Monday 29 September 2014

Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail (1940)

An intriguing story of the bubbling conflicts before the Civil War, Santa Fe Trail takes the usual historical liberties but is an otherwise thought provoking examination of hatred and zealotry deployed for a just cause.

It's 1854, and at the West Point Military Academy James "Jeb" Stewart (Errol Flynn), George Custer (Ronald Reagan) and Carl Rader (Van Heflin) are about to graduate together. But Rader harbours strong sympathies for violent slavery abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey), sparking a brawl among the members of the graduating class. Rader is dishonourably discharged. Stewart and Custer are posted to the dangerous territory around Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they both fall in love with Kit Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of a railroad tycoon.

Rader joins Brown's growing movement of fanatics in Kansas, helping slaves escape but brutally killing and pillaging any community that stands in their way. Stewart and Custer are tasked with ending Brown's reign of terror, and they eventually uncover his hideout at Shubel Morgan's ranch in Palmyra. But Brown regroups in Virginia and plans a daring raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, forcing another confrontation with the army forces.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, Santa Fe Trail is a mix of military action, politics, bonhomie, romance and history. The film takes a few liberties with the historical characters of the era to create a who's-who of American military adventurism standing shoulder to shoulder. In reality Custer and Stewart were not in the same class, but here it does not matter. This is a reality-based story about the swirling clouds before the unseen storm, with a focus on the strong military bonds that were to be soon fractured. Stewart, Custer and their colleagues are gung-ho and united in giving chase to the radicalized Brown; and they cannot begin to conceive of a near future when they will be splintered and forced to fight each other.

John Brown presents a most interesting conundrum as the central antagonist. A virulent anti-slavery warrior, his methods were hateful and destructive, as he fought against despicable and dehumanizing racism. Brown was on a private war path before there was a war and therefore had to be stopped, but the Civil War that inevitably followed was an expanded version of the conflict he started. The film portrays Brown as a wide-eyed maniac, but Raymond Massey's domineering performance also portrays a man deeply convinced that he is right, with plenty of followers willing to take up arms for his cause.

Also interesting is the film's unapologetic presentation, through Stewart's words, of the South's position that left alone, the region was moving to phase out slavery on its own. And in the hellish chaos caused by Brown, a black family expresses a rejection of Brown's version of violence-drenched freedom and a longing for the comfort of what they know - slavery. These are not easy contrarian opinions to grapple with, and Santa Fe Trail allows the plot to progress through the vagaries of a pre-war era not yet defined by winners and losers, where right and wrong clash in the fog of opinionated pragmatism.

Through it all Errol Flynn delivers a surprisingly restrained performance. His version of Jeb Stewart is charismatic, heroic and daring when he needs to be, but just as often Flynn allows Stewart to be thoughtful, reserved and respectful. With his 1940s haircut Ronald Reagan is difficult to take seriously as Custer, while de Havilland gets yet another role as little more than decoration to Flynn's daring-do. This being the seventh Flynn - de Havilland screen pairing, the love triangle between Custer, Stewart and Kit is conceded by Reagan before the opening credits.

In addition to Van Heflin as the conflicted West Point outcast torn between a cause and his economic well-being, the supporting cast includes Alan Hale and William Lundigan as Tex Bell and Bob Holliday, two rough adventurers tagging along with the army mainly to provide comic relief.

Santa Fe Trail is an interesting pathway where the dark clouds of today conceal the looming black thunderheads of tomorrow, and all that seems certain and straight proves to be unexpectedly complex.

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