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"Santa Fe Trail", a 1940 film that brought a number of rising stars
together, mixes gross distortion of history with an unusual, compelling and
honest confrontation with the age of slavery.
Hollywood's uses (and, more often, abuses) of history fascinate me. Some films try to stick close to accounts generally accepted while others openly employ characters from real life as a launch point for stories that have little to do with actual events (hey, if Shakespeare could do it...). Many films blend fiction with fact and, usually, they serve neither well.
Director Michael Curtiz's "Santa Fe Trail" is part western, part military history, part comedic romance. Olivia de Havilland, fresh from her "Gone With the Wind" adventure, plays a frontier girl with spunk - and an ability to keep her clothes clean almost always, no matter what. She is pursued by two young army lieutenants, the soon to be legendary Confederate cavalry office, J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn), and the eventually to be killed with his entire command George A. Custer (Ronald Reagan sans Bonzo). The rival suitors are typically 1940s romantics - no unfair or nasty stuff here. So sweet is the path to nuptial bliss.
The story takes place before the Civil War when the Army tried to maintain peace between pro- and anti-slavery factions in Bloody Kansas. The army officers who actually are part of history are portrayed here as being all members of the West Point Class of 1854-that would make Custer about seven years younger and earlier in graduating than was the case). No big deal.
What makes this film a remarkable document is its unflinching, for the Hollywood of the 1940s, portrayal of the evil of slavery, the pain of blacks ensnared in its web and the thundering role of John Brown, played by Raymond Massey in a powerful, gripping performance.
John Brown, the abolitionist who in life and in the film murdered slavery supporters and seized the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia was a zealot, not a madman (he refused an opportunity to plead insanity at the trial which ended in his death sentence). Massey, one of the greatest actors of all time, captures Brown's total devotion to ending slavery - he projects passion, not psychosis. It seems to me that Massey had a picture of John Brown that he was determined to bring to life, the inane or frivolous parts of the film being totally irrelevant to his mission.
Hollywood before World War II generally treated blacks as minor props (waiters, Pullman car attendants, cooks and maids). Here a black family is traumatized by truly sinister racists. Brown's condemnations of slavery are taken from his speeches and writings. The film's producer and director and script writers took a major detour from the concerted Tinseltown effort to not produce any story that might cut into box office take in the South (and elsewhere-the North was no hotbed of campaigns for racial equality).
Worth seeing because of its unique take on slavery, for the time, and Raymond Massey's towering performance.
It's so sad.
I loved this movie so much as a kid. Then I grew up and found out it was all a big contrivance. It almost quashed my love for this movie.
But the truth did not succeed to extinguish my love.
The entertainment value of this movie is astounding and sometimes thrilling - but the historical value is so misguided that it almost ruins it for me. I now feel that, though this movie makes a sham of history - - it is a great showcase for the wonderful talents of Michael Curtiz, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Olivia de Havilland.
I particularly love the final rescue scene. It is choreographed and orchestrated so beautifully, it is hard not to be taken into the maelstrom of John Brown's destiny. Those battle trumpets still cause a chill to go up my spine.
Before I was old enough to understand the true nature of this tale, I visited Harper's Ferry and felt an honest chill when I visited the firehouse where John Brown and his men were captured. I touched the walls and stood in awe at being so close to such a fateful edifice.
It is now called John Brown's "Fort" because he was holed up in there for three days in October 1859. So close before the fateful Civil War embroiled our nation in its saddest chapter. But the building was a fire engine and guard house when it was built in 1848 and moved to Boston for display and then later, back to Harper's Ferry to a place about 150 feet east of its original location. The original location had become a railroad embankment...so it could not stand at the original spot.
Whatever you think about the historical inaccuracies of this film, its entertainment values are excellent for their own sake.
RAYMOND MASSEY is especially memorable as John Brown. His earnest and single-minded portrayal of a madman-with-a-quest is the great stand-out of this movie. The far-away gaze and fiery eyes are almost hypnotic in its concentration. I also enjoyed watching Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn do their "stuff" as no one else can. These are actors that for better or worse will always stand out from the Hollywood fray with their own special brand of something indescribable and timeless.
Watch this movie with a grain or two or historical salt. Enjoy it for its sheer fun value.
When Santa Fe Trail was released in 1940 it was to general critical
acclaim. Though it is in no way a classic like Gone With the Wind, it's
view of the coming Civil War is not too dissimilar from the David O.
Selznick film that also had Olivia DeHavilland as one of its stars. It
was a popularly held view of the time, the abolitionists were well
intentioned rabble rousers who brought on the Civil War and as Errol
Flynn as J.E.B. Stuart says, the south will settle the slavery issue in
its own time.
Back in the day even in A westerns like Santa Fe Trail, liberal use of the facts involving noted historical figures was taken. The fact that Stuart, Custer, Longstreet, Pickett, Sheridan, and Hood would all graduate West Point in the same class was really a minor bending of the rules. The following year with Errol Flynn as Custer in They Died With Their Boots On, they got Custer's graduation class right, but then compounded his life with more errors.
One interesting fact that no one mentions in this film is Henry O'Neill as the real life Cyrus K. Holliday (1826-1900) who considerably outlived just about everyone portrayed in the film. He's of critical importance in Kansas history as having built the Santa Fe railroad. His children neither went to West Point as William Lundigan, did graduating with all these Civil War heroes, nor did his daughter wind up marrying one.
Olivia DeHavilland playing her usual heroine, gets out of the crinoline for a bit as a Calamity Jane type daughter to Henry O'Neill. I have to say she showed quite a bit more spunk than her normal range of leading ladies at the time at Warner Brothers. She certainly Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan as George A. Custer on their toes.
If people remember anything at all about Santa Fe Trail today it is Raymond Massey as the fanatical John Brown. Yet even there, Brown has his hypocritical moments when he's quite ready to let a barn full of recent runaway slaves burn down so he can kill Errol Flynn in it. It doesn't ring true with the character as defined by Massey, I fault the scriptwriters there. Massey repeated his John Brown character in the later Seven Men From Now. Other than Abraham Lincoln it is the role that actor is most identified with.
As an action western though, Santa Fe Trail can't be beat. The battle scene with the army breaking John Brown's siege at Harper's Ferry is well staged. You really do think you are at Harper's Ferry watching a newsreel.
Though it never was history and hasn't worn well in its interpretation, western fans will still like Santa Fe Trail.
"Santa Fe Trail" is like the doubloon nailed to the mainmast in the
novel "Moby Dick": how you interpret it depends on your point of view.
Some viewers will see it as a tribute to the chivalrous values of the
pre-civil war military establishment, which was dominated by southern
aristocrats like General Robert E. Lee, while others may see it mainly
as the tragic saga of the anti-slavery martyrs of Harper's Ferry, whose
self-sacrifice brought on the war to free the slaves. Cavalry officer
Jeb Stuart seems either gallant and nobly courageous, or like a pompous
martinet, while abolitionist John Brown is a violence loving madman, or
one of the most dedicated and selfless heroes of all time. This
exciting, action-packed movie refuses to take sides but permits the
viewer to make his own decisions about the important themes presented.
What about its use of history, though, which has vexed so many critics? Like any great mythopoeic work, "Santa Fe Trail" should be judged not as historical record but as a legend or myth that tells universal truths. Historicism, which in movie criticism is the theory that all works should be judged by the standard of recorded history, has not enjoyed much favor among the most respected experts on the subject of art. Were this not so, the "Iliad," "Macbeth" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" would long ago have been rejected as false history, because not one of them is faithful to many of the known facts deemed so important by historicist critics.
Judged on its own terms and from the perspective of facts that have proved true not just in one place and time but in many places and in many periods of history, then "Santa Fe Trail" is a classic in the best sense, and thrilling entertainment too. Like all war movies that are any good, it is a powerful anti-war movie.
I COULD call this "a typical rousing Hollywood actioner" - but I won't. This is an insidious movie that pollutes History even more than normal Hollywood fare. It had nothing to do with "The Santa Fe Trail", but dealt with abolitionist John Brown from Kansas to Harpers Ferry in the years before the Civil War, and the reaction of West Point officers to him. So what's wrong with it? It is nothing but pro-Slaveholder anti-black propaganda. 1. Atrocities by pro-slavery forces in Kansas were never depicted, just those by Brown. 2. Brown was never shown treating blacks with respect and as equals. As he always did. 3. Blacks were only depicted as shiftless, helpless stereotypes. 4. One third of Brown's fighters at Harpers Ferry were black - none were depicted in the movie. 5. The assault against Brown at Harpers was preposterous - about six times the size of the actual fight. 6. West Point cadets were shown as mostly pro-slavery, and abolitionist cadets were depicted as crackpots and the cause of the Civil War. 7. John Brown's famous and magnificent speech before the Court was not shown. 8. John Brown was denounced as a "traitor" - by the Robert E Lee character who would soon renounce his West Point oath and fight against the United States - UNlike many other Virginia officers. I could go on. But this movie should only be shown in a classroom as an example of propaganda and deceit.
Santa Fe Trail may not be great filmmaking, but it succeeds in what it sets
out to accomplish and is generally satisfying viewing. Errol Flynn stars
J.E.B. Stuart, fresh out of West Point and now stationed at Fort
in the Kansas territory, the starting point of the westward Santa Fe Trail.
This was particularly hazardous country at the time, because abolitionist
John Brown (Raymond Massey) was conducting violent raids along the trail.
It quickly becomes the duty of Stuart and his pal Custer (Ronald Reagan) to
capture Brown dead or alive, and put and end to his attacks.
There are many exciting sequences in the film, leading up to the final confrontation at Harper's Ferry. There's also a predictable romantic triangle between Flynn, Reagan and Olivia de Havilland. (Guess which one she picks!) The movie deserves credit for taking an objective viewpoint toward Brown, acknowledging that his motives were good even if his methods were not.
As Stuart, Flynn proves to be equally adroit in westerns as in swashbucklers. Reagan and de Havilland fill their less demanding roles with ease, and Alan Hale and Guinn `Big Boy' Williams provide much-needed comic relief. Massey somewhat overplays his hand as Brown, however. He comes off as too sanctimonious, more a cliché villain than a three-dimensional human being.
Apparently, the film is a travesty in terms of historical accuracy. Who cares? Movies are an entertainment medium. Anyone seeking facts alone had better confine their search to encyclopedias. Otherwise, just sit back and be amused.
"Santa Fe Trail" takes place in the 1850s as the America moved toward
War. It's mainly about the activities of self-proclaimed slave
John Brown and his efforts to provoke a war between the North and
The film begins in 1854 at West Point where a number of historical figures who would play prominent roles in the Civil War, are about to graduate. Leading the pack are JEB Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan). Robert E. Lee (Moroni Olsen) is the Commandant of West Point and Jefferson Davis (Erville Anders) is the Minister of War. John Brown (Raymond Massey) is conducting bloody raids all over Kansas and has placed an operative, Rader (Van Heflin) within West Point. Stuart and Custer meanwhile, foil Rader and are competing for the affections of Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland) the daughter of railroad magnate Cyrus K. Holliday (Henry O'Neill) who hopes to extend the railroad to New Mexico along, you guessed it, the Santa Fe Trail.
There is some very good action sequences ably directed by Michael Curtiz. Future Cvil War adversaries fight side by side against Brown and his followers but are coming to realize that the issue of slavery will not die with Brown.
Raymond Massey steals the acting honors as Brown the slightly mad but dedicated revolutionary. Flynn, Reagan and DeHavilland form the usual love triangle that always seemed to be a staple of the Warner Bros. westerns of the period. Alan Hale and Guinn Williams are along to provide the comedy relief. Heflin in an early role, is also excellent as Rader who seems to have his own agenda.
Also in the cast mostly unbilled, are Alan Baxter, Joseph Sawyer and for "B" movie fans, Charles Middleton, Trevor Bardette, Lane Chandler, Lafe McKee and Roy Barcroft (if you blink you'll miss him).
There's plenty of action and romance to keep the die-hard western fan happy. One of the better Warner Bros. "A" westerns of the period.
Errol Flynn is lost and Olivia de Havilland wasted in one of their last
films together, an oddball Westerner that straddles the Mason-Dixon
line presenting events leading up to the American Civil War.
Not a good film, "Santa Fe Trail" is nevertheless fascinating now because of the political and social undercurrents running through it. Sensitive to Southern moviegoers still smarting 75 years after Appomattox, the filmmakers present a convoluted tale where all of the terribleness of the War Between the States can be laid on the doorstep of that terrible scourge: Abolitionism.
Anti-slavery terrorist John Brown is on the loose, and it's up to Flynn to stop him, as future Confederate legend J.E.B. Stuart, still a U.S. Army officer as the war looms on the horizon. Stuart is presented as a champion not of slavery but of the status quo it is his duty to protect. Still, it's hard to find merit in his stance. "The South will settle it," Stuart says about slavery, "but in its own time and in its own way." No use rushing into righting an 80-year wrong, right?
Director Michael Curtiz and scripter Robert Buckner fall short in terms of story, too. Is this a Western? Or is it a love story? Again, cinematic economics are pretty transparent given how awkwardly Olivia is shoehorned into the film, standing on the sidelines and wringing her hands. She's beautiful and charming, but her scenes with Flynn are overlong compendiums of romantic cliché, made worse by a melodramatic and hyperactive Max Steiner score.
Playing the token liberal here is Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer. Read that last sentence back if you want to know why some people really hate this film. "There's a purpose behind that madness," Custer says of Brown, "one that cannot easily be dismissed." But Custer doesn't protest too long, and the implication is clear that whatever Brown is fighting for doesn't outweigh his endangering the Union, for Custer or Stuart.
Luckily for the filmmakers, they had Raymond Massey on hand to play Brown, eloquent in word but constantly threatening to go off the deep end. Massey was a florid overactor, but he had in Brown the right part and makes the most of it. Even better is Van Heflin, as a nasty bravo named Rader whom Stuart tangles with at West Point and again later on when Rader inserts himself as one of Brown's deputies. Rader's a great foil, allowed to say some worthy things about the anti-slavery cause, but more compelling in how his anger-choked personality comes to clash with that of the self-righteous Brown. Heflin grabs every scene he's in with those beady eyes and high forehead, and it's probably why he rose to movie prominence soon after.
Far less successful is the film's effort to develop a romantic rivalry between Stuart and Custer. We have a pretty good idea de Havilland won't wind up with the Gipper. Alan Hale and Guinn Williams bicker like old maids for the sake of bad comedy, playing a pair of battle-hungry cowhands: "Calling me a rumpot's what hurt me...I haven't had a drink since noon!"
Even Curtiz the celebrated action director falters here. Halfway through the film there's a battle where Brown and his men hold up Stuart's troops, then ride off with a cache of weapons, leaving Stuart's force inexplicably still armed. Vastly outnumbered, Stuart chases them anyway. Brown obliges him by not turning around to fight, leaving the cache behind.
"Hey, wait a minute, they outnumber us three-to-one," protests Custer. With an attitude like that, he'll never make the history books.
However factually and dramatically flawed, "Santa Fe Trail" is one for the history books, in a way that shows how imperfectly the United States was coming to terms with its slave-holding past three generations on. It's not a good film even without its moral dubiousness, but that same dubiousness makes it historically worthy, as a reflection of just how hard it was for a nation to face a searing legacy of accepting the treatment of human beings as cattle.
Even though this film is a jumbled mess and it does make John Brown out as his era's Osama Bin Laden, it still is a good film. Also, the fact that this film looks at some of the greatest generals in United States (Lee, Stewart and Custer) who were all good friends before the Civil War tore this country apart. Also, Raymond Massey gives a very chilling performance as Brown. His performance really made Brown look like the fanatic that he was portrayed as and he should have at least gotten an Oscar nomination. Even with all its flaws it is a pretty good film.
This movie is an insult. A gross distortion of history to no purpose.
JEB Stuart (West Point Class of 1853), George Custer (Class of 1861) and a bunch of other Civil War generals whose real ages vary by about 20 years are shown as classmates and best friends sent out to Kansas to protect the railroad (which didn't actually exist) from the depredations of those naughty abolitionists led by John Brown (who wasn't in Kansas yet and was still a pacifist when the story took place). Along the way they compete for the affections of the railroad magnate's daughter (rather than either of the fascinating women that Stuart and Custer really ended up with), and... oh, why bother? It's not even like the inaccuracy even served a useful function -- swap out a few names and you could avoid a lot of it, especially since it isn't like any of the characters had personalities at all like the real figures. Flynn and Reagan weren't Stuart and Custer, they were Generic Southern Hero and Generic Northern Hero. It's not like they seriously or honestly addressed any of the political and social issues of the day. It's not like they seriously or honestly did ANYTHING.
Was the point of this movie to teach us that "abolitionists are bad and we shouldn't get riled up over a few ((insert demeaning slang term of your choice for African Americans here)) when there's serious business like ethnically cleansing the Injuns to finish?" Or was there no point at all to it? Frankly I'm not sure which is worse. I don't know whether I want this insult to be intentional or accidental.
The only useful function this film could have is to teach us how many idiots there were in Hollywood back in the "golden age."
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