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SANTA FE TRAIL (director: Michael Curtiz; screenwriter: Robert Buckner; cinematographer: Sol Polito; editor: George Amy; music: Max Steiner; cast: Errol Flynn (Jeb Stuart), Olivia de Havilland (Kit Carson Holliday), Raymond Massey (John Brown), Ronald Reagan (George Armstrong Custer), Alan Hale (Tex), Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (Windy), William Lundigan (Bob Holliday), Van Heflin (Rader), Gene Reynolds (Jason Brown), Henry O’Neill (Cyrus Holliday), Alan Baxter (Oliver Brown), John Litel (slaver on train), Moroni Olsen (Colonel Robert E. Lee), Erville Alderson (Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Fellows; Warner Brothers; 1940)
“Revels in its inaccuracies.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Michael Curtiz’s western revels in its inaccuracies, from the misleading title that has nothing to do with the Santa Fe Trail to its many historical gaffes (e.g., the film has Jeb Stuart and George Custer graduating West Point together in 1854 and remaining close friends, when in fact Stuart graduated in 1853 and Custer in 1861; and, never knew each other according to any history records) and, ultimately, to its reactionary stand over the issue of slavery–portraying the slavers as good citizens and the abolitionists as all being militant nut cases. Though an excitingly presented film about the cavalry capturing the violently Bible-spouting fanatical abolitionist John Brown, it leaves one dumbfounded about its political intentions and reasons for being so careless about its history presentation. What’s clear is that it didn’t want to offend the South, and opted to take a neutral view about slavery and the controversial Harper’s Ferry raid in order to ensure a good box office return in Dixie. This was the eight time Errol Flynn and his close friend Olivia de Havilland were paired together, and the twelfth time Flynn worked with Curtiz (it was their third western together).

The story opens at West Point in 1854, where cadet Rader (Van Heflin) loudly voices approval of John Brown and fights over slavery with Virginian Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn). Their dorm fistfight leads to the superintendent of the Point, Robert E. Lee, dismissing Rader from the academy and assigning Jeb and six of his graduating classmates (including George Custer) to a cavalry post in Fort Leavenworth, in the Kansas Territory. The frontier fort is in the middle of the bloody war taking place between those who want Kansas to enter the Union as either a free or slave state, and the cavalry’s job is to keep the peace and capture the lunatic abolitionist agitator John Brown (Raymond Massey).

On the train from West Point to the fort, Jeb and George Custer (Ronald Reagan) make a play for the tomboyish Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), whose brother graduated with them and whose ex-army father runs a wagon freight service in the Leavenworth area. During the trip, John Brown’s son Oliver (Alan Baxter) tries to bring some slaves from Missouri into Kansas but is stopped by a slaver. Oliver shoots one of the slavers and jumps off the train, joining his father at their hideout.

While Jeb and Custer are escorting Holliday’s wagon train containing a shipment of Bibles, John Brown and a number of his followers, including Rader, raid the wagons and take the crates of Bibles (which are actually rifles). In the ensuing shootout Brown’s young son Jason (Gene Reynolds) is killed but not before the disenchanted lad, who wishes to be out of his mad man father’s grip, tells where his father is hiding. Tex (Alan Hale), and Windy (Guinn Williams), former Holliday workers, join the cavalry and go into the hotbed abolitionist town of Palmyra with Jeb to scout out John Brown’s strength before the cavalry attacks. But Rader captures Jeb at the barber shop after his army branded horse is spotted parked outside. At the hideout, Jeb grabs a gun and escapes to the barn before he can be hanged. To the rescue comes the cavalry led by Custer, as John Brown and his men flee.

Thinking they have defeated John Brown for good, the cavalry men celebrate with a fancy ball in Washington. But Rader, who had a falling out with Brown over not being paid for his services, sneaks into the ball to warn Jeb about Brown’s plans to raid the Harper’s Ferry arsenal at the Maryland-Virginia border. The soldiers arrive too late from preventing Brown’s attack, but capture Brown and his men in a shootout. Which leads to the hanging of John Brown, and Jeb marrying Kit.

Despite its inaccuracies and the revolting way it portrayed the Negroes as being ignorant of their own plight, the film showed the passions that were brewing in the country that eventually led to the Civil War. History tells us that Jeb Stuart became a Confederate general, and therefore would have been on opposite sides of Custer during the war.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”