October 11, 2012
Santa Fe Trail – US, 1940
Michael Curtiz’s Santa Fe Trail takes place at a time of growing awareness that civil war is a real possibility and that the issue pushing the North and the South toward conflict is slavery. The film takes place in 1854, and sides all already forming. In the film’s opening scene, viewers are presented with two of the prevailing views of the time. The first, advanced calmly by a southerner named Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn), is that the South must be given time to decide for itself to abolish slavery. Only if it is their decision, he reasons, will Southerners accept it. Presenting the opposing viewpoint is a young man whose head has is filled with the fiery rhetoric of John Brown, who advanced the theory that it would take armed conflict to end slavery. That a fist fight erupts between the two men that espouse these ideas only lends credence to the notion that they cannot co-exist.
However, Santa Fe Trail is not about the American Civil War, although it does include many of the key players in that conflict. Towards the beginning of the film, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davies both make appearances, and each make strong verbal arguments for the preservation of the Union and the neutrality of the armed forces. Later in the film a pre-beard Abraham Lincoln makes an appearance and humbles George Custer, ably played by Ronald Reagan. The film is about the attempt to stabilize Kansas, which General Lee refers to as the most dangerous place in the United States – and for good reason. Kansas is in the midst of a struggle for its very soul, with abolitionists like John Brown on one side and pro-slavery forces on the other. Jeb Stuart and George Custer are tasked with helping to put an end to the violence so that Kansas can be included along the transcontinental railroad.
The film’s chief villain is John Brown himself, or at least a version of him. Brown, as portrayed in the film, is a wild, slightly mad evangelist who believes that he is only doing the work that God put him on the Earth to do. He believes in his cause so much that he is willing to destroy the fragile union that binds northern and southern states in order to bring about the abolition of slavery. To further undermine his cause, the film elects to portray his as hating slavery more than he cares for the slaves he helps escape. In a pivotal scene, Brown addresses a barn full of freed slaves and announces to them that they are free and on their own. He never tells them they are safe. Later in one of the film’s more uncomfortable moments, one of the slaves Brown has freed remarks that if this is freedom, she’d have preferred to remain in Texas. Brown is played by Raymond Massey, and to convey Brown’s fanaticism, director Michael Curtiz has Massey deliver Brown’s fiery sermons and spoken prayers without blinking. I’m not sure exactly how one does this, but the technique is effective.
There is much to praise Santa Fe Trail for, from its well choreographed and exciting action sequences to its clever interplay between both Stuart and Custer. Flynn and Reagan play off each other well, and their scenes together are rather lively. Throughout the film, the nobility of their characters, as well as their conflicted feelings about what they are doing rings true. It is clear that Custer has mixed feelings about pursuing Brown, and it is equally clear that Steward knows what a conflict would mean to their friendship. This is hinted at in a scene involving a mystical fortune teller. The scene shouldn’t work, but even I have to admit that there is something powerful about someone looking into the future and seeing the collapse of close friendships and the dissolution of a great, but imperfect nation.
The film works despite not having enough faith in its audience to play it straight. The film adds a romantic storyline involving a friendly rivalry for the affections of Kit Carson (Olivia de Havilland). I would estimate that more time is devoted to Steward and Custer talking about Carson than to Carson herself, but it helps to remember that the film is depicting the finale of their mutual pursuit, not the beginning. The film also attempts to please the audience by introducing two comedic Kansans. Somewhere there must have been a rule that if a film was a Western, there had to be at least one character whose sole purpose was to sound both loveable and slightly unintelligent. Finally, the film includes at least two musical numbers. The first takes place at Stuart’s graduation from West Point, and this one, despite every graduate apparently having an amazingly angelic voice, works. The second seems much more appropriate for a Gilbert and Sullivan musical than for a film trying to be a realistic portrayal of history.
There is a common complaint about films like Santa Fe Trail, films that could be interpreted as supporting both the notion of the Lost Cause and the often repeated claim that the South would have ended slavery on its own if given enough time. It must be remembered that in 1854, the beliefs espoused in the film by Jeb Stuart were commonplace, and it would be unrealistic for a character like him not to hold them. In addition, the fact that the film takes place seven years before the start of hostilities likely supports both sides. One side will say they didn’t have enough time; the other will wonder why seven years weren’t enough. Also, the film does not portray all abolitionists as wrongheaded, only John Brown and the violent approach he advocated.
With Santa Fe Trail, Michael Curtiz gives us a view of an imperfect country falling apart at the seams. It is, in a way, a portrayal of one of the last attempts to preserve it, and Flynn and Reagan play Steward and Custer as if they are completely aware of what is at stake if they fail. The looks on the faces of Steward, Custer, and Carson in the film’s final moments reveal their sense that all they have done is delayed the inevitable. I think they did more than that. In the film, they helped ensure there would be seven more years to try to find a peaceful resolution. That the war came nonetheless does not diminish their efforts. Flaws and historical inaccuracies aside, Santa Fe Trail remains an interesting, thought-provoking film. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars