Less than a decade before the American civil war, Carl Rader (Van Heflin), a West Point cadet, has been kicked out of the military for reading anti-slavery literature written by John Brown (Raymond Massey) and sharing it with his fellow cadets.
Meanwhile, Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan), two of Carl’s classmates, continue on at West Point and graduate to become lieutenants. Both men are stationed in the tumultuous Kansas Territory, and both men are excited about the prospect of coming face to face with true danger there.
At their West Point commencement, Stuart and Custer meet Cyrus Holliday (Henry O’Neill), who is planning to build a railroad leading to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Cyrus is the father of one of their classmates. Things get complicated when both Stuart and Custer find themselves falling in love with Cyrus’ daughter Kit (Olivia de Havilland).
A love triangle isn’t the only thing occupying their minds, though, as they arrive in Kansas to find even more trouble than they expected. The two come face to face with John Brown and his men, who are willing to literally fight to keep the Kansas territory free… and among Brown’s ranks is Rader, their old abolitionist-leaning buddy from West Point.
Ideological conflict, romantic complications, political drama, violence and even a little bit of music all meld together in Santa Fe Trail, a 1940 western directed by Michael Curtiz. Since this film stars a few of my favorite people (namely, de Havilland and Heflin) and Curtiz is one of my favorite directors, I thought it an appropriate next step in my dusty journey into the western genre. I’m also continually fascinated by the acting career of Ronald Reagan, aka POTUS #40, so I figured there’d be plenty to interest me here even if I hated the film.
But I enjoyed Santa Fe Trail more than I expected to, drawn in by the historical aspects of the story as well as the talented cast and director. I spent four months studying the American Civil War and the pre-war period last year. Having gone into the film with no knowledge of its plot, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it centered on “Bleeding Kansas.”
Given the historical/biographical nature of the film, I was able to play my favorite movie-related game of my own creation, “Spot the Anachronism.” There’s quite a mountain of fact-bending, even more than I’ve come to expect in pretty much any historical drama. One of the most apparent is the fact that none of the real-life men who serve as main characters here actually graduated from West Point together. Custer in particular is out of place, seeing as he wasn’t even admitted to West Point until four years after the real J. E. B. Stuart graduated from the academy.
I was able to overlook some of the anachronisms in favor of pure adventure and entertainment, which I believe are all this film was striving to provide. The film is a fast-paced, gun-slingin’ journey and there are many likable things about it.
The entire lead and supporting casts are solid here. Olivia de Havilland, who I always enjoy watching, exudes spunk and charm. With Olivia at the center of it, the love triangle subplot doesn’t seem like a frivolous tack-on to a historical tale. She’s given a bit more to do than just let the men fight over her, becoming somewhat involved in the political drama.
Most impressive out of the entire cast is Raymond Massey as John Brown. His character’s sense of conviction and determination comes through so strongly in his performance that the viewer gets a true idea of how dedicated Brown was to his cause.
To some he may seem too violent and cold-hearted, possibly even crazy. I happened to interpret the portrayal of Brown in a completely different way (neither of us is wrong — film is subjective!). The script definitely emphasizes the more extreme aspects of Brown’s personality and ideology, but I was completely gripped by Massey’s performance. To me, he portrayed passion rather than mania. Massey played John Brown again in 1955’s Seven Angry Men (and reportedly played him much more sympathetically there, though I have not seen the film to comment).
On the less likable side of things, this film has caught a lot of flack from modern viewers for appearing “pro-Southern” or even “pro-slaveowner.” It’s easy to see how the film would be interpreted this way. A big show is made of “killer John Brown versus the loyal, wholesome cadet.” Less-than-favorable stereotyping and bits of dialogue regarding slavery pop up often enough to make the modern viewer feel uncomfortable. The film does offer up more variety than it is usually given credit for; radical abolitionism, the “wait it out and slavery will solve itself” perspective and ardent anti-abolitionism are all portrayed here, though in different measures. Each viewer will walk away from the film with a different feeling about which arguments were favored, and most viewers seem to immediately peg the film as holding too closely to pro-slavery sentiment. I don’t care to engage myself in the ongoing argument over the film’s message, but I will say that I found it worth watching as a cultural artifact.
Did it boost my appreciation of the Western genre?: EVER-SO-SLIGHTLY. Purely on the level of entertainment and action I enjoyed the film. It is fast-paced and held my attention. However, the level of historical inaccuracy and the film’s controversial stance on slavery weighed on my mind.
The score: 2.8/5