Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON – Max Steiner



Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1941 MGM commissioned a heroic script by Aeneas MacKenzie, Wally Kline and Lenore J. Coffee about the life of General George Armstrong Custer, which would allow the studio to showcase their box office megastar Errol Flynn. Hal B. Wallis and Robert Fellows were placed in control of production with a $1.358 million budget. Raoul Walsh was tasked with directing after Flynn vetoed the studio’s first choice of Michael Curtiz. Flynn would star as General George Armstrong Custer, and joining him would be Olivia de Havilland as Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Arthur Kennedy as Ned Sharp, Charley Grapewin as California Joe, Gene Lockhart as Samuel Bacon, and Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse.

The film offers a highly fictionalized biopic of George Armstrong Custer, circa 1859. He is an arrogant, and cocky young man who in multiple encounters during the American Civil War demonstrated audacious and heroic leadership on the battlefield, which was rewarded with acclaim and promotions. He meets, courts and marries Elizabeth Bacon, and they depart for his new posting in the Dakota Territory. He transforms a ragged, undisciplined army post into a well-trained professional unit, and secures peace with the Sioux Indian tribe. Yet he is undone by local traders who wish to exploit resources in Lakota lands. War erupts as hundreds of white prospectors invade the Sioux lands in search of gold, which forces Custer to ride out and rescue them. He is vastly outnumbered and ends up in an epic last stand battle were he and his entire regimen are killed. The film was a commercial success, earning a profit of $1.5 million. Critics praised the film and especially Flynn’s performance, however it failed to earn any Academy Award nominations.

They Died With Their Boots On became the first of eleven collaborations between director Raoul Walsh and Max Steiner. Steiner was pleased for the opportunity to score the film as it offered a broad tapestry on which to compose; epic battles, heroic charges, military fanfares and marches, a romance between George and Libby and an indigenous Indian sensibility to contrast with white American culture. Also, as was his customary practice, he interpolated a number of folk songs and anthems to instill authenticity to his soundscape, including; “I Wish I Was In Dixie” by Daniel Decatur Emmett, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by William Steffe and Julia Ward Howe, “When Johnny Come Marching Home” by Louis Lambert, “Taps” by Daniel Buterfield, “Hail To The Chief” by James Sanderson, “My Country Tis of Thee” by Henry Carey, and the Wedding March from “A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Opus 61” by Felix Mendelssohn. The music budget was very generous, which allowed Steiner to augment his orchestra to include three flutes, two oboes, five clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, four trumpets, four trombones, a tuba, seven additional percussion, two harps, two pianos, a celeste, an organ, a novachord and more strings. Additionally, he added fifes, six piccolos, two Eb clarinets, two soprano saxophones and six military snare drums to empower his battle scene cues.

For his soundscape, Steiner offers four primary themes and a motif. Custer’s Theme perfectly embodies his boldness, confidence and audacity. While in its purest form it offers a marcia bravura, it can also be tender, and overtly aggressive when emoted during battles. Most amusing is its initial iteration as a marcia pomposa as he rides into West Point dressed in a resplendent uniform with more gold braid than a French admiral! The 7th Calvary Theme based on the Irish folk song “Gary Owen”, and offers rousing marcia bravado, that is resolute, confident and, unstoppable. Steiner’s iteration has passed unto cinematic legend. During battle it swells into an anthem militare, becoming elegiac during time of loss and remembrance. Libby’s Theme serves as her identity, yet also offers a love theme for her and George. It provides the score’s only feminine construct, emoting tenderly when supporting her, and as a sumptuous romance for strings as a love theme. Its expression becomes exquisite when the melody is transferred to solo violin d’amore. Crazy Horse’s Theme serves as his identity as Chief, and by extension the Sioux nation. It offers woodwinds esotica, low register horns and tom-tom percussion in its standard iteration. It becomes forceful as an anthem of war when the aggrieved Indians go to battle after the white man again violates a signed treaty. The Conspiracy Motif offers a serpentine construct borne by dissonant woodwinds. It supports efforts by Custer’s white opponents who plot and conspire against him. Lastly, cues coded (*) contain music that is not provided on the album.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight where Steiner masterfully sets the tone of the film. We open ominously empowered by nativist drums of war, which support the display of the Warner Brothers studio logo. Heraldic horns bellicoso declarations support the roll of the opening credits seen as three-dimensional engraved script displays against military and settler black and white sketches. A stepped crescendo dramatico builds to support the display of the film title, and at 0:26 unleashes the 7th Calvary Theme, a rousing marcia bravado. At 0:36 we return to menacing horns bellicoso with chattering xylophone, which swells into a ferocious marcia di Guerra to conclude the opening credits. At 1:01 we segue into the film proper with “West Point” supported by a rousing marcia militare as we see cadets parading on the field grounds of West Point Military Academy. At 1:34 a diminuendo supports the arrival of a new class of plebs reporting for enrollment. The marcia militare resumes, and then accelerates to double time as they are ordered to run. A comedic fall at 1:59 supports several tripping and falling over each other. We close atop muted horns as the sergeant of arms and a corporal discuss the plebs.

“Custer Arrives” opens with heraldic tin-like children’s horn declarations, which support the approach of the resplendent, feather capped George Armstrong Custer on horseback, trailed by a boy holding the leashes of several dogs. The sergeant orders a formal reception, believing him to be an important officer. The fanfare becomes grandiose joined by a field drum roll as an aristocratic Custer arrives and dismounts. A pompous musical narrative follows as Custer is welcomed. When he discloses that he is reporting as a cadet a sardonic horn sounds as the sergeant scowls. As payback, senior cadet William Sharpe escorts Custer to quarters reserved for senior officers. We segue into “Trick” at 1:00 atop sardonic woodwinds as Custer thanks the departing Smith. A playful musical narrative unfolds as Custer plays with his dogs. At 1:34 grim woodwinds support the arrival of the room’s occupant, whose is angry at finding his personal belongings in the hallway. The outraged Colonel Tate dresses him down and Custer refuses to disclose who pranked him. Revelry sounds and Custer is ordered to report for inspection. We segue at 1:41 into “West Point Montage” as Custer punches Sharpe empowered by resounding horns irato. He is placed under arrest and marched off to see Camp Commandant Sheridan supported with a reprise of his marcia pomposa. A technicality saves his neck and the Colonel, who takes a liking to him, allows him to enter the academy.

“West Point Montage” offers a montage of scenes revealing an ever-growing list of demerits charged to Custer who cannot seem to adjust to the discipline and regimentation of West Point. Steiner supports with a dissonant variant of Custer’s marcia pomposa. At 0:14 galloping bravado supports a mounted Custer leaping over a canon. A comic diminuendo at 0:28 reveals Custer failing to answer a question posed during class. We conclude with his march clearly beleaguered as a massive demerit list displays. “West Point Graduation” reveals Custer envious of Sharpe’s graduation, and his prescient prediction of war in Lincoln is elected in November. Horns orgogliose resound as applause erupts for graduates of the class of 1860. We close with a dramatic rendering of “I Wish I Was in Dixie Land” as headlines display the start of the Civil War. “West Point Divided” (*) reveals officers from the southern states refusing to take a loyalty oath to support the United States of America, which results in their separation and march off the field to return home to the confederacy. A diegetic military band supports their departure with an inspired rendering of the Confederacy’s Dixie anthem.

At 0:28 we segue into “Punishment Guard” where we see Custer again punished and toiling on a monotonous back and forth march, supported by a beleaguered rendering of his theme. He has been reprimanded for speaking while on punishment guard and so remains mute as a Miss Elizabeth Bacon repeatedly asks him for directions. She becomes angry at his ungentlemanly behavior and storms off. We close with an orchestral thump as he bumps into the sergeant while looking at Elizabeth’s departure. At 2:12 we segue into “Haste” as Custer is ordered to report immediately to Colonel Sheridan. Bubbly woodwinds of flight carry his run to Elizabeth. At 2:19 we segue into “Escort” atop his theme, which emotes with gentlemanly gentility as he apologizes and makes amends for not being able, due to regulations, to speak to her. The musical narrative becomes romantic as Libby’s Theme enters at 2:44 on violin d’amore, gracing us with a beautiful exposition. We see that both of them are smitten as he makes a date with her for tonight. At 4:09 he departs, supported by a buoyant rendering of his theme, which carries him to Colonel Sheridan’s office. Horns dramatico support his arrival where he is informed that he has graduated and been given a commission.

“Libby” offers a score highlight, an exquisitely beautiful cue where we are graced by Steiner’s peerless romanticism. We open with a yearning Libby’s Theme borne by aching strings romantico with harp adornment as she waits intently for George to arrive for their date. He father joins and discerns that she is distressed. George’s buoyant theme enters at 1:00 when she admits that she has been stood up. He is outraged, but she calms him, as the music blossoms with happiness, saying that he is the man she intends to marry. At 1:17 we segue into “Civil War Montage” as horns dramatico usher in dramatic swelling statements of Dixie and a beleaguered Battle Hymn of the Republic as Custer reads headlines of the Confederate army moving towards Washington D.C. Custer is furious and wants to get into battle, and at 1:41 his confident theme carries him into headquarters hoping for orders to deploy. His theme becomes mischievous as he sets an oil lamp into the fireplace to create a diversion to get him into the General Adjutant’s office without an appointment. At 2:15 a crescendo of chaos slowly builds until the lamp explodes and causes a fire. In the aftermath Steiner sow a tempest of alarm, which allows Custer to get into the general’s office. A diminuendo of contempt supports his meeting with Major Taipe, who dresses him down, and refuses to assign him to a regiment.

“Polka/Mazurka” reveals an ingratiating Custer finding opportunity to get himself invited to lunch by the Army Commander and Chief, General Winfield Scott. The two bond and Steiner supports with a small ensemble offering splendid European dance elegance, which perfectly establishes the dining ambiance and graces their conversation. “Custer Assigned” (*) reveals General Scott informing General Taipe that he has assigned Custer to the Michigan 2nd Cavalry unit. Muted horns emote his theme as he steals General Tate’s horse and rides to his unit propelled by a string furioso, arriving at Field Headquarters with a quote of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. “First Battle Sequence” offers a tour de force and one of the score’s finest action pieces. Custer arrives in time to join the first battle at Bull Run, yet he also discovers that his Nemesis Sharpe is the squadron commander. We open with Custer’s fanfare as they toast to victory. On the battlefield attack bugles launch the Union attack led by Custer empowered by proud surging strings and the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a war anthem. When Sharpe orders a retreat, Custer punches him, assumes command and rallies the troops who seize a vital bridge and force back the Confederate troops. Custer suffers a shoulder wound yet pushes his men on to victory, earning praise from General Sheridan and a medal of honor for valor.

“Garryowen” (*) reveals Custer traveling with a letter of introduction from General Sheridan to his hometown of Monroe Michigan to meet Mr. Bacon, father of Libby. As he walks through town and passes a saloon, men are heard singing the Irish folk song “Garryowen”. He enters and meets Englishman Lieutenant Butler who acquaints him with the song on piano. Soon the puritanical Mr. Bacon arrives to collect the saloon rent, and a heated exchange with Custer ensues. Custer is unaware that he is the father of Libby, and he rebukes Bacon after his aspersions against his fellow ‘drunk’ soldiers. Custer leads them in mocking Bacon as he storms out. “Mystic Teapot” offers a wondrous romantic score highlight. It reveals Libby’s servant Callie reading the tea leaves to portend the love she seeks. Steiner sow an ethereal tremolo violin misterioso with fragments of her theme on flute to support the divination. Callie predicts that someone will ring a door-bell, and miraculously the house door-bell rings. George Custer is paying a visit and we are graced with an exquisite exposition of Libby’s Theme by strings d’amore as the two reacquaint in the drawing room.

In “Meeting Father” Mr. Bacon arrives home carried by a plodding and austere tune. The music sours and when Bacon recognizes Custer and angrily orders him out of his house. As he departs, Callie tells him to return to the garden at 9 pm. He does, and Callie agrees to use an owl hoot as a warning signal. At 2:16 we segue into “Owl”, and a romantic rendezvous of love unfolds with the Love Theme when George climbs a trellis to reach Libby on her balcony. At 3:30 tension enters as Mr. Bacon comes out into the courtyard and asks Callie if that scoundrel had returned, which she denies. After he goes back in, the romance for strings resumes as George informs her that he has been ordered to report back to his regimen. At 04:00 an owl hoot leads to a comedic musical narrative that sees George fleeing off the balcony fearing Mr. Bacon has returned, and then the owl winking at Callie, much to her consternation. “Haste” reveals a mishap of dictation, which leads to Custer being promoted to Brigadier General of the Michigan 2nd Cavalry Unit. Piccolo shrieks join with Custer’s Theme to support the mishap, launching an ecstatic musical narrative filled with happiness, which joins with a quote of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. At 0:21 we flow with muted horns into “Civil War” as Custer arrives at his regimen where he receives orders promoting him to Brigadier General. At 0:37 trumpets militare launch Custer’s bold theme as he rides into the forward camp to assume command. He dismisses orders to secure Big Round Top and instead orders a direct attack against an advancing enemy column, which threatens to encircle the Union army. A proud and martial rendering of Custer’s Theme supports the deployment.

“Sharpe” opens with woodwinds of disbelief when General Taipe realizes that victory lies in the hands of Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, a man he despises and views incompetent. At 0:13 we segue into “Troops” atop field drums and horns dramatico as Custer rides to the front of the line. At 0:20 we segue into “Battle #2” another score tour de force as Custer orders an advance of the Michigan 7th Cavalry Brigade, which proceeds at first with a deliberate pace, which evolves musically to support a trot, gallop, and finally an outright charge. Steiner propels the charge with bugles militare, Custer’s Theme as an anthem, and a martial rendering of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. In an audacious attack, Custer’s charge is repulsed and he is forced to withdraw. At 1:04 a diminuendo supports Scott being advised that Custer disobeyed orders to reinforce Round Top and instead launched an attack on the Stuart’s cavalry. At 1:09 horns of fatigue usher in a weary musical narrative that reveals the aftermath of Custer’s charge as the remnants of his battered Michigan 7th brigade stop to rest and attend to their wounded. At 1:41 field drums and horns dramatico support Custer being advised that the Michigan 5th and 6th Cavalry brigades were standing by awaiting orders. Custer takes his place in front of the line empowered by trumpets militare and once again orders the line forward, leading the way. Steiner reprises his earlier support which proceeds at first with a deliberate pace, which evolves into a trot, gallop, and finally an outright charge. Steiner propels the charge with bugles militare, Custer’s Theme as an anthem, and a martial rendering of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. A diminuendo at 2:44 takes us to Washington headquarters where Scott is advised that Custer’s second charge has been repulsed, which brings great distress to military command. At 3:00 dire horns sound as Custer takes the Michigan 1st cavalry brigade, and the remnants of the 5th, 6th and 7th brigades and orders one last attack, this time commencing with a charge propelled by bugles militare and his theme as a battle anthem. At 3:30 strings filled with worry support a diminuendo as a telegraph message is being received by Scott and his command staff. This time the force of his cavalry brigades breaks the Confederate position and routes them, which saves the Union army from encirclement and defeat. A musical narrative of relief and thankfulness unfolds as Scott and his staff absorb the magnitude of Custer’s victory. At 4:27 a series of declarations by horns trianfanti resound buttressed by the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Custer’s Anthem as a montage of headlines immortalize the historic charge of General George Armstrong Custer, followed by scenes of one victory after another in the war. At 4:51 an aggrieved statement of “Dixie” supports General Lee’s surrender. At 5:02 we segue into the very festive “Band Medley” as Custer, now an American hero, returns to his hometown of Monroe. Steiner supports a medley of traditional songs, opening with “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, followed by “The Battle Cry of Freedom”, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me”. Libby’s father who has had a change of heart in wake of Custer’s well-earned heroism, welcomes him, and gives his blessing when Custer and Libby announce their engagement and plan to marry today.

“Wedding” reveals Custer and Libby’s marriage. As they exit the church and pass under an archway of glistening sabers. Steiner supports by interpolating Mendelssohn’s iconic bridal march, uniquely orchestrated with an organ, and two sets of chimes and vibraphones. At 0:26 elegiac strings horns and a bell toll support a memorial picture of Libby’s father, who passed a year after the wedding. At 0:34 we flow seamlessly into the Love Theme, that is tender, but tinged with sadness as Libby tends to George’s desk. At 0:54 Custer’s former pompous theme reprises in a muted form as visitors arrive to meet with him. We close with strings of unease as Libby wonders as to what they want with George.

“The Proposition” (*) reveals that Custer is unhappy with civilian life and has taken to drinking. His old Nemesis Sharpe and his father arrive and offer him a salary of $10,000 a year to become president of Western Railway and Trading Company, which will foster the growth of the Dakota Territory. They are quite candid that they are intent on using Custer’s name and stature as a war hero to promote their economic interests. As he listens, a muted rendering of his theme plays. He refuses, the music sours, and a sardonic musical narrative unfolds as they suggest he is being foolish. He asks them to leave refusing to have his honor and name attached to an economic venture. We end with muted and simmering anger as Custer’s unfulfilling civilian life is exposed. Libby enters, carried by the Love Theme, which blossoms as she comforts the man she loves as they embrace and kiss.

Libby goes and meets with General Scott and entreats him to place George back on active duty as he is unhappy with civilian life and has taken to drinking. “The Letter” reveals Custer receiving a commemorative gold watch with a miniature portrait of Libby on the fob, courtesy of the Michigan Brigade. Trumpets militare honor Custer as he beholds the gift. As they sit down for breakfast the Love Theme flows with graceful gentility as George receives a letter from Callie. At 0:50 trilling woodwinds of surprise unleash an ecstatic musical narrative full of joy and crowned by joyous quotes of his theme as George reads that he has been recalled to active duty as a Lieutenant Colonel assigned to Fort Lincoln in the Dakota Territory. He leaves to find a map and a diminuendo of parting ushers in a bittersweet rendering of Libby’s Theme as she informs Callie that she and George will be departing, leaving all her prized possessions behind, and that her services will no longer be required. “Indians” reveals a Sioux war party observing the progress of the wagon train taking George and Libby to Fort Lincoln, which they intend to ambush. We open with interplay of menacing Sioux Theme and Custer’s Theme rendered as a plodding horn driven procession. As the ambush nears, the Sioux Theme moves to the forefront, surging with violence into a war anthem at 1:34 as they attack and steal several horses. Custer orders a pursuit propelled by his trumpet driven theme now empowered by strings furioso and rendered as an attack anthem. At 2:04 Custer reaches the Sioux, and Crazy Horse charges joust-like with his spear, countered by Custer charging with his saber. Custer’s Theme becomes ascendent as he prevails in the joust and wrestles Crazy Horse to the ground as soldiers surround them. A diminuendo follows where Custer pledges not to hang him if he returns the stolen horses. Crazy Horse orders the release and is taken prisoner for a 60-day sentence. We close with an ominous return of the Sioux Theme, which elicits Custer to move the wagon train with urgency to the safety of Fort Lincoln. Later, a proud Custer’s Theme supports their arrival at the fort, ending with a quote of the Sioux Theme when a squaw asks California if she can name her baby after him.

“Mysterioso” reveals Custer entering the fort and finding his soldiers undisciplined and lacking military professionalism. He orders assembly and demands to know why they are not out on patrol. The Sioux Theme enters as they explain they are holed up because the Sioux are active. Custer will have none of it, and at 0:12 brings out the captured Crazy Horse. The men converge shouting to hang him, and Steiner supports with a tempest of rage, which subsides in a diminuendo as Custer protects him and orders him locked in the guardhouse. At 0:35 sour woodwinds of disbelief of the Conspiracy Motif support Custer’s meeting the owner of the trading post selling rifles to the Sioux – Sharpe. The music darkens at 0:58 and a grim musical narrative unfolds as two drunken brawling soldiers spill out onto the street from the saloon. Custer orders the saloon shut down, but it challenged by its owner Sharpe, who backs down under Custer’s physical threats. At 1:24 a proud statement of Custer’s Theme resounds as he informs the men that the liquor ban applies to him as well. Later, a Sioux breaks Crazy Horse out of jail and they ride out to their freedom carried by the Sioux Theme rendered as fierce flight music (not on the album). We close with his proud, and resolute theme as Custer vows to make the 7th Cavalry Regiment the finest in the army.

“Garryowen” (*) reveals Custer discovering that Lieutenant Butler is under his command. He tasks him with playing on the piano, the “Garryowen” song he admired. A montage unfolds of the men learning the song and its evolution into the iconic anthem of the 7th Cavalry Brigade, empowering them as we see a drill montage of them precision riding. Custer Pacifies The Sioux” (*) reveals a montage of Custer and his prized 7th Cavalry engaging the Sioux in a number of battles as he asserts American military power to bring order to the Dakota Territory. Steiner supports the montage with interplay of trumpets military “Charge” fanfare, the Sioux War Anthem, and Taps as a casualty list is displayed. Crazy Horse calls Custer to a peace parley. As the two opposing war parties meet, a proud and defiant rendering of the Sioux Anthem brings the men face to face. Crazy Horse sues for peace, saying they are weary of war, supported by a beleaguered rendering of the Sioux Theme. He promises to concede all Sioux lands except the sacred ancestral Black Hills, to which Custer agrees in principle, pending approval by the U.S. government. Crazy Horse closes with a veiled threat that if the Great White Father again violates his word, all Indian nations will unite and wage a war that will destroy both sides.

“Grazioso” reveals Sharpe, his father and commissioner Taipe fretting about their business loses due to Custer denying access to the Black Hills, the route needed to extend the railroad west. They conspire to fabricate discovery of gold in the Black Hills, that will bring thousands of prospectors, which will overrun Custer’s troops. Music enters on trumpets militare and field drums as Custer returns to Fort Lincoln and rides to see Libby carried by a happy galloping rendering of his theme. At 0:37 we flow into the Love Theme as Libby greets him with an embrace and kiss. At 1:11 the music darkens on a diminuendo followed by the woodwinds of discomfort of the Conspiracy Motif as Libby reveals house guests; Ned and William Sharpe, and Commissioner Romulus Taipe. The next morning Custer escorts the Commissioner for a formal; review of the troops, not knowing that William Sharpe distributed liquor to get the men drunk. At 1:30 the troop review unfolds as an embarrassing drunken mess, which enrages Custer. Steiner supports the scene with a raucous tempest and a dire statement of Custer’s Theme as he heads to the saloon to confront William Sharpe, the architect of the disaster. A dire musical narrative full of rage unfolds as Custer pummels Sharpe, his workers, the Commissioner and smashes all the liquor with his saber. Afterwards Taipe vows to relieve Custer of command and send him to Washington to be court marshalled. At 2:25 a locomotive motif powers the train taking Custer back to Washington for Court Marshall, joined by quotes of his and Libby’s Theme.

“Gold In The Black Hills” (*) reveals Libby buying a paper during a train stop with headlines declaring a huge gold strike in the Black Hills. A grim musical narrative unfolds joined by an aggrieved rendering of the Sioux Theme and woodwind borne Conspiracy Motif as Libby shares the paper with Custer, and then relates evidence of a conspiracy to break the Sioux treaty to him. The music darken as Custer relates that they needed to get rid of him to implement their plan and he played right into their hands. A montage of newspaper headlines follows detailing Custer’s charges of conspiracy to break the peace treaty for financial gain by the Sharpe’s and commissioner Taipe. We close on the anthem “Hail to the Chief” with a headline of Custer testifying before a Senate committee. “The 7th Cavalry” opens with a dispirited Custer’s Theme as he is dismayed that his assertion of Sharpe and Taipe’s conspiracy is dismissed due to legal technicalities. Afterwards Custer appeals to Sheridan to delay his Court Marshall so he can return to duty and try to save the peace, supported by a hopeful statement of the 7th Cavalry Theme, which dissipates with Sheridan’s refusal. Custer’s Theme then joins as he presses him again, building on a crescendo of hope, only to be told that only President Grant could restore him. At 1:10 The President refuses to see him, yet he barges in to his office supported by a dramatic and dire musical narrative. He makes an audacious appeal directly to President U.S. Grant, soldier to soldier, saying; “You know how a man feels when he’s broken, when he’s left behind and his regiment is marching out to fight…” Grant accedes to his request and restores his command of the 7th Cavalry.

“Sharpe” reveals Custer returning and asking the bar tender to fetch Mr. Sharpe for a friendly drink. We open with tension, which dissipates, replaced by a tender, though wistful statement of the 7th Cavalry Theme. The Conspiracy Motif sounds at 0:50 as Sharpe, who has already been drinking, receives the invitation. A grim Custer’s Theme supports his reception followed by ethereal harp glissandi. After the 1:24 mark of the cue, an intervening cue not on the album enters – “More Toasts” (*) a portentous elegiac Custer’s Theme supports his request to drink a toast to the 7th Cavalry and let bygones be bygones. As Custer pours a full glass, the Conspiracy Motif sounds followed by a muted 7th Cavalry March as Sharpe relates news that Custer is riding out to join General’s Crook and Terry at the Little Big Horn. As they drink to the 7th, its theme transforms into a march. As he keeps pouring, Sharpe relates the Indian threat and their menacing theme joins. Sharpe, now drunk reminisces about their first meeting, supported by the more ornate version of Custer’s Theme. The Conspiracy Motif resumes as Sharpe proposes a new toast – to money. At 1:25 we return to the album with “Gold” a dire musical narrative as Custer says the advantage of choosing glory over money, is that you can’t take money with you, which stuns Sharpe, who passes out.

“The Final Goodbye” offers a magnificent score highlight, a masterpiece cue where Steiner’s peerless gift for romanticism is masterfully displayed. We open next day at dawn to revelry and field drums militare as the men saddle and mount their horses. At 0:24 we flow into the Libby’s Theme, tinged with the sadness of parting as she packs George’s campaign bag, while he checks his revolver. At 0:46 muted trumpets militare of the past sound as he retrieves his prized commemorative watch. At 1:02 a portentous chord and foreboding musical narrative supports her as she sees him deliberately break the watch chain. At 1:21 aching string’s romantico of the Love Theme support him taking the fob with her portrait, and purposely leaving the watch (his heart) with her. At 1:45 we segue into a plodding comedic rendering of his theme as he jokes about living the good life and getting fat when he returns from the campaign and taking a staff position in Washington. At 2:00 we are graced by an exquisite and eloquent exposition of the Love Theme, which becomes wistful as they talk of their future together, both of them knowing that he will not be returning. Its expression becomes aching when he reads her last diary entry, in which she portends his loss, a fate which must be endured. At 3:22 the Love Theme becomes tear evoking with a transfer to solo violin d’amore. He tries to lighten the moment and the music warms on his theme as he says “The more sadness in the parting, the more joy in the reunion”. The Love Theme resumes a wistful expression until 3:58 when a bugle militare emotes “Boots and Saddles” with field drums, calling for George to depart. As he says goodbye the Love Theme blossoms as her tears flow and they join in a kissing embrace. As he prepares to depart, he tells her; “Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing…” They then join in a passionate kissing embrace of love, both knowing it will be their last. The Love Theme swells for a molto romantico statement as he departs, purposely bumping a chair, leaving it to rock back and forth forever empty. An aching solo violin d’amore, joins as the camera stays focused on Libby as George exits. The Love Theme swells for a grand flourish as she collapses, with heartache, unable to bare the loss of her beloved. Film music just does not get any better than this.

“March/Out” opens with snare drums, which usher in a crescendo dramatico crowned with resounding bugles militare as Custer mounts his horse and assumes command position. He orders the men to move out, supported by the drum and fife empowered 7th Cavalry March. Portentous dire horns punctuate the march joined by foreboding orchestral auras as Custer and the 7th march unto legend. At 0:59 a wistful Love Theme joins as the camera focuses on Custer and we see she is in his thoughts. At 1:12 a lurking Sioux Theme joins as we see scouts observing the column from the cliff tops. The theme surges when Crazy Horses sends a message to Sitting Bull to summon the war council. We return to the march, which advances over a foundation of foreboding low register string auras as the 7th exits the gorge and enters open prairie. At 2:12 we segue into “Sioux” atop a surge by strings furioso, which ushers in the menace of the lurking Sioux Theme as scouts observe the 7th setting up camp for the night.

In “Camp At Night” California informs Custer that General Crooks’ column has been massacred, that the Sioux are encamped at the Little Big Horn, and that they are preparing to march north to annihilate General Terry’s infantry regimen. Steiner supports the grim report darkly with menacing drums and woodwinds of the Sioux Theme. A dire chord resounds at 0:37 followed by the muted heroism of Custer’s Theme as he declares his fateful decision to attack so as to delay them, and inflict loses, thus allowing General Sheridan’s army time to arrive and save General Terry. He summons Mr. Butler to deliver his final letter to Libby, his dying declaration of love, which Steiner supports with a Love Theme full of heartache. Butler takes offense at being asked to be a postman and refuses to leave on the eve of battle. At 1:22 Steiner supports the comradery between the two friends with sentimental interplay of “Rule Britannia”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “America” as Custer relents and agrees to delegate the task to someone else. We close at 1:52 with uncertainty to the 7th Cavalry Theme as Custer reflects on what tomorrow brings. In the film (not on the album) a grim and resolute Sioux Theme sounds as one by one each chief of the various Indian tribe Chiefs commit to war. “Custer and Sharpe” (*) reveals Custer releasing the bound Sharpe, whom he abducted. He offers him two choices; remain here alone and be murdered by the Sioux, or ride with the 7th to glory. Steiner supports with the Conspiracy Motif and a grim musical narrative.

“Little Big Horn” offers a powerful score highlight, and magnificent cinematic confluence of film narrative, cinematography and music. We see Custer riding onward with the 7th Cavalry bathed with the dawn lite skies, and empowered by the 7th Cavalry March as they ride to their destiny. At 0:22 the Sioux Theme enters, though their presence remains hidden. Custer continues forward supported by a cautious rendering of his theme. At 0:42 tension rises with the Sioux Theme as Custer’s scouts are found killed. The Sioux Theme erupts with menace as a huge war party arrives and launches a charge. Interplay with Bugle militare unfolds as Custer forms his cavalry into formation with sabers drawn. At 1:27 Custer orders a counter charge and the Sioux and 7th Cavalry Themes wage war. At 1:47 the Sioux turn tail and flee, with Custer taking the bait and pursuing. The 7th Cavalry Theme becomes ascendent until 2:38 when we see Indian war parties converge from all four compass points to envelop Custer. Seeing no way out he orders the men to dismount and fight on foot. They close ranks and Steiner unleashes a tour de force with the Sioux and 7th Calvary Theme battling for supremacy. Gradually the Indian onslaught gains the upper hand as a now desperate 7th Cavalry Theme struggles for life as they crash through Custer’s perimeter and vicious hand to hand fighting unfolds. At 5:48 Custer’s Theme sounds as he is the lone survivor, runs out of bullets, and stands defiant with his sabre raised as Crazy Horse charges. A crescendo dramatico surges with final defiant statements of the 7th and Custer Themes until 6:03 when it expires as Custer is shot in the heart by Crazy Horse, who grabs the 7th Cavalry regimental battle flag and rides off to victory empowered by his triumphant Theme.

“Dying Declaration/Finale” reveals General Sheridan commending Custer’s sacrifice to Commissioner Taipe and Ned Sharpe. Libby joins them bearing a dying declaration letter, which damns both Taipe and Sharpe as complicit in the war, and deaths of hundreds. Steiner supports the scene eloquently with an elegiac 7th Cavalry Theme, Custer’s Theme and Conspiracy Motif as Sharpe dissolves his company and Taipe resigns his commission. Libby thus avenges Custer’s reputation and memory as she departs arm in arm with General Sheridan. We close with a flashback of Custer’s final ride to his destiny as we see him and the 7th Cavalry riding unto legend supported with a last reprise of the 7th Cavalry Theme, which ends in a flourish. In “End Cast” Steiner offers the 7th Cavalry Theme as a rousing marcia bravado. Lastly, “Original Theatrical Trailer” offers the traditional means of studios promoting upcoming pictures. It is in reality a classic Overture where Steiner offers an amazing and dramatic parade of his score’s primary themes as well as classic American anthems.

I offer my praise to Bruce Kimmel and the late Nick Redman for this momentous and long sought re-recording of Max Steiner’s masterpiece, “They Died With Their Boots On”. The audio quality is excellent, provides a wonderful listening experience, and the performance of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under William Stromberg’s baton, superb. Steiner understood that this was at its heart, a story of an iconic American hero, and one of history’s great romances. To that end he created Custer’s Theme, which exemplified his audacity, fearlessness and heroism. Errol Flynn’s acting performance was superb, yet it was Steiner’s music which in the end made him larger than life. The Love Theme was quintessential Steiner romanticism, which beautifully supported George’s and Libby’s romance, with sublime expositions when emoted by solo violin d’amore. The Sioux Theme offered the perfect ethnic foil to the white military identities achieving astounding interplay during the battle scenes. Yet it is the iconic 7th Cavalry Theme where the score achieves its zenith, enduring as an indelible mark on the collective conscious of America. For me it stands as perhaps the greatest military anthems in cinematic history, a testament to Steiner’s genius, and mastery of his craft. Lastly, the cue “The Final Goodbye” offers a masterpiece where Steiner’s peerless gift for romanticism is masterfully displayed. Both lovers know that this will be George’s last campaign, and both hold within their heartache of what will be their last embrace and kiss. Steiner’s musical narrative speaks to these inner, unspoken feelings, which makes this one of the most sublime acting-musical confluences ever witnessed. Folks, Steiner once again provides a score that captures the emotional core of a film’s story, one that in scene after scene enhances, and elevates its narrative. I consider this score to be a masterpiece, one of the finest military romances in cinematic history, and highly recommend you purchase it for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a wonderful ten-minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqBpRWEjduQ

Buy the They Died With Their Boots On soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/West Point (2:16)
  • Custer Arrives/Trick/West Point Montage (2:07)
  • West Point Montage (0:56)
  • West Point Graduation/Punishment Guard/Haste/Escort (4:19)
  • Libby/Civil War Montage (3:04)
  • Polka/Mazurka (1:55)
  • First Battle Sequence (3:20)
  • Meeting Father (0:29)
  • Mystic Teapot/Owl (4:34)
  • Haste/Civil War (1:45)
  • Sharpe/Troops/Battle #2/Band Medley (6:28)
  • Wedding (1:09)
  • The Letter (1:51)
  • Indians (3:45)
  • Mysterioso (2:20)
  • Grazioso/On The Train (3:22)
  • The 7th Cavalry (1:39)
  • Sharpe/Gold (1:39)
  • The Final Goodbye (5:07)
  • March/Out/Sioux (3:08)
  • Camp At Night (2:25)
  • Little Big Horn (6:45)
  • Dying Declaration/Finale (2:14)
  • End Cast (Garry Owen) (0:38)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (2:41)

Running Time: 67 minutes 39 seconds

Marco Polo 8.225079 (1941/1999)

Music composed by Max Steiner. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by The Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus . Original orchestrations by Hugo Friedhofer. Recorded and mixed by Edvard Shakhnazarian and Vitaly Ivanov. Score produced by Max Steiner. Album produced by William Stromberg, John Morgan, Bruce Kimmel and Nick Redman.

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