Once movie audiences cheered when the cavalry arrived to rout the Indians. Now it's the Indians who are more likely to be cheered. This revisionist fact of life is at the heart, and it's a pretty big heart, of "Son of the Morning Star," an ABC miniseries about George Armstrong Custer's bloody date with destiny.
In the two-part, four-hour film, airing tomorrow and Monday at 9 p.m. on Channel 7, Custer is portrayed as a preening egomaniac and tireless self-publicist -- sort of a parody of a Hollywood studio executive, intentional or otherwise -- and also as a symbol and instrument of racism and imperialism.
When he goes down to defeat in Part 2 at the Little Bighorn, in a grueling 40-minute battle sequence that is probably the most exhaustive ever staged for television, Custer is not likely to elicit many tears from viewing eyes. As the voice of an Indian narrator notes, "They call it Custer's Last Stand, but it was not his. It would be our last stand."
A somber postscript makes this painfully clear.
"Son of the Morning Star," which is based mostly on a book by Evan S. Connell, is quality work, and the long climax is staggering. But the producersand ABC may be the victims of bad timing. With American men and women risking their lives in the Persian Gulf War right now, the country may not be in just the mood for a lengthy, self-recriminating downer.
Actor Kevin Costner has made big bucks, of course, with his feature film "Dances With Wolves," which purports to take the Indians' point of view. But Costner's movie is also something of a romp, and perhaps less a glorification of Indian life than a glorification of Costner. "Morning Star" has more integrity and less, if any, cutesy comic relief.
Gary Cole, of NBC's "Midnight Caller," brings a properly petulant intensity to the role of Custer, although he never quite shows us the public persona that made Custer the 19th-century equivalent of a media darling. The subject does keep coming up. At one point we see him pausing carefully on a battlefield so that a reporter can jot down his words -- a sound bite in the making.
Indeed, the film might be considered "Georgie Custer, Superstar." He's constantly cognizant of his image in the popular press and of the myth he is trying to build.
Less effective and certainly less believable is the pouty and sultry Rosanna Arquette, who looks preposterous in period clothes as Custer's loyal wife. Arquette is one of two narrators of the film. It's structured so that her narration is countered by that of Buffy Sainte-Marie as the voice of an Indian named Kate Bighead who grows from girlhood to womanhood during the 10 years of Custer's career covered by the movie.
The dueling-narrators idea seems self-conscious at first, and writer Melissa Mathison made matters worse by crowding lots of narration into the beginning of the film, which makes it seem distanced and passive. But the technique may grow on you, and though Arquette's voice is lulling, Sainte-Marie's, even when speaking, is lyrical.
Custer was a political animal, the film reminds us at several junctures, but he wasn't the only political animal around. Generals back in Washington cluck with envy over his exploits and his popularity; by this account, he really had a mediocre military career until his supposedly glorious swan song.
Of the generals, U.S. Grant (Stanley Anderson) comes off best, and he's not pictured as a drunk, either. He says a man of Custer's low morals would attack a sleeping village, and Custer does; women and children die. Dean Stockwell as Gen. Phil Sheridan and George Dickerson as Gen. William Sherman basically sit around exchanging gossip and exposition.
The most striking figure by far is cut by Rodney A. Grant as Crazy Horse, who would face the detested Custer on that final field of battle. Grant and Crazy Horse are such an ideal combination of mesmerizing performer and charismatic character that one well may wish the miniseries had been about him.
While the first night is slower and talkier than the second, there is the compensation of fairly magnificent scenery throughout -- shots of clouds streaming past mountains are pretty as well as portentous. Some will find the film too long a guilt trip to take; perhaps for their benefit, Mathison has Grant say, "I think nations, like individuals, are responsible for their transgressions."
"Son of the Morning Star" is an earnest attempt at facing up to awful truths.