BILLINGS, Mont. -- The dust and smoke blow across the vast, dry prairie. In the town square, a crowd of notables stands sweating in the sun, bunched around a reviewing stand decked in red, white and blue bunting. All eyes turn as a distant rider on a jet black horse streaks toward town and gallops into the square, reining up just inches short of the reviewing stand -- a bit awkwardly perhaps?
"Ten-hut!" bellows a sergeant, and 70 mounted troopers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry snap to attention, saluting the golden-haired horseman as he passes their line -- a tad uneasy in the saddle?
"Custer!" A collective whisper shoots through the crowd. Yes: George Armstrong Custer -- living legend, hero of the Civil War and scourge of Oklahoma Indians is about to go to war again.
"Eyes right!" A military band brings instruments to lips. Custer reaches for his saber. The first line of troopers take their steeds forward a step.
But Custer remains immobile, fumbling for his sword. He reaches, misses, tries again, fumbles again. On third attempt, the famed cavalryman slips in the saddle, reaches wildly for the reins with both hands -- and spills into the dust.
The air is shattered by a megaphone blast. "Let's try that one again, Gary. You okay?"
"Yeah, Yeah," says Custer, alias Gary Cole, alias the star of "Night Caller."
"Let's take a five-minute break now. And extras -- don't get lost," says the megaphone.
But we extras, the town notables, just chuckle -- because we know what cowboys know and what the director doesn't: Custer can't ride!
Almost identical in our ill-fitting suits, we are some of the more than 2,000 extras actors hired for a new television epic about the dashing commander who won a curious place in history by leading 250 of his men to their doom against 4,000 to 5,000 warriors at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876.
Better known as Custer's Last Stand, the battle somehow defines the tragic relationship between white and red America, though interpretations change from generation to generation. Custer was a martyred hero in the years after his death. But today popular culture has ungenerously reduced the much-decorated general to the role of a buffoon who deserved to Die For Our Sins.
Tonight and Monday night, a new generation of Custer buffs and the general public will be treated to yet another addition to the genre: "Son of the Morning Star," a $30-million ABC miniseries inspired by Evan S. Connell's 1984 book of the same name.
In preparation for my role, I read the book. It was not the summer pot-boiler I expected but rather a work of scholarship, a live, honest and brilliantly researched history of the en tire Indian Wars period, roughly 1865-1900. The story revolves around Custer, but the author refuses to make a categorical judgment of him as man or commander: Every page reveals a new, contradictory aspect of his life and times.
Connell's book is a sad litany of a colonial war and extended genocide, wherein the white man signed and ignored treaty after treaty and very nearly wiped out the continent's aborigines. It should be basic reading in American history classes across the illiterate land.
But even as the shame and rage boiled up in me, I began having an uneasy feeling that the author had signaled his approval to Hollywood to make mincemeat of his scholarship. With each page, the idea of reducing the book to a miniseries seemed more and more obscene. Asked about this, Connell told me he is pleased with the script and noted that ABC had vowed to maintain the book's integrity. But he acknowledged that "a great deal" had been left out in transferring his work to the living-room screen.
Sadly, in the eyes of this extra, the exclusions include much of what makes the original work unique:
Where is the cameo appearance by Henry M. Stanley, of "Livingston" fame? Stanley rode with Custer in Oklahoma and Kansas in the guise of a journalist, crying out for the extermination of the red menace as a barrier to America's Manifest Destiny. He seems to have been replaced by two sappy-looking goons in paisley outfits and straw hats -- an affront to journalistic hacks everywhere.
What about a role for Isaiah Dorman? A former slave, he became a mail carrier after the Civil War, disappeared to live among the Sioux for several years before reappearing as a translator for Custer during the Little Big Horn expedition. Dorman's corpse was particularly mutilated because he was regarded as a traitor to his adopted people for leading their enemy to them.
Or how about an identifiable Lt. Charles DeRudio? The adventurous Frenchman was condemned to be guillotined after an aborted attempt on the life of Emperor Louis Napoleon at the Paris Opera. His sentence was commuted to life on notorious Devil's Island, but he escaped in a log canoe like a Papillon of an earlier day. DeRudio joined the Union Army as an officer in the U.S. Colored Troops and eventually transferred to the 7th Cavalry. His reprieve from the guillotine was matched only by his luck in riding with Maj. Marcus Reno on the fateful day rather than where he belonged -- with E Company as it rode forth with Custer.
And what about Mrs. Nash, the infamous laundress at Fort Lincoln? Each of her several husbands deserted both her and the regiment soon after marriage. Small wonder: Mrs. Nash was discovered, in death, to have been a transvestite male. A scene was written for her in the original script, Connell said, but was excised -- not as too controversial but as too unbelievable even for television.
These are the strange, real characters on the fringe of civilization who people Connell's book, and any one of them deserves treatment in a film depicting the period. Instead, viewers will be treated to the tried and true -- Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and President Grant among them. And rather than experiencing the harsh daily life of the cavalry as it plods across mind-numbing miles of prairie, we will be treated to Custer's court-martial for having shot deserters -- a tension-filled drama, to be sure, but an incident only obliquely mentioned in the book as an example of Custer's severity in keeping his men in line.
If they were so seemingly cavalier with the book, I suspect that the directors will be even faster and looser with their hero himself and produce the cliche'd Custer with flowing locks and lusty mustache. If we are to believe the author, though, old Long Hair was balding by his mid-thirties and hadn't much hair left to scalp after Crazy Horse -- or was it Gall or Rain in Face? -- pulled the trigger or shot the arrow or raised the tomahawk. The problem of identifying who actually killed Custer is further exacerbated by the fact that none of the Indian leaders even knew who the general was.
So even if the author does not have his doubts, I have mine.
The megaphone is calling for silence on the set again, and we town notables scamper out of the way while Gary Cole Custer, now dismounted, hoists his sword in front of the camera and growls "Ten-hut!" a couple of dozen times. Light applause follows the last take. Elsewhere, a woman we notables have tentatively identified as Libby Custer is repeating the words "Hot, hot, hot" for the umpteenth time while twirling her parasol.
A descendant of one of Custer's Crow Indian scouts wanders by and asks for some "fire water" with a grin. Across the square, the 70 doomed men of the 7th Cavalry care for their horses and brush at their period uniforms, removing imported dust stirred up by a huge fan. The smoke, too, is fake -- pieces of bee's resin, dropped on burning charcoal.
But all this is Hollywood, fantasyland, even if relocated to eastern Montana.
So what if the special-effects folks are reproducing the weather of the day before when shooting stopped?
So what if Gary Cole, alias Custer, can't ride?
So what if a movie and a book by the same name have only that in common?
Nothing, I guess -- only given the choice, I'd read the book.
Thomas Goltz lives in Montana and is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.