If you’re the kind of person who gets hot under the collar when movies play fast and loose with historical facts, or if you find the political undertones of times gone by to be unbearably offensive then Santa Fe Trail (1940) is most assuredly not the film for you. This is the kind of movie that’s awfully easy to criticise and denigrate, and it’s probably a simple task to find lots of sites on the web that have done just that. Well, I’m not going to indulge in that kind of shot-taking. I can live with a movie twisting history for dramatic effect as it seems foolish to expect what is essentially an entertainment medium to stick only to the facts. As for politics, there are always going to be positions that we either agree or disagree with. If I were to limit myself to those movies that conform to my personal views I would in all likelihood be looking at a very small pool of titles. So, while I can acknowledge that Santa Fe Trail has some shortcomings, I’d still say it ranks as an enjoyable movie experience.
The story is a fairly straightforward good guys versus bad guys tale, with the role of the heroes being assumed by the army, and the new West Point graduates in particular. So, we are presented with the fanciful notion of Jeb Stuart, George Custer, Phil Sheridan and other famous military figures all graduating the same year. That’s all nonsense of course, but it does allow the point to be made that the Civil War was an event that was to set former friends and allies at one another’s throats. The focus remains firmly on Stuart (Errol Flynn) and, to a lesser extent, Custer (Ronald Reagan) as they strive to run to ground the abolitionists in Kansas led by John Brown (Raymond Massey). This is the point that most people object to; namely the fact that the film seems to demonise the anti-slavery activists. Now, while there can be no doubt that these characters are portrayed as the villains of the piece, it’s not that simple. The movie actually takes pains to keep to a middle line and actually shows the pro-slavery crowd (albeit in far fewer scenes) to be no better. As I said, the viewers perspective is that of the army in the middle. There are numerous occasions where the characters all voice sympathy for the ultimate aims of, if not the tactics employed by, the abolitionists. If anything, this is the source of the issues many have with the film – it fails to come right out and condemn the southern states advocacy of slavery. Personally, I’m not sure if this should be seen as a weakness. The fact that it doesn’t take the easy route gives it a unique quality. There’s always a certain satisfaction and reassurance that a viewer feels when a movie follows the line that he himself believes to be right. However, there’s also a different satisfaction to be derived from those rare movies whose message remains more ambiguous. Santa Fe Trail is such a film, it never really takes sides clearly and saves its condemnation for the kind of murderous zeal that that can tarnish even the noblest of causes.
Flynn again gives another variation of his laughing cavalier character. He must surely rank as the most swashbuckling cowboy ever to ride the frontier, and the script offers him ample opportunity to do so here. He was still in his athletic prime at this point, and is in his element whether chasing gun-runners on horseback at breakneck speed across the prairie or storming Harper’s Ferry with sabre drawn. After his unconvincing pairing with Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City, it’s good to see Olivia De Havilland cast opposite him once more – the obligatory love story seems much smoother and more comfortable with these two. Ronald Reagan seems an odd choice for the role of Custer for he possessed neither a physical resemblance to the man nor any of that driving ambition that characterized him. Instead, we get a slightly comedic figure who’s relegated to playing second fiddle to Flynn’s more Custer-like lead. Raymond Massey’s John Brown is all fiery passion and outrage. His wild-eyed reformer borders on parody but, despite chewing up the scenery, stops just short of that. He still invests his role with a sense of credibility and even manages to bring some humanity to what could easily have become a caricature. A word also for Van Heflin who gives solid support as the mercenary Rader who finds redemption at the end.
This would be the last western collaboration for Flynn and Michael Curtiz, and their penultimate film. By all accounts there was no love lost between them despite the fact they made a dozen movies together. Curtiz again makes good use of both locations and studio, and his handling of the action scenes is exemplary. There’s also a memorable little interlude before the climax, when the group of soon to be famous soldiers all gather round an old indian squaw and have their collective fortunes told. As the old woman sits drawing pictures in the dirt, she tells them that they will all achieve honours and rank but in the process become bitter enemies. This is pure Hollywood fantasy but it’s beautifully filmed and quite poignant in view of the historical context.
Santa Fe Trail has long been a staple of various PD companies on DVD. There has yet to be an official release in either the UK or the US, but there is a Warners DVD of the movie out in France. The disc is a barebones affair but it does present the film better than I’ve seen before. The print used is a little soft in places and a little too bright in others but it is remarkably clean and free of damage. The audio is generally strong although I did notice a momentary dropout on two occasions. If anyone’s looking to get their hands on the best extant version of this interesting and frequently overlooked film I would suggest seeking out this French copy, which has the Warners logo intact at the beginning, and mercifully removable subs. Next time – They Died with Their Boots On.