One of the most beautiful and touching films where marriage and family is the central subtext is They Died with Their Boots On (1941), a fanciful retelling of the George Armstrong Custer legend starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
The screenplay is by Æneas MacKenzie,Wally Kline, and Lenore J. Coffee.
Just before he goes off to the Indian wars, Custer turns to his wife Libby and says: “Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.”
Most screenwriters fall back on, “I love you.” Which is just plain lazy, and to this screenwriter, a declaration that should never be uttered if love is the subject of the scene.
Notice the formal use of ma’am. The word gracious is pure genius.
The sentence is almost Shakespearian.
With this final goodbye, Custer/Flynn rides off to to his fate at the Little Bighorn. Libby/de Havilland leans against the wall, and then slumps to the floor in a classic Hollywood faint.
Audiences at the time, women and men, wept aloud at this display of marital loyalty and affection… traits that might seem quaint, if not downright regressive and patriarchal, to a postmodern audience.
But America and Hollywood were, just a month after the film’s release, at war. And this heartbreaking scene between George and Libby Custer was all too soon enacted daily by millions of American men and women.