Rated: 4 / 5
Introduction (rant on things we once had in the past, but never will again)
You know, I used to think the 90s had jack shit for television when it came to “made for TV movies and miniseries.” But then I started thinking how much that changed ever since, I don’t know, some time around 2010, or even the mid-2000s. Back in the day, when some miniseries to tv movie event came on, it was something pretty much anyone with a television and decent cable could watch, and most often did. The most obvious ones were the 2-part Stephen King’s It miniseries (I don’t care what anyone says, that is fun as hell to watch), and Gettysburg (that 2-part Civil War battle miniseries), or Ken Burn’s The Civil War (doesn’t really count since that’s a documentary series). Especially when it came to the latter, everyone talked about it.
Nowadays, it’s just not the same. It’s no longer “made for tv,” but “made for this specific service.” Whether it’s one of those high class networks like HBO or Starz or Showtime (the ones you need to pay extra subscription for), or any of those streaming services like Hulu or Netflix. Or hell, even streaming subscription services that are extensions of existing channels like AMC streaming (the only way you can see that fucking Gareth Evans ganster show, because fuck the rest of us) or HBO/Max+, which have their own exclusives that you have to pay an additional fee to watch. You can’t really call those made for TV anymore, because that entails something the general public can watch and talk about afterwards. Those days are dead and gone.
While the pre-2010s may not have had good (or even decent) made-for-tv films on average, at least it had them. Now that it’s all a thing of the past, that’s one less thing that would allow the average television viewer to share something in common with the other. Some film they both watched. Agree with enjoying it or not, it didn’t matter, it gave them something to praise/argue about.
However, lately I’ve been catching some surprises. I mean, yeah, most made-for-tv films weren’t that great back then. And even when they were just average, average television in the 90s doesn’t age that well, there’s just something about them that puts me off. Something about how they’re too clean, too much like a soap-opera, the way the actors usually are, the cruddy budget making just about everything take place in a couple houses or one neighborhood. Most felt samey.
But then there are those exceptions. And most of those exceptions, from what I’ve been seeing so far, are based on true stories. And they tend to go the extra mile on researching them, and doing the best they can with the budget they’ve got to make it look good. And sometimes they succeed. I can think of 2 examples in recent memory from what I’ve uncovered that shows just how good some of these can be (excluding Gettysburg and It).
For the smaller scope stuff, there’s Cry in the Wild: The Taking of Peggy Ann. Surprisingly good and effective kidnapping thriller which does something most films today just don’t do (will get to that in a moment).
For the more ambitious stuff, there’s Son of the Morning Star, which to this day is considered to be the most historically accurate portrayal of Custard’s Last Stand, and the events leading up to it (plus the character study of the man himself). And this film shows him warts and all. Shows why he’s considered to be such a bastard (how he treated the Indians, his ego and stubborness, not taking criticism very well), but also shows his good side and why some revere him (how he loved his wife, did have some care for his men, and actually came around to fighting for the cause of Indian rights in some government/political situations later in his life). An honest portrayal of a multidimensional man. So the viewer can have their own opinions regarding his strengths and faults.
It’s the sort of thing that’s missing today, that’s also found with the kidnapper in Cry in the Wild. Films that don’t sugar coat the morally negative aspects of these people, but also don’t try to censor that they had a good side to them, even a tragic side. Far too often do films opt to take the lazy/easy route of just having cardboard cutout villains and protagonists for the sake of easy emotional manipulation (which I can see right through). And it’s more prevalent than ever, which is insane since I thought the 80s wouldn’t be topped in terms of having one-dimensional villains; at least it was fun when the 80s did it. Even when it comes to films based on historical events.
Which makes me have more of an appreciation for some of these 90s made-for-TV films. This was a decade when some noteworthy efforts were made to just straight up show history without trying to muddle things too much for a sugarcoated overly simplified biased and borderline (if not entirely) false morality PC message. They dared to show how much of a grey area there was to these events. They dared to allow viewers to do some critical thinking and consider viewpoints they hadn’t considered before.
We are not in an age where that happens. And in all fairness, I have yet to see certain demographics get their fair share of having their viewpoint honestly expressed without aspects of it hindered or blocked out entirely. But there’s no chance of it happening at all with the way things are now. We’re going to have to go through 10-30 years of turmoil and change before that ever happens, and that’s assuming all that turmoil doesn’t make things worse.
But anyway, what I’m trying to say is, Son of the Morning Star is a good 2-part miniseries.
So I’ve come to realize I should be seeking out made-for-TV films and miniseries more thoroughly than I’ve currently been doing in my Entertainment Nostalgia series. And in my investigations, I’ve uncovered this lesser known 2-part miniseries that is ambitious as Gettysburg (1993) and Dances with Wolves (1990). Or so some people claim. I’m not so sure it has the scale of either of those films, but it certainly has more budget and effort put behind it compared to the average made-for-TV flick back in that decade. And I blame the film Glory (1989) for starting this whole thing of historical films set during, just before, and just after the Civil War time period. That’s not a film I consider historically accurate, and it probably would’ve been better if it didn’t have some miscasting issues. But it did seem to inspire the creation of Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary mini-series (1990), which got enormous (and very much deserved) critical acclaim, which set into motion the creation of other Civil War-inspired historical films during that portion of the 90s. The most significant stand-out, and very much remembered today (and deservedly so), being the 2-part miniseries Gettysburg. A film that showed both sides of the conflict, and didn’t villianize the Confederates. It showed that the Confederates, like the Union, were human, and had justifiable causes for fighting that were independent of slavery (though that ended up being a part of it, but historically it wasn’t integral, that was just politics making it out to be integral). Which made their loss all the more tragic when you saw it.
You can never understand the tragedy of war unless you see it through the eyes of those who lost. Understanding why their loss hurt them so, how their dreams become dashed, how they had to suffer the consequences of being treated as the loser in a war. How their intentions (of which some are almost always good, whether misguided or not) didn’t come to fruition. Their dreams of establishing a way of life are never to be realized.
This is something that no one would dare do in this day and age. Because we have devolved into a society that cannot tolerate anything short of 2-dimensional good guys and bad guys when it comes to looking back on historical events (let alone just about any mainstream film made today). Which is why nothing being made today that’s based on history is standing the test of time as much as that film does.
And then there’s this movie which puts an aspect of this on a smaller scale. Son of the Morning Star. The story of George Armstrong Custer, the 10 years leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the battle itself, and the fate that awaited those in its aftermath. It is claimed that it is told from the perspective of the two women in the film, one being Custer’s wife, the other being an Indian girl who grew up during those 10 years seeing what havoc Custer had wrought on her people. But they are side characters who simply fill in the blanks regarding some bits of information that gives more insight into Custer himself, and the events surrounding him.
He is a man who is not only a Civil War veteran, but also the youngest General in U.S. military history up to that point. He is also notorious for atrocities committed by his regiments when it came to the American Indian wars that occurred during the 1870s. Not just slaughtering the warriors, but women and children as well. Going back on promises made to them. And being a real hardass to other leaders in his regiment; not taking any form of criticism well. Stubborn, and lacking tactical intelligence when it came to battles. A man many believe deserved the fate that befell him at the infamous Custer’s Last Stand battle (along with his regiment).
Yet we also see another side of him as well. A man who loves and cares for his wife. A man who knows how to whip his troops into shape. Patriotic. Honest. A man who evolved during those ten years into someone who came to know the Indians better, actually make friends with a few of them, and even fought for them on the political field by calling out the government corruption that tread on the rights it promised those very Indians they often send him against.
This is a film that portrays him as it should portray any side of a historical event: as bluntly and honestly as possible, showing the good and the bad, warts and all. That being said, it also was typical in how it portrayed the Indians; primarily as good people who didn’t deserve any of the harsh treatment given to them by the U.S. government (as the Indian girl narrator will often remind the viewer). This is no Black Robe (1991) or The Last of the Mohicans (1992) when it comes to showing the good and the bad of the Indians. At the same time, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to argue that both Custer and the U.S. government didn’t treat the Indians unfairly (at the very least). The irony being the government was run by those Union men who stood victorious over the Civil War (kind of makes you wonder if things would’ve turned out differently if the Confederates won their independence).
Regardless, the film accomplishes showing how Custer is a man with major faults and well as some good strengths. This, in effect, makes it tragic when he finally meets his end. An end he met primarily through his own foolish decisions, with some poor government decisions aiding in that to an extent (the repeater rifles his troops were provided, which jammed easily after only firing a few shots). He may have deserved the end he got, but it is still tragic to lose such a man one would hope would improve in character and intelligence overtime and see his development in how he viewed the Indians improve even further. But it was not to be.
There was also the fate of Crazy Horse (the name of the lead Indian who rallied other tribes together to fight against the U.S. government, hostile to the idea of reservations and what they stand for (and how they would even be forced to leave those reservations if something valuable, such as gold, was discovered to be within them). A man who fought for his people, who despised the U.S. government (who could really blame him?), only to have his fate end in tragedy as well, primarily as a result of his actions and the death of Custer. The Indian narrator states that it may be famously known as Custer’s Last Stand, but it should really be considered the Indian’s Last Stand, as just about everything that happened afterwards caused many more to be slaughtered as a repercussion for scoring a victory against the military troops, which in turn was considered a victory against the U.S. government itself. And sure enough virtually all of them were butchered. And Crazy Horse met his fate in an ironic fashion. He viewed himself as one who would go through the rest of his life fearless in the face of his enemy, only to show fear and panic when faced with the bars of a jail cell, and was restrained by one of his own Indian people while he would be stabbed in the back by an American as he tried to flee.
The whole thing ends in bitter tragedy for all the major parties involved we get to know over the course of the film. And it can only be considered tragic when one is able to see the good intentions with the controversial characters.
This is considered to be the most accurate portrayal of Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn that has ever been put to film, and hasn’t been topped to this day. And it has aged rather well, in spite of a couple moments, and the overuse of the Indian girl and her perspective and her decrying the harm done to the Indians. She spells out what the viewer can clearly see a little too often. She’s an integral voice in the film, don’t get me wrong. But I got sick of hearing her at times. Her whole guilt-tripping and everything. Pretty sure just seeing white Americans commit unjust slaughter on various Indians is enough of a guilt trip for the average viewer. It’s not enough to ruin the film, but it does take the rating down a small notch.
Aside from some minor faults (and the words of some very nitpicky historians who will never be satisfied with any film portrayal of anything historical), this is a historical film that deserves more recognition, and an HD remaster so we can see the film the way it should be seen; with a more clear picture than the fuzzy ones currently on Youtube and VHS. The actors are very solid in their roles (and recognition must be given to Rodney Grant who played Crazy Horse, and was very intimidating and intense in the role). Highly recommended.
PS: The music is also pretty damn good at times. Especially the score that plays when Custer is doing his last charge, charging straight into his destiny.