As a special treat we have a guest blog from Gregory Hasman, author of the blog Ramblings From a Road-a-Holic, who reviewed the 1940 Western film Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
The 19th Century saw the proliferation of Americans out West. They traveled via railroad and overland trails, one of which was the famous Santa Fe Trail. In 1941, Errol Flynn and future president Ronald Reagan were part of an all-star cast, who took their talents across the trail called, drum roll please, The Santa Fe Trail.
While the movie began along the Santa Fe Trail, it more or less used the title as a motif to describe the triumphs and failures that come along with a journey. Flynn as J.E. B. Stuart, and Raymond Massey as John Brown, delievered the two most memorable performances, although the acting throughout was outstanding.
The story took place during the tumultuous year of 1854. It was a time marked by secular tension. In the South, people wanted to preserve and even expand the “peculiar institution” known as slavery. While the North had two different goals in mind: one group known as the Free-Soilers wanted to expand west without slavery, but did not care whether slavery ended or not. Another sector known as abolitionists wanted to destroy the system of slavery forever. The film explores these different tenets very well.
The year 1854 began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which should have created popular sovereignty among the citizens. Many thought this was a travesty because it violated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, where anything about the 36 degree 30 foot line in Missouri would be a free state. This conflict became the catalyst in the bitter Border Wars between Missouri and Kansas. Additionally, it helped bring about John Brown, a staunch abolitionist. Brown’s goal was to annihilate slavery and those who were for it in any way. He brought his sons and supporters across the land in hopes to create a resurrection.
In the film, Flynn plays future Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart, along with fellow West Point classmate George Custer (Ronald Reagan) are among the graduates whose first mission is to protect the settlers from the American Indians. When they get to Independence, Missouri, however, they find they have another group to contain, Brown and his men.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, both Stuart and Custer encountered a charming young lady named “Kit Carson” Holliday (Olivia de Havilland) who suits both men's fancies. However, while Stuart is charming, and Custer attempts to be, there is no time to court the beautiful young lady as they have a mission to accomplish.
Along the way, the men encounter Brown’s sons who are afraid of their persistent father, a man who feels he has a calling from God to rid the country of slavery. After being injured, one of Brown's sons notifies Stuart back in Missouri of his father’s whereabouts.
Another interesting side plot features one of Brown’s men, known as Rader (Van Heflin). While at West Point he extolled the virtues of the anti-slavery cause, which stirred trouble among the Southern cadets, including the Virginian, Stuart. He later joins with Brown to promote his values, philosophical and economical. After each venture, however, he grows more incessant of receiving payment for his services. This leads to Brown’s downfall, and his eventual capture at Harper's Ferry in Virginia.
After Brown destroys the Kansas town of Pottawatomie, Stuart, Custer, and the Army go after him with all they have. They again meet with Miss Holliday. At a formal party in the Nation’s capital, Holliday introduces Stuart to two people who will play huge roles in the war in a few years--General Robert E. Lee (Moroni Olsen) and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (Erville Alderson). While Stuart is impressed, he still wants Holliday, and eventually succeeds in wooing and he gets her. The disappointed Custer winds up talking to the daughter of Secretary Davis without knowing who she is. After a dance, she introduces him to her uncle and his wild-eyed expression says it all. Not a bad consolation prize for Custer.
As mentioned, Rader turns on Brown. As an old adversary, while he disagrees with Stuart, he nevertheless walks onto the dance floor and tells Stuart, as one fellow West Point cadet to another, about Brown’s plan to gather weapons at the armory in Harper’s Ferry and arm slaves. This enables Lee to send troops to the Ferry and capture Brown, who surrenders and is hung.
Some have viewed the movie as a favorable portrait of the South. However, it portrays Brown as a man on a mission, and while he does enact extreme measures, he also delivers a beautiful soliloquy about the moral forecast of the nation.
All in all, the movie is well acted and historically accurate, providing an intriguing look into the events that led up to the capture and execution of John Brown.
Santa Fe Trail. 1940. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan. Warner Bros. Running time: 110 min.
Thank you, Greg, for this wonderful assessment of an Old West favorite, and thank you for guest-blogging on Classic Films! Hope you come back! Darla Sue