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Dances With Custer : ABC’s miniseries leading up to the famous last stand called for endurance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“They call it ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ but it wasn’t. It was our last stand.”

--Kate Bighead, a Cheyenne in “Son of the Morning Star.”

Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer is as controversial today as during his lifetime.

Some historians have characterized the infamous Indian fighter (familiar to most as General Custer because of his Civil War Army rank) as brave, brilliant and daring. Others have pictured him as immature, reckless, brutal and tyrannical.

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His luck ran out on June 25, 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That hot day, Custer and more than 200 members of his Seventh Calvary engaged a superior force of approximately 4,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors lead by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull at a treeless ridge rising from the Little Bighorn River Valley in Montana. The entire Seventh Calvary, except a horse named Commanche, was massacred. No one knows how many Indians were killed.

Custer, 36 when he died, has been the subject of movies and fiction, as well as nearly 200 historical books. Evan S. Connell’s 1984 best-selling account, “Son of the Morning Star,” the name given Custer by the Crow tribe, is considered one of the most comprehensive.

ABC airs its four-hour miniseries “Son of the Morning Star” Sunday and Monday. Shot on location in Montana, the $12 million-plus production features Gary Cole of “Midnight Caller” as Custer; Rosanna Arquette as his devoted wife, Libbie, and Omaha Indian actor Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair in “Dances With Wolves”) as Crazy Horse. Writer Melissa Mathison (“The Black Stallion” and “E.T. the Extraterrestrial”) wrote the screenplay based on Connell’s book and other historical documents.

All Indians in the miniseries are portrayed by American Indians and speak in their native tongues. The crew includes Indian advisers fluent in the four languages in the script--Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow and Sioux--plus Indian hairdressers, makeup experts and wardrobe and costume designers. All horses, tepees and weaponry were obtained from Indians.

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The miniseries covers the last 10 years of Custer’s life and is told in flashback through the eyes of Libbie Custer and Kate Bighead, a Cheyenne woman. Singer Buffy Sainte Marie, a Cree Indian, provides the voice of Kate Bighead.

“Son of the Morning Star” had been kicking around for several years. Originally optioned by the Mount Company as a feature film, it was developed as a miniseries for NBC and later CBS. Eventually, it found a home at ABC and Republic Pictures, the venerable studio that was home to John Wayne and Roy Rogers Westerns in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“One of the things that attracted me to this project is a sense of continuity,” said Republic Pictures Chairman Russell Goldsmith. “We invented the Western.”

Of course, timing had something to do with it. Republic became attached to the project two years ago, around the time CBS scored a triumph with its Western miniseries, the $20-millon “Lonesome Dove.”

Goldsmith hopes “Morning Star” will attract the same audience that tuned into “Lonesome Dove” and is flocking to Kevin Costner’s current feature film “Dances With Wolves.”

“I think the success of these shows says something about who we are as people,” Goldsmith said. “We are ready for the unvarnished truth.”

Director Mike Robe said, “We are really the second half of ‘Dances with Wolves. It closes a remarkable chapter on the culture of the Native Americans.”

Making “Son of the Morning Star” on the plains of Montana was an arduous task.

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“We would come in at the end of a lot of days picking the ticks off our bodies,” Robe said. “We killed several rattlesnakes directly beneath our cameras. While we were shooting, we had a number of accidents with people. No one was seriously hurt, I am relived to say.”

While working over a seven-week period in south-central Montana last spring and early summer, the crew and cast had to endure the extremes of weather.

“I remember shooting a scene two miles from our base camp one afternoon,” Robe said. “A storm came upon us so quickly. It began to hail stones the size of golf balls. People were diving under cars and vans and racing to protect the equipment.”

“We were freezing some days,” producer Preston Fischer said. “Three-and-a-half weeks later, we had three days in a row that were over 120 degrees.”

One of those scorching days was the anniversary of the battle. The production was re-enacting the battle that very day.

“We had some wonderful Native American extras,” Robe said. “We had been working long and it was hot and I was having trouble getting their enthusiasm up. I remember reminding them it was the anniversary and it was like rockets had gone off. They came to life and their war whoops were never as convincing.”

Because Custer Battlefield is a national monument, the miniseries was shot 50 miles outside of the battlefield on a private ranch.

“We put in 15 miles of our own roads in order to get to some of these locations,” Fischer said. “Plus, whenever we were doing tracking shots for the horse-riding stuff, we had to have the ground as smooth as possible. So we had to make special roads running along the side in order to make it as smooth as possible for our camera car.”

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The logistics were awesome. “There were days we served 500 lunches,” Robe said. “We built an entire fort on the huge parcel of land outside of Billings, which cost nearly $200,000.”

The production used 400 horses and more than 150 Indian actors and extras. More than 200 re-enactors--people whose hobby is performing and dressing as people did in the past--were hired to play members of the Seventh Cavalry.

“They have their own uniforms and horses,” Robe said. “They formed their own camp at the location site. They know all of the history. They would help us stage the scenes so they would be exactly correct.”

“We manufactured our own showers for them,” Fischer said. ‘We actually bought a large trailer truck and built eight showers into it. We also put in corrals for their horses. It was like moving an Army. I certainly understand what they are going through now in the Middle East.”

Robe and Fischer discovered the hundreds of Custer experts all have differing opinions of the Indian fighter.

“They don’t agree on anything,” Robe said. “I knew nothing about Custer other than he lost,” Fischer said. “I read 10 books and talked to a lot of people, which was somewhat useless. When you are in that part of the country, every single person you walk in to, from the bartender to the waiter to the person who brings your laundry, is a Custer expert.”

John Carroll, author of countless Custer books and articles (he died after the movie was filmed), was the official Custer adviser on the set. “We disagreed with him sometimes,” Fischer said. “He was not only a Custer expert, but a Custer supporter. It was impossible for him to find anything wrong with Custer.”

Audiences will find a flawed Custer depicted in “Son of the Morning Star.” “He is an enigmatic character,” Fischer said. “We portray him as a person who is egotistical and narcissistic. I think there is a certain amount of sympathy for him, but I think there is more for the Native Americans. This isn’t like ‘Dances with Wolves.’ That’s a romanticized version of that period; this doesn’t let the audience off the hook.”

“Son of the Morning Star” airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC.


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