The Great Sioux Massacre (1965)
“Blood-Vengeance Clashed With Custer’s Cavalry!”
Director: Sidney Salkow
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Darren McGavin, Philip Carey
Synopsis: A look at what happened to Custer and his troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Considering the abundance of badness that pervades most aspects of The Great Sioux Massacre I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed it, possibly because I like seeing spurious heroes exposed — and Custer, as we all now know, was no more a hero than Crazy Horse. Certainly, when the film focuses on his single-minded pursuit of political credibility, it is vastly superior to the times when it looks in on the domestic strife of Captain Benteen (Darren McGavin).
The film itself is as schizophrenic as most of the characters within it as it tells the story of events leading up to the massacre of Custer and his troops. Framed by the court-martial hearing of Major Marcus Reno (Joseph Cotton), the drama is played out against the backdrop of mutual enmity between Reno and Benteen, who are the father and love interest of Caroline (Julie Sommars) a fetching redhead with an annoying voice and limited acting ability. Reno disapproves of Benteen, in fact he hates the entire world and drinks heavily to prove it — that is, he does until Benteen turns down a promotion that would make him Reno’s boss. After that Benteen thinks Reno is the bee’s knees and practically pushes his daughter into the soldier’s bed. Not only that, he is transformed from a semi-befuddled soak into a model soldier. As one turns good another turns bad however. Seduced by the prospect of a tilt at the presidency, Custer (a hulking Philip Carey), who was previously sympathetic to the plight of the Indians, is instantly transformed into a cold-hearted Indian-killer, massacring innocent Indians left, right and centre, supporting the corrupt Indian agents, and shooting deserters in the back. Dakota (John Matthews) the cavalry scout whose family was murdered by Indians goes the other way, changing from cold-hearted Indian killer into papoose-saving good guy for no apparent reason. It’s all very disconcerting.
Incredibly, the logic of the various character arcs is solid as a rock compared to McGavin’s wobbly Southern accent. He gives it a go for the courtroom scenes and a couple of early moments with Sommars, but wisely decides to drop it after that. He heads a cast that seems to be competing to see who can deliver the worst performances without actually getting kicked off the set. Cotten is OK, although his character is superfluous for large portions of the story; McGavin is dull when he’s not trying on his comedy accent, while John Matthews is just bad. Carey is given the best role as Custer but is too bland. The film also falls down on the action scenes. Cavalry officers hold conversations with each other in the middle of hand-to-hand combat with rampaging braves who wave their tomahawks in the air and turn their horses in tight circles while failing to actually strike any cavalry officers.
For all these deficiencies, I still enjoyed this film — or at least the second half of it when Custer’s downfall takes centre stage. Some films are like that: they suck you in despite yourself.
(Reviewed 27th October 2005)