THE JUNE 1876 battle between a large group of Indians and the United States Seventh Cavalry near the river known as Little Bighorn has long since passed from history into mythology.
"Son of the Morning Star" uses the much-maligned docudrama format to try to reverse that flow, to put the cliche of Custer's Last Stand back into a context in which it can be understood as an actual event that happened at a particular place on a particular day for particular reasons. Thus established, it can resonate over the ensuing decades with a new power.
This excellent, if at times uneven, four-hour ABC production, that will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) Sunday and Monday nights at 9, takes its title from the demythologizing book by novelist Evan S. Connell.
Though the miniseries cannot use the layer-by-layer approach to the subject that Connell did -- his book was virtually an archaeological dig -- it still acknowledges the complexity of its subject and presents a compelling, intelligent picture of an event in American history that has a significance far removed from its mythological standing.
Sunday's first two hours essentially cover the decade after the Civil War, both for Gen. George Armstrong Custer and for the western frontier. That conflict was over and the result was Americans once again seeking these new lands and heroes of that war once again seeking the glory of battle. Those two streams would merge in the dusty hills of the Dakotas.
"Son of the Morning Star" uses two narrative voices to tell this story, one of an Indian woman -- read by Buffy Sainte Marie -- who saw Custer as a young girl and then lived in some of the villages that fell to his attacks, and the other of Custer's wife -- played by Rosanna Arquette -- whose fervent devotion to her husband was important in creating the legend that eventually surrounded him.
Hearing these two narratives, both speaking with a simple clarity of what each perceives as right and wrong over a decade, gives you a depth of understanding as you approach Monday's two hours, which tell of the campaign that led to the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Gary Cole of "Midnight Caller" fame plays Custer, using his smoldering intensity to communicate the General's near-maniacal ego. Cole never can quite integrate Custer's penchant for showmanship into his portrayal, but it is hard to imagine anyone playing this difficult character any better.
Director Mike Robe takes advantage of the wonderful locations in Montana to convey a sense of the land that even comes across on the small screen. His imaginative, at times almost quirky, technique intrudes occasionally during the straightforward historical narrative of the first two hours, but it works perfectly in the second part, conveying with horrific power the terrifying confusion that is warfare.
Custer is first introduced as a Civil War hero. During the next decade his career had its ups and downs. Throughout, he yearned for the great victory that would establish his reputation. He thought that the brutal destruction of a renegade Indian village was that victory, but the fallout from it only brought him a court martial and suspension.
In Washington, the Civil War veteran troika of President Ulysses Grant (Stanley Anderson) and generals Sherman (George Dickerson) and Sheridan (Dean Stockwell) are depicted as seeing the Indian problem as a messy situation with no easy solution. People like Custer, who saw the potential for glory in it, could be used to help clean it up.
Meanwhile, the Indians were feeling more and more hemmed in on the lands they were given, the whole concept of boundaries foreign to their thinking. The teaming of the ancient wisdom of Sitting Bull (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) and the youthful charisma of Crazy Horse (Rodney A. Grant) provided an enticing magnet for the many Indians who hoped to resist the incessant intrusion of the white settlers, often with a brutality that made no distinction among its victims.
"Son of the Morning Star" does not shy from mystical elements, whether it's the visions of Indians or the dreams of soldiers. And that is so appropriate because there's an eerie convergence between so much that's in these four hours -- which were filmed months ago -- and so much that's in today's headlines.
There's the clash of two cultures that seemingly have little interest in understanding one another. There's the battle between the weapons of cutting-edge technology and the fervor of people fighting for their land. And most troublesome in these days filled with the rhetoric of high-road morality is the inescapable but unsettling fact that our country was expanded in much the same way that Iraq hoped to expand into Kuwait.
Given these parallels, the tone of inevitable tragedy that pervades "Son of the Morning Star" takes on an almost personal potency. The Indians fought and won their greatest victory at the Little Bighorn, but it only ensured their eventual defeat.
And the white men died in a stupid, ill-advised assault, but it was necessary to paint their leader as a glorious martyr because the myth demanded it. "Son of the Morning Star" makes you ask what demands today's myths are making on history.
"Son of the Morning Star"
*** A four-hour dramatization of the events, both of the previous decade and the previous few hours, that led up to the Battle of Little Bighorn, the June 25, 1876, engagement known as Custer's Last Stand.
CAST: Gary Cole, Rosanna Arquette
TIME: Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)