Santa Fe Trail (1940)

“Our job is to be a soldier, not to decide what is wrong or right.”

Santa Fe Trail Poster

Synopsis:
After graduating from West Point Academy, J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) and his friends — including future Confederacy leaders George Custer (Ronald Reagan) and James Longstreet (Frank Wilcox) — battle against a classmate (Van Heflin) who has joined forces with militant abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey).

Genres:

Review:
This dubiously historical western features a roster of famous characters inaccurately co-existing for the sake of convenience, and an egregiously demeaning portrayal of a controversial yet critically important figure in America’s ongoing civil rights movement (John Brown). (Interestingly, Massey played Brown once again in 1955’s Seven Angry Men, giving what was apparently a much more nuanced portrayal of his life and convictions.) Santa Fe Trail is competently directed by Michael Curtiz and features typically excellent cinematography by Sol Polito, but otherwise isn’t worth seeking out unless you’re curious for some reason. (It’s available as a public domain title.) One scene does deserve mention, however: as Brown’s compatriot defends an African-American family on a train, we see a rare glimpse of the devastating racism and fear rampant across pre-Civil War America.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An attempt to show the sins of slavery and racism in a reasonably authentic light
    santa-fe-trail-family-on-train
  • Sol Polito’s cinematography
    Santa Fe Trail Cinematography
    Santa Fe Trail Cinematography2

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

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One Response to “Santa Fe Trail (1940)”

  1. First viewing. Not must-see.

    Odd that I hadn’t seen this film before now. It has a kind of generic title and I thought that I might have seen it before and it might be a more standard-kind of western…when it’s actually not much of a western but largely (ahem) an historical drama.

    Revisionist history is never anything new in Hollywood – it appears (often) that, with stories like these, what is mostly important for studio producers (esp. in this era) is the potential for large-scale battle scenes…oh, and if some sort of story is included…well, that’s good for balance…only why get technical about facts? Oh, and make sure there’s a love story on the side, and don’t forget a couple of comic sidekicks for the male leads. 😉

    From reading up on the film prior to watching it, it stands out as a rather extreme revision. Anyone interested in what’s closer to the truth would have to look elsewhere – at least by checking Wikipedia for both the film and for the entry on John Brown.

    Facts aside, though – it’s not like it’s all that terrific a film on its own terms. Yes, director Curtiz and DP Polito have served it up in a rather polished manner visually, but it doesn’t play out in all that satisfying a manner ultimately.

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