Tuesday, December 24, 2013

1940 - Badly Rewritten History on the Santa Fe Trail

Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Michael Curtiz the director of among others, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce,Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, King Creole and White Christmas is one of the golden age of Hollywood's great film-makers. A master storyteller Curtiz had a ability to mix humor, romance and drama into classics of the screen.

In one of Hollywood's more successful partnerships, Curtiz teamed with legendary actor Errol Flynn working together on numerous films, including Flynn's signature roles in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. It was in one of those teamings that Curtiz, Flynn, screenwriter, Robert Buckner and future President of the United States Ronald Reagan, would present the American public with a exciting, action packed, thoughtful, yet in retrospect, insidious rewrite of the years leading up to the Civil War, 1940's Santa Fe Trail.

The West Point Graduating class of 1854.

Flynn plays future Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, Ronald Reagan is the future Union General and a man with a destiny along the banks of the Little Bighorn, George Armstrong Custer. Both men along with their pals, Pickett, Longstreet, Phil Sheridan, their commander Robert E Lee, and a special appearance by secretary of War Jefferson Davis, all stand together against the crazed abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown. Played with messianic certainty by the great Raymond Massey, Brown is determined to end slavery or bring down the Union while trying.

In 1940, there were still living Civil War veterans. James Hard, the last combat veteran wouldn't die until 1953, and Albert Woolson, the last drummer would last until 1956. So while they were certainly dying off in droves by 1940, there were still veterans from both sides around. In 1940, the South was still highly segregated, as was the military and most of the rest of American society. So it is not really surprising that a film about the lead up to the Civil War with sympathies toward the South would get made.

Raymond Massey as John Brown, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

It's 1854 and the soon to be graduating West Point class is full of young men who we know will find fame a decade later in the bloodiest of US wars. The leader of the class and the all around most popular member is Jeb Stuart (Flynn) a southerner from a wealthy slave owning family who while personally against slavery but believes that the South should be left alone to end slavery in its own time. Stuart's best friend is George Custer (Reagan), whose jovial personality mixed with his skill as a rider make him (forgive the modern, okay 1970's era, allusions) Sundance to Flynn's Butch.

Another cadet, Rader, played with thuggishness by Van Heflin, an open abolitionist and supporter of political radical John Brown, is a bitter enemy of the wealthy Stuart, and continually taunts the wealthy Virginian about being a slave owner. Rader is confronted by Stuart for inciting insurrection by calling for the abolition of slavery and the two men fight.

Errol Flynn, Santa Fe Trail, (1940)

When brought before West Point commandant, Robert E Lee, Flynn, Custer and crew are "punished" by being sent off to fight insurrection in Kansas while Rader is given a dishonorable discharge.

Meanwhile in what is really a more or less wasted part, Olivia DeHavilland plays Kit Carson Holliday, a proper young lady courted by both Custer and Stuart with old J.E.B. winning her heart. Oddly considering Curtiz is the guy who would direct Casablanca the next year, the romance seems contrived, and though Flynn and DeHavilland normally had great chemistry together, in this one they just don't seem to really connect.

Ronald Reagan and Olivia DeHavilland, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Once in Kansas, Stuart and company come into conflict with the crazed abolitionist John Brown. Brown, looking and speaking like an Old Testament prophet, is determined to see slavery ended by any means necessary and is preparing to begin armed resistance against the union at any time.

Brown and his men have helped numerous slaves escape to freedom. However these ex-slaves, while liking the idea of being free have no idea how to cope with freedom, being unable to even feed themselves. As one ex-slave later tells, Stuart, "If this is freedom I don't want none of it, I can't wait to get back to Texas and juss sit down."

Don't look at me, I didn't write it.

Declaring themselves the "Provisional Government of the United States" Brown and his followers capture the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, but Rader, hoping to win the reward for Brown's capture or death has betrayed the abolitionists plans to the Army. Tasked with betraying Brown at the proper moment Rader rejoins the abolitionist leader, while a standoff against Lee and his Union troops including Stuart and Custer begins.

Stuart is sent to parlay with Brown and gives him terms for surrender. Rebuffed by the crazed abolitionist, Custer then leads the attack on Harper's Ferry, where for reason the film doesn't make clear, the union troops make a cavalry charge on the closed and barricaded building.

Van Heflin and Raymond Massey, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Still as Sitting Bull can tell you, Custer is a heck of a commander and the walls of the armory come down. During the combat that follows, Brown confronts the traitorous Rader, whose treachery stands revealed and kills him. But it is too late for the abolitionist and Stuart captures Brown, who is quickly tried and hanged.

On the scaffold Brown tells the gathered troops that his action at Harper's Ferry has lit the fuse and that soon enough they would be standing against each other brother against brother fighting each other to the death. Then with his messianic complex in full bloom Brown with the rope around his neck, tells the assembled crowd that they are forgiven because they know not what they do.

John Brown delivers his own eulogy, Santa Fe Trail (1940)

After Brown is hung, we cut to a quick scene without much dialogue of Stuart and Kit, now married heading West toward the sunset in a buggy. The end.

Where do I even begin to describe just how much this movie gets wrong?

The gallant future Confederates, Jefferson Davis making a speech about the greatness of America, ex-slaves complaining about the problems of freedom, abolitionists portrayed as America hating revolutionaries, and the only heroic future Union soldier on the scene is freaking George Custer.

And yet, Santa Fe Trail has great acting, especially with Massey's John Brown, a compelling storyline and great action sequences. and is an all around first rate film. Which is problematic.

Some of you might have seen Kevin Willmot's, CSA: The Confederate States of America, the Spike Lee produced "mockumentary" featuring the history of an alternate Earth were the South had won the Civil War. In the movie there are several clips from "classic" films from the 1940's showing happy slaves (played by white men in blackface) and squarejawed movie stars acting in historical dramas. I hate to say it, but Santa Fe Trail feels like a movie from the CSA universe that fell through a wormhole and ended up on our planet.

The scene where the ex-slaves talk to Flynns, Stuart about how they are going back home to slavery after being fed up with freedom is just appalling, especially when taken into the context of the films overall love for the Confederate characters and their ethical "struggle".

Escaped slaves help J.E.B. Stuart while on their way back to the plantation

If you want to watch an good old Western starring a future President alongside a possible Nazi, in a film showing how radical abolitionists almost destroyed the Union, this is the movie for you. Then again Santa Fe Trail (which is for some reason in the public domain), is also a fascinating film that shows the attitudes of the average white Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era and is a valuable film to watch for that reason as well. Don't get me wrong, Santa Fe Trail never quite hits the pure racist levels of Birth of a Nation, but that's still  more a matter of execution then anything else.

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