One of the recurring themes I have been writing about now for decades is how Hollywood and mainstream media like films and television portray real estate developers as always greedy, manipulative, and evil. In the one hundred year history of the modern cinema I cannot name a single film where real estate owners or property developers are portrayed in a positive light. This despite the fact without real estate developers everyone in the world would be living in caves.
This issue is relevant and important since the public gets its impressions of the real estate world from the media. When you go to a zoning board meeting for a permit or try to get an easement on a piece of property you are fighting a century of Hollywood stereotypes. You are Simon Legree in the flesh.
Most media portraits of real estate developers are like this one. In the 1980 film USED CARS starring Kurt Russell, the evil real estate owner who owns a used car lot across the road from Russell's place is trying to drive him out of business so he can steal the land under it.
The greedy developer, played by the always reliable Jack Warden, knows a new highway is coming through the area which will make the land worth millions. But this plot is typical. It only involves a single land lot. Just one.
I recently watched a classic film where real estate developers were not only trying to steal millions of acres of land and commit genocide to do it but were complicit in the murder of a national hero.
THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON is the 1940 film starring Errol Flynn as the legendary George Armstrong Custer and Olivia de Haviland as his loving wife Libby. In this highly fictionalized version of Custer's Last Stand at the Little Big Horn, Flynn is betrayed by a real estate company led by actor Arthur Kennedy and his father, actor Walter Hampden.
Custer is offered a chance to become an investor in the fictional real estate development company but declines since he does not want to antagonize the local Native American population. But Kennedy and Hampden go ahead with their scheme, selling liquor and guns to the Indians, and then fabricating a story about gold being discovered in the Black Hills of eastern Montana and South Dakota. When white settlers rush into the land in the quest for gold, the Indians naturally retaliate setting up a confrontation between the American Army and the tribes of the Great Plains.
In the film, Custer even sacrifices his own life in a suicidal charge against Crazy Horse's overwhelming force to buy time to save an infantry brigade.
Almost none of these facts are true. Custer never intended to die at the Little Big Horn, in fact, he boasted shortly before the battle he would be home soon since no Indians could defeat him. There were real estate developers and speculators in the Black Hills but most followed the Army into the area since they risked death for trespassing on native lands. Gold really was discovered there. No developer had to pitch a phony story to settlers.
In the movies and on television, real estate developers usually want to steal some land to make a quick killing. In this film, they tried to steal an entire nation and wound up with thousands of bodies of their hands, both Indian and calvary alike, including a national hero celebrated for his heroic Civil War exploits.
Remember this image the next time you want to get some land rezoned. Custer's Last Stand is somewhere in the back of the zoning board's mind.