was never stationed with the 7th and Custer didn't serve under Terry until years later).
Gradually, by frequently disobeying orders, Custer gets to fight. In one of the film's stretches of the imagination, Custer gets seperated from his troops, briefly befriends Crazy Horse and saves the day with a classic Hollywood cavalry charge.
Forget the historical errors for a moment, if you can. As a film, it's as good as any 1960s-era TV western ("THe Virginian," "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke") and as I a fan of the genre I enjoyed the film a great deal. As a history nut, it's terribly annoying fact-wise.
The acting is good, not great. Maunder, Pickens and Palmer are first-rate, however. Maunder's Custer is closer to Errol Flynn's performance of the man in "They Died With Their Boots On" as a heroic figure (as opposed to Richard Mulligan's insane Custer in "Little Big Man"). Slim Pickens steals the show as "California Joe" (I've never seen a bad performance that he ever did; he died in 1983).
If you enjoyed the B-Westerns of the 1950s, you'll probably enjoy this as well. If you want accuracy or political correctness, you probably won't care for this film.
As a 10-year-old when the series first aired, I enjoyed the original series. The film hasn't stood the test of time, but I still find it to be enjoyable escapist entertainment in these troubled times.
On the web, related websites:
A couple of pictures of Maunder playing Custer are at:
http://www.fiftiesweb.com/legend-custer.htm and http://www.fiftiesweb.com/western-5.htm#custer
A picture of Maunder on "Lancer" (center, standing, with rifle on his shoulder):
A picture of Slim Pickens as Major "King" Kong atop the atomic bomb in the Peter Sellers' black comedy "Dr. Strangelove" (with a sound clip):
"They Died With Their Boots On" (1941) had an amazing cast: Errol Flynn as George Custer, Olivia De Havilland ("Gone With The Wind" star and two-time Oscar winner) as Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Hattie McDaniels (Academy Award winner for "Gone With The Wind"), Anthony Quinn (two-time Oscar winner) as Crazy Horse, Sidney Greenstreet ("Casablanca"), Arthur Kennedy (five-time Academy Award nominee), Gene Lockhart as Elizabeth Custer's father (Bob Cratchit in 1938"s "A Christmas Carol" and father of actress June Lockhart who starred in TV's "Lost In Space"), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry in "The Wizard Of Oz," Grandpa Joad in "The Grapes Of Wrath") as California Joe and Gig Young as Lt. Roberts (uncredited for his role in "They Died With Their Boots On," he went on to win an Oscar for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"): http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-7A14-ED2BB21-387C5071-prod1
"The Legend Of Custer" contains two VHS tapes, one a movie "The Legend Of Custer" (taken from the 1967 fictional ABC series "Custer" starring Wayne Maunder and Slim Pickens) and the other tape a documentary of Custer: http://www.epinions.com/content_149577371268
"Tonka" starring Philip Carey as Captain Myles Keogh and Sal Mineo as an Indian --- this 1958 Disney film on VHS is mostly about Keogh's horse: http://www.epinions.com/content_58031312516
"Custer's Fall: The Indian Side Of The Story" by David Humphreys Miller: http://www.epinions.com/content_349631581828
"Cavalier In Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier" by Robert Utley: http://www.epinions.com/content_64511708804
"Boots and Saddles, Or, Life In Dakota With General Custer" by Elizabeth Bacon Custer (the general's wife): http://www.epinions.com/content_185859411588
"Wild Life On The Plains And Horrors Of Indian Warfare" by various authors (includes George Custer's own autobiography, "My LIfe On The Plains"): http://www.epinions.com/content_137314733700
"Crazy Horse And Custer" By Stephen Ambrose: http://www.epinions.com/book-review-361F-969DBEF-38A5411E-bd3 rge Armstrong Custer is the subject of my review of "The Little Bighorn Campaign" by Wayne Michael Sarf: http://www.epinions.com/content_115926404740
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